In the lifetime I’ve spent living in Los Angeles, I’ve never once felt compelled to visit the Hollywood Boulevard star of a celebrity who’d just died. Monday, though, was different.
News of Charles Aznavour’s passing broke sometime before I awoke on October 1, and it was the first story I noticed when I checked my socials. Aznavour, 94, was one of the greatest singers the world has known, a native of France who’d been performing since childhood and began his rise to acclaim under the mentorship of Edith Piaf. His career spanned decades—generations, actually—and his deep discography crossed language barriers. He sang in various tongues, English included, but he managed to make even his French-language songs meaningful to people who couldn’t understand more than “merci.” His delivery was so impactful that you could comprehend the message of the song without knowing a word of it.
Also, Aznavour was Armenian. Like my own grandparents, he was part of that first generation born in exile after the Genocide, very much a part of the country where he was raised but also deeply connected to a heritage that was nearly lost. He had a song about the Genocide, “Ils sont tombés” in French, “They Fell” in English. He was in Atom Egoyan’s 2002 film Ararat, which also dealt with the Genocide. On the day of his funeral, the country of Armenia will hold a national day of mourning.
On Monday afternoon, I emerge from the Hollywood/Vine Metro station and almost immediately spot his star across the street, near the Pantages. A tall wreath and a guy who looks like a television reporter mark the destination, but this scene isn’t the madhouse that I would have expected after the death of an icon. Aznavour was globally famous, but, if you live in Los Angeles and know his work, it’s probably because you’re either a Francophile, an Armenian, or someone who spends their spare time digging through bins of used records. The U.S. is still very strange when it comes to pop music made in languages other than English.
There are two or three reporters on site when I arrive and about as many fans. As for myself, I’m not sure if I’m there to report or to mourn. I’m not carrying flowers to lay on the star, but I’m also immediately uncomfortable with the idea pulling people aside for interviews. I watch the scene unfold for an hour or so as the number of fans fluctuates.
It wasn’t the Armenian thing that first got me interested in Aznavour. I had long been attracted to dramatic singers who could cram a novel into a pop song, people like Morrissey, Nick Cave, and Marc Almond. Getting into chanson artists was inevitable. I don’t know French, but their voices alone were able to convey the depths of love, loss, joy, and despair that I wanted to hear. That Aznavour was also Armenian was a bonus. And, in death, the Armenian identity takes hold.
At his star on the Walk of Fame, two elder women speak to each other in Armenian as they tidy up the site surrounding the star. They rearrange flowers, candles, and signs as the memorial slowly grows. Another women walks up with two girls—one a child, the other probably in her teens—and a bouquet of purple roses. She hands the girls flowers and they place them around the star. I watch the gestures, the way that people gently lay their hands on the star as if to say goodbye, the way they kneel before the makeshift altar as if inside a church. I notice the ornate design of an Armenian-style cross hanging from one of the bouquets.
The scene made me flash back to my own family, to the funerals of my dad, three of my grandparents, and other relatives. I thought about how my family’s Armenian-ness always shows in death. There are the days of visiting preceding the funeral, the hokejash—a lunch I always associate with shish kebab and really long speeches—following the services, the 40 days of mourning. The Armenian funeral was something I always thought of as separate from my American life, but, on Monday afternoon, a variation of it played out on Hollywood Boulevard.
At one point, I’m standing with one other woman in front of the memorial and we start talking. Her name is Naré Mkrtchyan and she’s a filmmaker whose short documentary The Other Side of Home was short-listed for an Oscar. Mkrtchyan says she spent that morning crying. “I think Aznavour was bigger than life,” she explains. She’d been planning to make a documentary about him and they met in Paris once; she’d posted a photo of them on Instagram earlier that day. Mkrtchyan says she felt comfortable with him even though she had been a fan for her entire life. “He said that no one is allowed to feel uncomfortable next to me,” she recalls. She says they had a few phone conversations, and he always answered himself rather than having an assistant taking calls.
I ask her what Aznavour means for us, the Armenian diaspora. “For the Armenian diaspora, he was so much more than a singer, he was so much more than an actor, he was so much more than an artist,” she says. “He was the voice of a small country and a small nation that not many people know about, and also he was the child of survivors of a genocide that is not yet recognized and he was a child of immigrants.”
She adds, “Even if all we gave was Aznavour, this is why we survived.”
I thought about her words when I headed home on the Metro. Until Monday, Aznavour was undoubtedly the greatest living Armenian entertainer, even just by the sheer length of his career. (Now, that honor goes to Cher.) There aren’t that many of us and fewer still who have been recognized for their talents. People say that “representation matters” and it does. Aznavour represented us. He helped bring our story to the world and that might even be bigger than any of the songs he sang.
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