Jacques Brel has always been my little secret, along with Blue Rodeo and the Rheostatics. No one else I knew had heard of him. Stuck in small town Prairie Canada in the 1980s and 1990s, I treasured everything that was not “normal”. And the over-the-top Belgian was right up there.
Now, Jacques Brel is a divisive figure. He was brilliantly funny and wrote beautiful songs. He was brilliant and funny when he wrote “Le moribund”, which would later have all the wit removed by an irony imparied American named Ron McKuen, recorded by Terry Jacks, and is now world-famous as the mawkish “Seasons In The Sun”, a song that when I hear it makes me consider homicide as a practical life choice. Alright, so the sappy idiocy of the lyrics McKuen wrote were not Brel’s fault. But still… why’d Brel let him do that?
He was a Belgian who lived in Paris, sang in French and occasionally Dutch, renowned for his dark humour and French music hall arrangements with accordions. I don’t understand 99% of what he sings about. So why do I love this record so much?
Like most Anglo Canadian children, I took French as a second language. Like most of those kids, I can barely remember it. Awkward when one calls clients in Quebec and they answer in rapid Québécois patois and all you can muster is a weak “Salut, parles vous anglais?” ( and I am certain that is wrong). But I am one of those people who remembers just enough that a word will stick out and I can say “He’s referring to a library!” My children, forced now by the provincial government to take French from the fourth grade on, often stare at me with dismay. “No, mum, bibliotheque is not library, it’s bookstore.” Whatever, same difference.
Brel’s music came to me in junior high, hidden in my obsession with French new wave cinema and obscure musicals. Frankly, Brel really has nothing to do with the former in any significant way that I am aware of. As in, he appears in none of the following: The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But I’m a bit of a Francophile. Okay, my obsession with French culture is massively dwarfed by my wish to be English, but I digress. It was the obscure musical angle that actually introduced Brel to me. Americans in 1968 created Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living In Paris. Loving English translations of his music set to a slip of a story made it a modest hit. But it’s marred by a lack of irony. Brel was big on irony. Americans don’t do irony well as a nation. It tends to get lost in translation.
Olympia ’64 is a magnificent live album. An adoring and respectful crowd cheer every song Brel sings, starting with the opener, “Amsterdam”. I’m familiar with the David Bowie version of this song, as well as Scott Walker’s. In fact, while researching this album, and remembering Scott Walker’s version, I was stunned that I didn’t have it on my iTunes. This problem has since been rectified. I have three versions of the same song. Honestly- I have six different versions of “Hallelujah”. A great song is timeless, genreless, and frankly, transcends language. The song is about sailors living the life of the port of Amsterdam. It’s colourful. The lyrics are subtitled in the accompanying video. You’ll see what I mean. Can you imagine a song this brilliantly descriptive getting any airplay in 1964 US radio?
“Les Bourgeois” is a biting and humourous take on youth and the middle class. Basically, our story is the classic three students mock their elders. But even with a language barrier, the humour comes through. Brel had incredible timing, you can feel it. Again, standard french music hall, Chevalieresque music matched with modern lyrics. But oh, how I love it.
Brel is the greatest of performers- as you can see in the clips, the man throws himself into these songs with his entire being. Veins pop, sweat beads, mic stands get pummeled, the voice comes and goes with rising and falling emotion. You can hear it in a song like “Mathilde”, where Brel sings about the girl who ripped him to shreds and has returned. As the song winds its way to the end, his desperation turns into joy as the femme fatale he describes returns to him, but one feels it’s merely a delusion on the part of our protagonist.
“Au suivant” is a bombastic tale of soldiers and whores- a favourite topic of Brel’s, if you must know. But my personal favourite is the genius of “Tango Funebre”, where Brel imagines his funeral, and is quite unimpressed with his loved ones. I think it’s safe to say that the thing that always appealed to me about Brel was the fact he was funny and obviously funny regardless of whether I understood the joke. It’s a curious thing, comedy. I clearly respond to timing. There are patterns to humour, a cadence specific to funny. It’s not set up, punchline, pause, it’s almost an intangible. To laugh so much at your own death ( another obsession, and an obsession that played out- Brel died at 49 from lung cancer) requires a confidence and a resignation that most people don’t have. People fear death and therefore treat it with reverence. Brel looked around and said “I’ll be dead, why do I care how much you mourn?”
There are 18 tracks on Olympia ’64, mostly about sex and death, the expert preaching to his choir. The translations of these songs are good depending on which translation and which interpreter. If you are interested in the musical, go and listen to the score as is. The translations are not faithful but they are infinitely better than what McKuen did. But the greatest is Scott Walker, the British folk singer ( ah, yes, they even did Brel better than we did). As his “Amsterdam” shows, a great song is great in any language. I’m going to recommend to you all to brush up on your French and listen to this record. It’s more rewarding than you realize. And Brel remains a cult that is rarely acknowledged in the English-speaking world, so you’ll be part of a super secret club. Honest.