AZNAVOUR! HE’S NEVER TOO FAR FOR ME, BUT IN SAN FRANCISCO? THAT’S NOT FAR AT ALL!
By Vicken Khachadourian, www.vickisms.com
On Friday December 3 2004 I was in a concert hall called Nikaia in Nice, France. A young French woman approached me. She secured my attention, looked me in the eye and said the following in English: “Before the concert, when I heard about what you did for this, I told myself he must be crazy. Now that I’ve seen Aznavour perform live for the first time in my life, I see why you came.” I replied with gratitude.
What I had done was travel all the way from San Francisco to see Charles Aznavour perform. For the past few years I have been aligning my vacations with his concerts. On several occasions I took my friends with me. That time in Nice I hit the jackpot. I finally met him on December 4. Yeah! In person. He signed two autographs for me. I took photos too. I did not sleep that night. Would you have? My rough estimate is showing that I have voluntarily given Aznavour more than 3000 hours of my life over the past 40 years or so. His success rate with those hours is very high. It’s almost perfect. I’m writing this now because in September 2006, Aznavour is coming to North America to give concerts in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Washington D.C., Boston, Los Angeles and then, San Francisco, my home town. I am not active in the Armenian Community. I don’t have my finger on their collective pulse, but I have a pretty strong hunch that many Armenians will go see him sing at the age of 82! That’s another thing. He doesn’t just sing at that age. He goes into his world and lives his songs. Then he takes a crowd of 4000 people along for the ride. By the time he finishes a song, you have no choice but to completely give up on everything, and clap. In Nice, after many songs, people were not only clapping, they were also pounding their feet on the floor. The hall had wooden floors, like bleachers, and it felt as if a freight train was going by. He just stood there on the stage, and absorbed all the goodwill from the crowd through his nostrils.
The woman’s name was Corine. She said she’s from Antibe, in Southern France. I told her that I was trying to enter backstage to see Aznavour in person. I offered to get her an autograph. Then I picked up more energy and said that I was optimistic about it. After all, where would we all be without the power of fantasy? She went out to the lobby. She returned with a large photo of Aznavour. I gave her my information, email address, etc., and we agreed that she would contact me on Sunday or later. We did this for her to claim the autograph in case I got one. She never got back to me. I don’t blame her. I guess her belief that I would succeed dissipated soon after we parted. Getting to meet Aznavour in person is extremely difficult because of his schedule, not his personality.
But I got lucky. I met him. This past week my manager approved my vacation schedule for September 2006, and I’m going to see him in 4 concerts when he comes to North America.
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have no influential friends with ties to Aznavour. The idea of meeting him in person was sooooo far-fetched, that for a long time I never made it a goal. It was in the unattainable dream category. I kept living my daily life. I went to his concerts once a year or so, and the date stamps in my passport started aligning with his performances. Over a period of 3 years, a series of unrelated events climaxed with my meeting him. They consist of eating in one of the fanciest, most expensive restaurants in Paris. Meeting Sebu Tashjian, the former Minister of Energy of Armenia. Bumping into Eric Bogosian on the sidewalks of New York, and finally meeting a set of very positive people in Nice, who were pleasantly amused that a man from San Francisco came all the way there, did not speak French, and believed he could meet Aznavour just like that. They wanted me to succeed. These new friends of mine were absolutely ecstatic later when they each ended up with Aznavour autographs.
Here is how it happened:
Like millions of other fans, I grew up in the past 40 years listening to Aznavour songs on the radio, juke boxes, TV, and other media. The earliest songs I remember are Qui, Hier Encore, Desormais, Emmenez-Moi and of course, La Boheme. I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, and I vividly remember the song Qui playing on the juke boxes in Junieh. Oddly enough, I had several chances to meet him when I was a teenager, but never got lucky. Before the civil war, Aznavour used to visit us to give concerts in Byblos. My father’s jewelry store used to be in Mar Mekhael. A printer named Donigian was close to his shop. Aznavour used to visit him during his concert tours. I used to tell my Dad that I wanted to meet him, but we always missed the opportunity. I came to The States, delved into my studies, and was far away from Aznavour concerts. My relationship with his songs diminished to records and CD’s. I was lucky enough to see him once in 1987 at Davies Hall in San Francisco, but that was pretty much it.
The internet changed everything. On a daily basis I started reading the Armenian news from groong.usc.edu. In 2000, I learned that he’s giving his farewell concerts all over Europe. I purchased 5 tickets to go to Nice in 2001, but could not go through with it. In April 2002, my company planned to send me to India from April 15-26. I was going with my colleague Roderick Manalac. I also learned that Aznavour was giving concerts in Montreal and the last one was on April 29. That was 2 days after my assignment ended in India. When we were making our flight arrangements, I told Roderick that we had to take the first flight out of Bangalore, and on the way to San Francisco we had to stop in Montreal. I told him I had Aznavour tickets. We were going to arrive in Montreal a few hours before the concert, just in time to make it. He looked at me like I had a drug addiction.
“Az who?” He asked.
“Aznavour!” I replied.
I had to spell it. Aznavour, aay, zee, en, aay… so forth. “Who is he?” Roderick asked. I explained. I said that I grew up listening to his music. Roderick agreed based on curiosity and amusement. He figured that anyone who would make me take such a detour was worth a look. My company moved my trip forward by a week. Roderick and I were both saved from a very tiresome flight schedule. I went to India, which is pretty much on the other side of the world from California. I came back to San Francisco. I rested a week, and went to Montreal to see Aznavour. My friend Gene Nelson came with me. It was his first Aznavour concert. He loved it. With this act I tested the idea of traveling to see Aznavour. It tasted good.
Let’s fast-forward the next two years. In September 2002 I went to Montreal again with 5 friends of mine for the same purpose. In 2003 my dog’s diabetes and death, and then my company’s plan to send me to India for a year hampered all my plans to see him. My India assignment got canceled. In November 2003 I purchased 4 tickets for his 80th anniversary performances. They were for April 19, 2004. All the good seats in Aznavour concerts sell out 6 months ahead of time. The real good seats at the front sell out within a couple of days. In this case he gave about 25 concerts at the Palais Des Congres in Paris. He sang on his 80th birthday too.
At the end of the concert, my friend John Jezmajian said that I should try to see him backstage. We tried for a few minutes, but I opted out with the dignity of failure rather than the interim humiliation one sometimes invests into success.
I realized for the first time that meeting Aznavour was within my reach when we ate at a restaurant called Ledoyen. This happened in Paris the day following the concert. It is the second most-expensive restaurant I had been to in my life. The most expensive one is the Peppermill in Daly City, California. It was not expensive in absolute numbers, but when I was in college, I used to save up my money, and go there with the girl I was in love with. Even though I was a Mathematics major, I sometimes miscalculated the cost of the entrées, and used to come up a dollar or so short. It was mostly because I wanted to be with her, and let go of conventional arithmetic. She used to sense it, and pay for it with her credit card.
Roderick’s description of the Ledoyen experience is the best. Here is what he said about it:
“I guess John and I were dressed "business casual" in clothes you'd pick up at a local shopping mall / department store. I had a sports coat and slacks and no tie. Every other guy in that place seemed to have a finely tailored designer suit and silk tie, white handkerchief thing going on. And the women were even more elegant, in outfits that screamed "old money" -- they symbolized Paris rather than Paris Hilton. For all we knew, we were sitting in the same room as people who could influence the political and economic direction of major nations.
Dinner was $1000 even though we only shared one bottle of wine. Albeit it was the best wine I ever tasted -- it seemed to evaporate before it could hit the back of your mouth. I typically avoid alcohol because some of my taste buds hate it, but this wine danced around them. So I was ready to keep my mouth shut and let the waiter (sommelier?) recommend something when he asked us which wine we had selected.
We were treated like high-class citizens, and we felt obligated to act like we deserved it, until we got back into the car out of sight of the restaurant. I felt like a little kid who poorly glued an obviously fake mustache on my face, sneaked into the teachers lounge at school, and had lunch there without getting caught and tossed out (not quite a Catch Me If You Can moment). We imagined everyone else had either had their chauffeur drop them off at the front door or had their expensive cars valet parked somewhere out of the way while we walked a few hundred yards to our rental car.”
A couple of times during the dinner I realized that those waiters had probably seen Aznavour in person. That’s the closest I had been to a person who had interacted with Aznavour, and I quietly made a note of it while sipping my wine. It was a mental and emotional breakthrough, but did not result in anything tangible.
In August 2004, I phoned a man called Sebu Tashjian. He answered. I politely asked to talk to my uncle Zadour, who had come to The States from Beirut. Sebu was his host, but I was more eager to talk to my uncle than spend time with him. That’s because I had not seen my uncle for 25 years. I immediately started to make plans for vacation. I proposed to take my uncle’s family to Las Vegas, Yosemite through Death Valley, Lake Tahoe, and then to San Francisco. The plan involved some last minute details and calm planning. Throughout my dealings with Sebu, I kept telling myself: “This man seems to allow things to grow and flourish around him”, so I ended up with a relationship with Sebu and his family.
Months later I learned the important news. Sebu had also dealt with Aznavour in person! Wow! It turns out that Sebu used to be the Minister of Energy in Armenia. He had escorted Aznavour in the 90’s to show him some energy generating plants. I extended Sebu and his wife an all expenses paid invitation to the Nice concert, if he could arrange a meeting between Aznavour and I. He told me that I did not have to pay for anything, and offered to help me. He told me that if Aznavour found out how many places I had gone to see him in concert, he would probably want to meet me. I appreciated the encouragement.
Sebu couldn’t make it. I wrote to the Embassy of Armenia in Paris, but they never answered. I decided to go to Nice, and enjoy the concert on Saturday December 4, 2004.
Then it happened. The big break. The miracle. On my way to Europe, I like to spend a night in New York. It allows me to arrive rested. On December 1st, I saw Eric Bogosian alone, on the sidewalk, with a backpack, looking casual, friendly and available for a conversation with a fan. We were half a block away from my hotel by Carnegie Hall. He was walking towards me. I looked intently to make sure that I was not mistaken. Yeah, it was Eric. I let him pass me, then I turned around when he was about a couple of yards away and said,
“Excuse me, aren’t you Eric Bogosian?”
“Yes”, he turned around and confirmed.
“My name is Vicken Khachadourian. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I love your work.”
He thanked me.
We conversed back and forth for 45 seconds. I could not believe I was talking to Eric Bogosian! The conversation is a bit blurry in my mind. But one thing was obvious. He became the third party in my life who knew Aznavour. I remember answering his question about what I did, by saying that I was a Mathematician, working at a software company in Silicon Valley, yada, yada, telling myself “Yeah, sure, and you’re interested in my boring life.” I remembered that in the movie Ararat he had more lines with Aznavour than anyone else. I told him that I saw the movie three times on the big screen, and that I owned the DVD. I followed that by saying that I took all my American friends to see it. He thanked me, and we were about to conclude our conversation. Then, the important thought traveled from my belly to my toes, up to my brain, and just about the time when we were going to leave each other, the words came out of my mouth.
“I’m flying to France tonight, to see Aznavour in concert on Saturday.” I declared with the expectation of a border guard who’s stopping a fugitive from leaving the country. I gained his attention. Now he heard something extraordinary. He paused for a second and asked,
“Yeah.” I said. I also told him that in the past 3 years I had done the same thing several times. I don’t remember if I showed him my passport with the dates, but I definitely got his attention.
“When you get there. Send him a note to the backstage, and tell him Eric says hello” he suggested.
I agreed to do so, but,
“Will he get the note?” I asked surprised.
“Yeah. Give it to security. He will get it.” He answered.
“Sure! Of course! No problem! I’ll do it!” I replied.
Ten minutes later my stupidity hit me like a wrecking ball. Eric was alone. Half a block from my very nice hotel room. He looked casual, with a backpack. He looked approachable. He seemed to like me. I could have asked him to come upstairs. Within 3 minutes we would have been there. I could have gotten him to write the note. Eric seemed sympathetic to what I was doing. After writing the note, I could have asked him to arrange for me to meet Aznavour. Man oh man, I was such an idiot.
“Eshsheg Vicken”, I kept telling myself, which translates to donkey Vicken. When my thoughts become too intense I revert to Armenian. In college when I had very difficult Math problems or difficult programs to write, I used to revert to Armenian then as well. Exeh yergu eh, yev whyeh yerek eh, x=2, y=3, etc. I knew from the way I was using Armenian phrases in my mind that my intensity level was increasing.
I called Roderick. I told him that I met Eric Bogosian on the sidewalk. I did not tell him how stupid I was. I deliberately kept the conversation flowing with pleasant content, and role-played allowing myself to be the lucky party. After all, I’m the one who met Eric, not Roderick. I was the lucky one, not him. Privately though, I felt the opposite. I knew Roderick would have used the same opportunity better, and I wanted his attitude to rub off on me.
The plane ride to Nice was the toughest for me to take. In my mind I kept talking to myself with the following disjoint, confused sentences:
“You idiot. Eshsheg Vicken. Aboosh Vicken. You deserve to suffer from every setback you’ve had in your life. Don’t you ever complain about anything from now on. Not a thing, you understand? I mean God gave you Eric Bogosian! The man was there. Right in front of you. He was nice to you. Who else did you want to meet to help you with meeting Aznavour? Liza Minnelli? How could you blow such an opportunity?”
They brought food. I ate some. Then I remembered every person who had said: “Ays deghan maart bidi chellah, which translates to this boy is not going amount to anything.” For a while I agreed with every one of them.
I hit bottom after a while and the recovery started. I kept thinking: “Let’s see how you blew it. How did it go with Eric? OK, we talked. Yeah, yeah, hold on a minute. He said that if I write a note and give it to the ticket office or security, Aznavour will get it. Yeah, a letter. I can write a letter. I went to college. I know how to write. No big deal.”
I arrived in Nice with 3 things going for me.
1. Eric’s idea of writing a letter.
2. An arbitrary, unreasonable and stubborn belief that I was going to meet Aznavour.
3. Luck. Even though I had blown the opportunity with Eric, I still felt lucky for
meeting him like that. I wanted the lucky streak to give me a second chance.
Well, writing a letter was within my abilities. I kept building its content in my head, but how could I keep my unquestionable desire alive and productive in a town where I didn’t know anybody? I also didn’t speak French. The odds were not on my side. I needed good karma. I decided to give concert tickets to the first 3 people who were nice to me.
The first ticket went to a lady called Agnes. She was the first person I interacted with. She rented me a cell phone by baggage claim. I told her that I had arrived from San Francisco to see Aznavour in concert. Her response made me feel different from all the other travelers around me. Compared to all the other ordinary people pulling their carryons, I felt that I had the most special purpose in that airport. I needed that feeling. I had arrived there on Thursday, and if I was going to meet Aznavour in 2 days, I had to be different. I milked her responses for all they were worth. She turned out to be an Aznavour fan too. She hummed her favorite songs, Le Temps and Emmenez-moi. I told her that I had done this before, and I think I showed her my passport.
This conversation with Agnes may have seemed casual to her, but I was checking her responses to construct the content of my letter. Agnes could have burst my bubble by telling me that Aznavour fans were dime a dozen, or that she did not like him that much, etc. In that case, my story would have been much different. My hopes for success were in a very fragile state, counting on the impossible. Who believes that a letter from a nobody like me, and a blind belief in success would result in meeting Aznavour? Agnes strengthened my plan that was hanging by a thread up until then. Her 10 minute conversation with me, and her positive response to my story made me believe in the power of my letter. I offered Agnes the first ticket. She accepted reluctantly, and we decided to check with one another again.
I gave the two other tickets to the front desk manager of the Boscolo Park hotel. She gave me a better room when I needed a safe deposit box that worked. By the time I gave out my tickets, the first paragraph of the letter was pretty well constructed in my head. I slept the rest of Thursday to recover from the overnight and soul-searching flight.
On Friday I went to the concert hall to make sure I could find it. I happily noticed that they were selling tickets for that night as well. I purchased one. Then, on my way to the hotel, I used a copier, and consolidated all the passport date-stamps for my Aznavour trips on a single sheet of paper. I highlighted each one and came to my room.
I worked on the letter for a while. I knew that I was going to mention Eric and Donigian for sure, but after several attempts I wrote him a 2 page, handwritten letter that went something like this:
Dear Mr. Aznavour,
My name is Vicken Khachadourian. For the past 3 years I have taken many international trips from San Francisco, California, to see you in concert. I bumped into Eric Bogosian in New York yesterday, and he asked me to send you a note and say Hello.
I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, and when I was a teenager you used to visit a relative of yours, Mr. Donigian. My father’s jewelry store used to be about 10 shops away from his. I used to ask my father to bring me to his shop so I could meet you, but I never had the chance. I am attending the concert tonight and tomorrow. I also could not afford any tickets for your concerts in Beirut, and now that I can afford them, I am here. If there is a way for us to meet backstage, I would like that very much.
I have included a copy of all the passport stamps for each trip I took to see you in the past several years. I want you to know that if you’re willing to perform at this age, I’m willing to travel anywhere at least once to year to see you. I came to Montreal twice to see you in 2002, and about 6 months ago or so I was in Paris and saw you at the Palais Des Congres.
You can reach me at………
The handwritten letter came to 2 sheets. I circled each highlighted passport stamp, and next to each one I wrote the exact date and venue of his concerts. I wanted my letter and envelope material to stand out, and grab the reader’s attention. Seriously now, how many people make copies of their passport stamps and send them to the performer? He distinguishes himself with his songs. I could do my tiny share by distinguishing my note from the others. I addressed the envelope to: Charles Aznavour. From: Eric Bogosian, Vicken Khachadourian. I figured that he would recognize Eric’s name for sure.
I took the envelope to the ticket office. The lady was very nice to me. I told her my story, including Eric’s name and role in Ararat. She promised to deliver the envelope to Aznavour.
Our group in Montreal at Place Des Arts on Saturday June 11, 2005
I went to the Friday night concert. You go through 3 layers of people until you meet Aznavour. The first is the concert hall security, then Aznavour’s own security. That’s followed by Aznavour’s management staff, and finally, the star. None of them had contacted me. During the intermission I approached a security agent called Jean Pierre, who spoke English well enough. I explained my story. I showed him my passport, which had proven to grab attention and set me apart by then. Jean Pierre told me to see him at the stage entrance after the concert.
OK. I was getting closer. I think that during the second half of the concert I developed 2 extra hands in the dark, and I kept clapping with 4 hands instead of 2. I could not believe that my chances were improving. I had also sent an email to Eric Bogosian from an Internet café, and was hoping that the totality of circumstances would give me success.
The concert ended. I joined the crowd of about 40 people by the stage entrance. Jean Pierre acknowledged me. He had his attention divided by 40 and I realized that his task was difficult. Many people with passes went in first. A lady from Aznavour’s security or management team would come out, speak French with Jean Pierre, shield herself from the piercing eyes and pleas of all the people, and select the few that she wanted to take inside. The rest of us waited like sinners. I had my program book with me, as well as a couple of his photos. I reviewed the items that people brought with them. They had concert and movie tickets from 1960’s and 70’s, posters, etc. There was an Armenian woman with the photo of herself, standing next to Aznavour and Aznavour’s statue in Armenia. I think The Vehapar (The Spiritual Leader of the Armenian Orthodox Church) was in the same photo as well. She was showing it to Jean Pierre with an attempt to show how special her photo was and pleading to be let in. She never made it. 40 people were speaking French all around me, with all kinds of emotional highs and lows. I did not understand a word. They were interrupting one another and swarming around Aznavour’s security lady whenever she came out. Each iteration of this cycle resulted in a few people going in, and I had no idea what the criteria was, that made them choose one over the other.
Then I heard the magic words “Le Ameghikaine” embedded in tons of French words. I think my ears grew by an inch and I came as close to Jean Pierre as possible. I listened intently. He was talking to Aznavour’s security lady, and the sentences went something like this: “A whoooole lot of Fghench woghds I deed nott undeghstand” then my favorite words “Le Ameghikaine”, followed by other French words.
(Aznavour is seriously and understandably annoyed when people take photos with the flash during concerts. I did not take this photo. Someone forwarded it to me. I would not do that to him. I hope it's a frozen frame from a DVD)
I looked at the crowd. It seemed to me that I was the only American there. They were also pointing to me when they said it. Don’t let anyone tell you that the French don’t like Americans. I loved the way those two words sounded, “Le Ameghikaine”. I tuned the French words out of my head, stood next to Jean Pierre and intently listened to the tone and context in which they were saying “Le Ameghikaine”.
Their gestures turned encouraging. The security lady kept coming out, and worked with Jean Pierre on picking the current and next set of candidates. From the way they were talking I felt like in a couple of rounds I would go in. I started working on what I would say to Aznavour if they let me in.
Then Aznavour’s security lady came out for the last time. They used the words “Le Ameghikaine” again in their conversation, but told us that they stopped taking people for that night. Jean Pierre apologized, but said to me “Tomorrow, it’s possible”.
I was ecstatic. I could not believe that I had come a couple of rounds short of meeting Aznavour. All of this happened in one day. My failure with Eric became a long gone memory.
I maintained my emotions and returned to my hotel. The elevator I was about to enter was being vacated by two men. They pointed to the Aznavour concert program in my hand, and said something to each other. I abandoned the elevator and joined them. They introduced themselves as Dr. Reinhold Gerstner and Georg Ecker. Dr. Gerstner lives in the mountains along the French-Italian border, in a town called La Brigue. Georg is a marketing executive for the French car-manufacturer Peugeot. Reinhold had driven 90 minutes to come there, and Georg had flown in from Germany. They had purchased concert tickets for Friday and Saturday nights. They told me that they felt normal after meeting me. After all, they had to explain to their friends why they were traveling long distance, and attending back to back Aznavour concerts twice in two days. When they learned that I had come all the way from San Francisco to do the same thing, the comparison made them feel that they lived in the saner part of society.
We dined until 2 am. I told them that I was having difficulty believing that I will meet Aznavour like this. They gave me all the support I could absorb. If some bad guys ever take me hostage, these two are the people I want next to me. Their responses were perfect. For a few hours I kept calling Reinhold by Reinhart, but he never corrected me. I think that he was amused by the whole thing. He was trying to make me feel like I could never make a mistake, and that everything I tried would come out right. The three of us spent several hours together without entertaining a single negative thought, even though we all knew the odds were against me all along. Some people bring up reasons to fail as an insurance policy when they face surmounting odds. None of that came up. I promised to get all of them autographs. My confidence interfered with my sleep. Who was I to promise autographs to total strangers in a foreign land? I finally slept at 6 a.m. Woke up at 3 p.m. Had my meal and prepared for the concert.
Jean Pierre was there. Even though his English was a whole lot better than my French, I recruited Georg to talk to him. Jean Pierre told me that he was determined to get me in, and that he had talked to Aznavour’s security people. On the other hand, he told me that anything could happen after a concert. He advised me to stay very close to him, and not miss any opportunities to get in. It turned out that Reinhold and Georg had second row seats to the concert, and during the second half of the program, Reinhold swapped seats with me. I sat next to Georg and saw Aznavour perform up close. When Aznavour sings, sometimes he looks you right in the eye. I have never seen a person’s eyes be that vibrant. I’m not observant and skilled enough to describe how good that felt.
The crowd I joined after the concert was bigger this time. The routine and craziness was the same as the night before. Dozens of people who were wearing badges around their necks went in over multiple rounds. People were mentioning any reason to be let in. Some said they were related to Levon Sayan. I think they got in. Jean Pierre tried to help me with Aznavour’s security lady again. Eventually the words “Le Ameghikaine” started filling the air.
Jean Pierre tried, and the lady kept responding in the affirmative, but she chose other people every time she came. “Eeeets Veeghi Deeficuult” Jean Pierre explained. No matter how hard he tried I was still outside. I think about 40 people were let in, with another 40 gathered outside with me.
Then luck came my way. A man showed up in a light brown jacket, and took some people in. From his demeanor I felt that he’s someone important. The security lady was wearing a 2-way radio, and a headset. This man did not. 5 minutes later he came out and took more people in. I asked Jean Pierre who he was.
“Hees veghi impooghtaant” he replied. I took my passport out and gave it to Jean Pierre. I suggested that he tell the man my story.
“You do it” answered Jean Pierre.
OK. That’s all I needed. The man came out again. He finished his business, and right before he turned around I begged for his attention. I had my passport in front of him before he could say anything, and I politely and firmly unloaded my story.
Everything changed when he told me to wait after hearing all this. I knew then that my chances now were 99% in favor of success. Within a few minutes the security lady came out, and told me to follow her. She also told everyone that they were not taking any more people. I remember apologizing to the ones left behind. My apology was sincere, but I was not going to trade places with any of them.
My bag contained the concert program, 5 photographs and a poster. I had made a list of the people for whom I was going to get autographs. I followed her and we walked through a couple of corridors, then entered the backstage party. They were sipping champagne and had some snacks. I looked for Aznavour, and as I entered that room from my door, he entered it from another. He had changed into a light blue sweater. When he was performing on the stage, he was running and dancing up and down for two hours like a teenage kid, but he was moving around slower now. The lady was still leading me, and we approached each other.
I did not take my eyes off him. I kept shaking my head slowly left to right, overwhelmed with disbelief. There he was, the same man who had sung “Sa Jeunesse” (His Youth) at the age of 81 a little while back. The man who had taken thousands of hours from my senses over 40 years, and produced happiness without even knowing me. He kept looking up to me, and I remember his piercing eyes making two circles below his eyebrows. After I shook his hand I had my passport out before he knew it, and I said:
“Mr. Aznavour. Thank you very much for seeing me. My name is Vicken Khachadourian. I grew up listening to your music, and when I was a kid I always wanted to meet you. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I have been traveling many places over the past 3 years to see you in concert. Here, this one is for Palais Des Congres” I showed him the date. Then I flipped the pages to show the other stamps with the related details. He looked at them, and,
“That’s a lot of money!” he answered right away.
“Oh, I’m not worried about the money.” I said. “When I was a kid, you used to give concerts in Lebanon, but we could not afford tickets. Now that I can afford them, and if you’re willing to sing at this age, I’ll go anywhere to see you sing. I also wanted to meet you when I was a teenager. You used to visit a relative of yours in Beirut, Mr. Donigian. My father’s shop used to be very close, and I wanted to come and meet you there. I always failed to do so. Thank you very much for letting me in.”
“Donigian? The printer?” he remembered.
“He’s not a relative, he’s a close friend”, he corrected.
I did not know. I apologized for the misunderstanding. I was happy that he remembered. My story gained credibility. All in all, this exchange took about 2 minutes or so. By now a small crowd had gathered around us. His daughter Katia and Mr. Levon Sayan were also next to him. I am very proud that in that 2-minute period no one dared to interrupt us. I wanted the crowd to have a chance as well. I eased up and several people asked him to sign autographs.
I noticed that Aznavour already had his autograph pen in hand. He did not own a minute of his life in that party, or maybe he had chosen that life with the loving public, and he was living it to the fullest. People wanted him to sign memorabilia going as far back as the 50’s and 60’s. He could not be a kinder man, and I could feel the collective goodwill coming from every person that approached him. He tried to satisfy as many people as he could. After a few minutes I asked if he would sign about 7 autographs for me later. He said no problem.
I thanked him and walked away. I looked for the security lady to thank her, but I don’t remember seeing her. I found the man in the light brown jacket. I thanked him, and told him that I would go to an Aznavour concert at least once a year if he kept it up. He told me about the concerts in Montreal in June of 2005. He gave me his business card. I learned that his name is Gerard Davoust.
I told Mr. Davoust that the crowd was large, and I that I was going to wait until it shrunk before I asked Aznavour for the autographs. He advised against it. He said that Aznavour did not always wait for the party to dwindle. He suggested that I grab him as soon as possible before he left. That advice was as good as gold.
I went back to Aznavour, and faced him from a comfortable distance. He noticed me. He extended his hand and invited me to follow him. We left the crowd. He led me to one of those rooms that performers prepare in. It had that big mirror with the lights on the side. When we were going in I told him that at the age of twenty I had become the choir director in our church. He learned then that I was a poghokagan (protestant). He sat down, and signed all the autographs I needed. He asked me in Armenian if I spoke Hayeren. “Anshooshd, Hayeren geh khoseem” I answered back enthusiastically, meaning of course that I spoke Armenian.
Levon Sayan came into the room, followed by Gerard Davoust and others. He said they had to leave. I begged for a few more seconds. I handed my camera to Mr. Sayan and asked him to take a photo of Aznavour and I. He did. I took the battery out of my camera right away to make sure the picture did not get erased by mistake.
I thanked them both from the bottom of my heart. I left determined to come back to the Montreal concert. When I went out, Agnes, Reinhold and Georg could not believe their eyes when I gave them their autographs. I was giving them all the details, and a Mercedes driver honked at us while leaving the gate. We waived back. They told me it was Aznavour’s party.
(Aznavour in the backstage private room. Gerard Davoust is seen above my right shoulder in the brown jacket. Without his help I would not have met Aznavour. Do you see how tired Aznavour is? He was wide awake, talking Armenian to me a minute before this. This is right after he signed my autographs.)
I never saw Jean Pierre again to thank him. Months later I called the admin office at the Nikaia, and got his full name and address. This story got printed in USA Armenian Life and the Armenian Reporter International. I sent him some souvenirs from San Francisco and a copy of the article with his name in it. He responded back to me with a happy email.
When the June 2005 tickets for the Aznavour concerts went on sale in Montreal, I tried to get them right away. I called the 800 number for about 90 minutes, but it kept ringing busy. Their web site crashed as well. I called my uncle Garo in Montreal, and explored the possibility of him driving to the concert hall to buy me tickets. But I did not wait for him. I started calling downtown hotels. I tried to locate one close to the concert hall. The Hyatt turned out to be right across the street. I offered the front desk lady a free ticket if she could walk across the street and buy me tickets. She referred me to another web site called admission.com. It was up. I managed to purchase 15 tickets. By then, all the front row seats were gone. My seats were in row N. That’s 20 rows from the stage because in the front they have rows AA, BB, etc.
When I called the ticket office several days later, they told me that the reason for the crash of their web site, and occupancy of their phone lines was the Aznavour ticket sale.
The 15 of us got together in June 2005, I went to the Friday night concert with my friend Sylva Shemmassian. I was hoping to get in and see Aznavour again. Sylva helped me by writing another letter to Aznavour. This time I had more than Eric Bogosian’s name to help me. I had a copy of my story in USA Armenian Life with Aznavour’s photo on the cover, as well as the Armenian Reporter International with the same printed story. We got to Place Des Arts in Montreal, and right in front of the hall entrance I saw Aznavour’s security lady, holding the concert programs up in her hands and announcing prices, etc. I could not believe my luck. I stopped Sylva. I pointed to Aznavour’s security lady and identified her from my story. She was standing behind a small podium. We approached her.
“I hope you remember me”, I said with all kinds of mixed emotions.
“Yes. I remember you”. Her reply was immediate and encouraging.
People were interrupting her, but I still got enough of her attention to show her my story. I took out one of the papers, pointed to the section where I mentioned her and…
“You know, I wrote a story on how I met Aznavour, and I didn’t know your name. I kept calling you Aznavour’s Security Lady. What’s your real name?” I asked showing the paper to her.
“My name is Carla”, she replied.
I told her that 15 of us came from 6 different areas including France to see Aznavour in concert again, and asked if Sylva and I could get lucky and meet Aznavour. She told us to go at the stage entrance after the concert and try our luck.
We did. Sylva and I did not wait long. A lady was also waiting to get in, and when she saw that we were going to get lucky, she asked Sylva to help with an autograph. When we exchanged business cards I realized that she worked for Microsoft, and jokingly told her that she would never get an Aznavour autograph with my help. I work for Oracle, but Sylva has a much kinder heart, and she accepted the chance to help her. The lady’s name was Geraldine Roy. She ended up with an Aznavour autograph for her grandmother.
Carla took us in. Aznavour saw and approached us. He remembered me right away. I had sent a copy of the articles from both papers to him, and I told him that I wrote the story on how I met him. He said that he read it and liked it. I could not believe my ears. I gave him a large envelope with the two newspapers.
I’m not going to try to meet Aznavour again. I think I should yield to others and give them the opportunity by opening my slot for them. I’m going to keep my promise though. As long as he’s willing to sing, I’ll be there once a year or so.
My American friend Roderick Manalac comes to Aznavour concerts with me now. He appreciates why, in 2002, I wanted a detour to Montreal on our way back from India.