THE MUSIC OF JACQUES BREL
The lights go down on the tiny Arts Lab – stage; a small crowd expectantly waits for the man who would one day, years hence, become guru for an entire generation of children. The hush turns into a dull murmur as a longish haired, and even longer bodied David Bowie walks on, a guitar slung casually over his shoulder.
This is pre – Ziggy, this is 1969, and with the gentle brush of fingers over fret and strings, a most amazing song is introduced. The sweeping and passionate “My Death” brings a crowd of listeners down to the depths of some sexy, sad despair, as Bowie’s still unformed vocals take hold. The performance is mesmerizing.
A continent away, perhaps on the same evening, a fifty -somethingish Frank Sinatra beguiles a theatre full of adoring fans, swooning on the crooner’s silky vocals, held by those blue, blue eyes. Another song, and another unfolds. And then Sinatra breaks the pattern, drawing all who would listen with the lush, beautiful, and oddly poignant, “If You Go Away,” a newer song in his stack of old favorites, and still ripe with the subdued frenzy of inexperience. Even from Sinatra, the song’s clockwork ticks and transcends a thousand language barriers.
This performance, too, is mesmerizing.
Move back just three years, to 1966, to Paris, at the Olympia. This is France’s premier music hall. An enormous crowd waits, hushed but hurting. They know this show will be a show to end all shows, and watch silently for a lanky man, a man once condemned for his “difficult looks”, to take the stage. His looks are not difficult anymore; across France, his adopted homeland, they are as familiar, and as beloved, as the songs he will be playing, songs which are embedded in the country’s very soul; songs of love and anger, with a passion for life and death, for living life to the hilt as time slips away. The crowd knows it will not be disappointed.
The master of the evening, this odd Belgian who holds Europe in his thrall, takes the stage. Jacques Brel sweats as he sings, wringing his body dry, giving the audience pieces of himself right and left, through “Au Suivant,” “La Mort,” or “Ne Me Quitte Pas”. The audience applauds when he’s done, spent. They are on their feet, tears streaming from their eyes. But there will be no encores. Tonight will be different.
It is on this stage, this night in October, 1966, that Brel makes a stunning announcement. A handful of outstanding engagements aside (shows which would in fact reach into the new year), he will never again perform for the public. What had begun just over a decade previous is finished. Europe’s master of the chanson is done. He had, in his own words, “chosen to become a beginner all over again”. And that is precisely what he did.
One of the biggest fears in life for Jacques Brel was to be one of the bourgeois, that monster of the Belgian upper middle class, the very sector of society he was born into. He hated it growing up, and he fled from it early in life. Born on April 8 1929, in Brussels, Brel’s childhood was sandwiched into that final golden age of societal mores and cultural chasms which dominated Europe between the two world wars; wars which would knock his country around but never destroy its national spirit.
In an age when patriotism had still to become blinkered jingo -ism, it would be that spirit, rather than the petty standards of family; that sense of origin, which would follow Brel throughout his career, that would be tantamount to his ideal.
Speaking in Claire Chevauchez’s 1978 documentary on his life, Nous Les Artistes, Brel explained, “[Country] means an origin. We all need to know or believe that we are from somewhere. For me, that means I need the memory of certain smells, like the smell of jam making in the corridor of my grandmother’s. That is really my country, and it isn’t very important whether the smell of that jam was is Flanders, Belgium or Poland. We just need to know we are from somewhere, and to know that we were once very young.”
Brel had as idyllic a childhood as one could in those days. Very much loved by his mother, he, like most children, bonded with one parent. His father’s love was there, but Romain Brel was a distant figure. In Brussels at the time, family was important, and papa ruled the kingdom. Romain was always the provider, never the comforter, and always had the final word in any matter. This was something which affected Brel greatly as a child; he never felt he cultivated his father’s love, only his scrutiny, and very early on, Brel decided that if this was part of the bourgeois life, he wanted no part of it.
“To be bourgeois is to have a certain type of materialism. You have to think of what that means. It means everything that destroys dreams. Everything that destroys anything attractive. That’s what being bourgeois means for me. It means security. It’s a mediocrity of the spirit. It’s everything I dislike.”
Caught up in a smoldering personal rebellion, Brel persevered through a Jesuit school where he would never shine as a student, although he was intelligent. Then, upon leaving school at fifteen, it was decided that Brel would join the ranks of Vanneste And Brel, the family business, making cardboard boxes. Again, that is how things were done by the Bourgeois. Matters were decided, and all the child could do was go along with the decision.
This, too, Brel detested, although he also sensed some advantages. A company business trip brought him out of the sheltering grasp of the Belgian bourgeois, out of Belgium itself.
Visiting Paris for the first time, he found himself captivated by the people and the very city itself. And very early on, Brel decided that Paris was where he wanted to be; Paris was where he could finally live, and breathe. Brussels, however, would hold him for a little longer.
Back home, Brel continued to live day in and out within the confines of his wretched responsibilities. His favorite task at the box factory would be stenciling the finished boxes; it gave him time to think, and dream. Time passed, war passed. He stenciled on, and dreamed on. After completing a requisite year in the Belgian military in 1948, he settled down with his bride Therese “Miche” Michielsen, and became, like his father, a family man. Brel’s first child, Chantal, arrived in December, 1951.
But Brel remained restless. No longer content with simply dreaming, he had begun singing, strumming a guitar, and putting his thoughts down on paper, turning emotion into song, song into manifesto.
1953 was to be a pivotal year for Brel. His second daughter, France, was born in July. Overshadowing that however, was the release of Brel’s first record, a 78 coupling “La Foire” and “Il Y A,” in March.
The previous year, at his brother in law’s wedding, Brel was introduced to Angele Guller, host of the radio program La Vitrine Aux Chansons. Intrigued, if not wholeheartedly enthusiastic about the queer young man who auditioned on the spot, Mme Guller arranged for Brel to record two songs for broadcast on the show, “La Diable (Ca Va)” and “Il Peut Pleuvoir.” She expected mild applause; instead, Brel’s debut was greeted with wild acclaim, and soon, he was a regular fixture on the show – albeit under an assumed name. Fearful of family disapproval (those old bourgeois values again!), he appeared under the name Berel.
Guller now began championing his cause with abandon. She entered him for a pan -European talent contest, only for nerves to wreck Brel’s chances from the start. But she also persuaded her husband, Clement, to audition him for the record company he worked at, Philips. Brel passed with flying colors.
The success of “La Foire” marked the turning point in Brel’s battle with his destiny, and with it came the realization that he was becoming his father, living his father’s life. It was a chilling discovery. Brel knew that he could never be content to be the head of a family in the traditional sense. By June, he had left the family firm, and over the next few months, he traveled to Paris and back, a budding young hopeful making the rounds with his songs.
He wrangled a meeting with Jacques Canetti, a well-known entrepreneur who put together a variety of acts to tour over the country. Canetti, then working for the French wing of Philips, had heard Brel’s single, and was captivated. The passion and the words etched into the vinyl bore the seeds of greatness. Brel’s audition, however, would prove difficult.
Canetti saw the bright spark that was taking hold of Brel, who, accompanying himself on the guitar, carried his instrument slung across his belly like a weapon. Unfortunately, Canetti also believed that Brel’s physical appearance was less prepossessing, and it was this which made Canetti doubt whether Brel could ever make it on the demanding French stage circuit. In fact, Canetti urged Brel not to take to the stage, but simply sell his songs to publishers instead. This slap only served to strengthen Brel’s drive to perform.
His songs cried out, took hold, took precedence, and in September, 1953, he fled Belgium, his family, and his life, to sing in Paris. “I think that talent really means wanting to make a dream come true, and the rest is sweat, perspiration and discipline. I don’t really know what is meant by art and artists,” Brel said of his craft.
It was true, Brel never considered himself to be an artist, merely a craftsman. But once in Paris, he worked very hard, singing at small clubs across the city. He made his stage debut in September at the Pigalle’s famous Theatre Des Trois Baudets, and even then, he was captivating.
He continued to play around Paris, wherever he could. Eventually, however, it was time to venture further afield, to take his magic out to the provinces. Under the auspices of the Canetti organization, Brel was booked onto a package tour, and it was there that he met Francois Rauber, who would become his arranger and lifelong friend. Interviewed shortly after Brel’s death, Rauber recalled, “I first met Jacques Brel in 1955. I met him under the bandstand. He was part of a touring show put on by Jacques Canetti. There was this young guy hunched really intently over his guitar. He sang three songs. This was Brel.”
It was about this time, too, that Brel met Suzanne Gabriello, a singer who was also in the Canetti tour. She would be a sounding board for many of the songs Brel was trying out, as well as one of the several mistresses he would take over the years. Gabriello remembers meeting Brel: “I met Jacques for the first time, the heart always remembers, exactly in July 1955 during one of the Canetti tours in Normandy. He was shy and rather a strange character. We were all a bit intrigued by this Belgian straight out of Belgium. [His act] was pretty hard hitting and unusual for 1955. He accompanied himself on his guitar and he held a sort of special fascination for the audience. He sort of took them by storm.”
Indeed, listening to Gabriello, and absorbing other reports of Brel in his Parisian prime, one is immediately assailed by the impression of him as a young, Gallic Elvis Presley. There was the same connection between soul and audience; the same implied but rarely stated sexual energy; the same broaching of “forbidden” subject matter. Television footage from the period restates this. There was an intensity which simply radiated from him, and though he barely moved, the way he held his guitar, the way he carried his body, and the utter joy that could flow from him, were quite unlike any other performer of his age.
Inhabiting that strange half world of shadows which musical history insists existed on the eve of the rock explosion; close enough to what would soon be happening that he would both influence, and be influenced by it, but undeniably a part of earlier traditions as well, Brel was the consummate proto-rock performer.
He possessed the uncanny ability to utterly spellbind an audience. With a voice that could never be mistaken for sweet, his pure pitch and exuberance swept through a music hall. Strength tempered with something quiet and fragile, Brel was more than Presley; he was Presley possessed by the pen of Cole Porter.
It was this magic that would propel him over the next decade to become the crowned prince of European performers; Aznavour, Becaud, Halliday, even arch -provocateur Serge Gainsbourg, were simply jesters at his court. And had he not been born a Belgian; had those same dreams, emotions and visions been present in a singing, songwriting, American talent, who knows what might
have befallen him?
Brel instinctively knew how to sing from the soul. Amongst his earliest songs, at least two – “Le Diable (Ca Va)” and “Il Nous Faut Regarder” – remain as powerful today as they were four decades back (under their translated titles of “The Devil (OK)” and “We Must Look,” both would later be covered by Marc Almond on his Jacques tribute). Other songs from this period, the first flood of tunes which took Brel through the 1950s, remain equally valid, and valuable.
Of all the many themes he touched on during his career, Love would be the one to which he returned the most, from his love of Belgium in “Le Plat Pays” (“The Flat Lands”), to a love of love itself in “Quand On N’A Que L’Amour” (“If We Only Have Love”), and on to the disquietingly ravaged “La Mort” (“My Death”). Yet love was something Brel always struggled with. His unconventional married life – he and Miche never divorced, despite both Brel’s absences and his myriad affairs – was symptomatic of this, and Brel acknowledged that for him, “it’s really hard to tell people you love them. It’s a real pain.
“The word love itself has been so abused and destroyed that it really doesn’t mean anything very precise anymore. And I just can’t manage to say it. I can say it inside to myself, but I just can’t get it over to the other person. So I write songs that to me, are not love songs in the normal sense, but in fact are songs about the types of love that are the force that keeps me alive keeps me going from one day to the next.”
1955 saw the release of Brel’s first album. Produced by Canetti (and savaged by the critics), Jacques Brel contained few of the songs for which Brel himself is best remembered today: however, it sold respectably, and set him up for his first major hit. “Quand On N’A Que L’Amour” was itself the title cut on a five song EP which reached #3 on the French chart, and its success was as deserved as it was unexpected. Gabriello recalls, “when he sang “Quand On N’A Que L’Amour” for the first time in public, the effect on the audience was overwhelming.
Really deeply moving.”
Suddenly the floodgates opened. Shortly after “Quand On N’A Que L’Amour,” actress Juliette Greco released a version of “La Diable (Ca Va),” bringing a whole new respectability to Brel’s soaring stock. The first of a multitude of artists to cover Brel, Greco would subsequently cover several other songs, including “On N’Oublie Rien,” “La Valse A Mille Temps,” and the otherwise unrecorded “Vielle” and “Je Suis Bien.”
Brel took the scene by storm, but he worked for his acclaim. Indeed, although only a comparative handful of his compositions have been translated into English, he wrote over 150 songs during his career, including the standouts, “L’Homme Dans La Cite” (1958), “La Dame Patronesse” (1959), “Les Singes” (1961), and “Ces Gens -La” (1965). Over the next decade, he would be traveling and performing some three hundred shows each year. He lived a nomadic life, breaking only for occasional rests on the coast, in Brussels with the family (his third daughter, Isabelle, was born in August, 1958), or to record. Then he would jump straight back into the fray, from city to city and village to village, like few performers ever did. He loved his audience. To perform for others meant everything to Brel.
Honestly touching an audience was vital to Brel and his songs. Although he wrote for himself, he knew that what he wrote was common if not in experience (most of his songs were autobiographical in some sense), then in feeling. Many years later, long after his retirement, Brel would comment on performing, explaining, “[performing] is like a bullfight. It’s exactly the same thing, but it doesn’t culminate in a kill. On the contrary, it can end in a manifestation of love. But really, it’s the same thing. You enter the ring, the audience is the bull, only instead of killing them, you want to tell them you love them. And you try and do it in the most tasteful way possible. You try to provoke something and the songs are there like the various stages of a bullfight. You improvise on them.”
Brel was equally loved within the confines of the recording studio. In 1958, his entourage was joined by pianist Gerard Jouannest, another musician who would remain with Brel until the end, and who would, along with Rauber, compose over forty songs with Brel; these include some of the best -known songs in Brel’s canon, “Les Vieux,” “Jacky,” “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and “Au Suivant.” It is unlikely, however, whether any of the writers realized the profound effect these songs would later have, on Brel himself, and on western music in general.
Along with Rauber and Jouannest, many session musicians were used during recording. Rehearsals were never used for rehearsing old songs, but as Jouannest remembers, “the songs he wrote on his own were written when he was alone in his room with his guitar. Those he wrote with me were done during rehearsals. The rehearsals weren’t for rehearsing the songs already written, we never rehearsed those. They began with a sound testing session for the stage, and then we used to go on to work on new songs.”
Recording always took place live, and Brel always knew what he wanted. Gerhard Lehner, sound engineer at Barclay, was particularly taken with Brel’s ability. “I remember that when Jacques started working with us, I was highly impressed by his way of working. Jacques always knew exactly what he wanted. Especially on the technical side. And we usually only needed to do three takes for each song. And if we did ever have to stop, it was usually not because of Jacques, but because of problems with the musicians or the technical side.”
He continues, “In twenty five years of working on the Barclay label I’ve only twice seen the session musicians applaud an artist. The first time it was Sarah Vaughan, and the second time it was Jacques Brel.”
By the end of the fifties, Brel was a household name in Europe, both as a performer and a songwriter. And his fame was spreading; Juliette Greco’s cover of “La Valse A Mille Temps” not only topped the French charts, it also became the first Brel song to be released in the United States. It would not, however, be alone for long.
In 1957, CBS recording manager Nat Shapiro won a deal for Brel with U.S. Columbia, assembling a collection of songs into the now highly prized American Debut album. A version of “La Valse A Mille Temps,” conveniently retitled “Waltz With A Thousand Beats,” and credited to Brel and Andre Popp (Rauber’s predecessor as Brel’s customary arranger), would follow as a single. Although sales were limited, still the records served notice of a new talent stirring across the ocean.
Brel reached the pinnacle of continental success, meanwhile, when he co -headlined (with Philippe Clay) his first shows at the Paris Olympia, in November, 1959. It was the first of many visits to this august hall, including one memorable evening which has been preserved on vinyl (A L’Olympia 1962). He was seldom out of the French chart, either, with his fame spilling over into neighboring countries (today there is even a Brel website in Polish!) and beyond. Yet his one US album aside, Brel had not made any attempt to cross over into the English speaking world. Even the possibility of shows in England were dismissed out of hand; in a land whose understanding of French music was already rooted in the xenophobic cliche of accordions and bicycle bells, Brel’s emotional outpourings were doomed from the start. So why even bother? Brel was content with his lot in life, and with the fame he had already achieved.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the early championing of several men, Brel would most likely have been lost to us, chalked up as another Philippe Clay or Gilbert Becaud, just another cabaretsinger condemned to stalk the outer limits of latter day kitsch sensibilities. And Brel himself probably wouldn’t have cared about that either. However, the fates were now bearing down on him, casting his own apathy to the wind and conspiring to translate his success despite him.
Eric Blau was to be the first man to introduce Brel to an English -speaking audience. Blau, a New York writer/producer, had stumbled upon of Brel through his wife, singer Elly Stone. He recalls, “after [Elly] heard a Brel recording, [she] told me that he was not only great, but also the most important song writer of the century.” Blau was intrigued.
Together, the couple struggled to translate several of Brel’s songs into English. It was not easy. Very often, the impetus of the song is driven by its language: exact a literal translation, and that impetus is gone; retain the emotion, and the language changes completely. Blau and Stone soon discovered, as later translators of Brel’s work would find, the happy medium is to retain as much of the original literary meaning as possible, without sacrificing one tear or flash of feeling. The difficulty lay in reaching that medium.
The first songs to be completed, English translations of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and “La Valse A Mille Temps” (now retitled “Carousels”), were promptly incorporated into O, Oysters!, a politically motivated musical revue which Blau was writing and co -producing at New York’s Village Gate Theatre in January, 1961. Both were sung by Stone. (A third translation, “Marieke,” was later added to the show.)
The first underground rumblings had begun, and while the show itself didn’t rise to rave reviews under the finicky microscope of New York’s critics, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” at least, was singled out amongst the standouts of the show. Three years later, Patti Page would further validate Blau and Stone’s efforts with her own version of “Carousel,” now retitled “Days Of The Waltz.”
Still, no one could have predicted how popular the music of Jacques Brel was shortly going to become… certainly not those who were determined to see as many of Brel’s songs as possible translated into English, and certainly not poet and songwriter Rod McKuen, who would be the next to tackle the problematic translations.
McKuen had long been in love with the great French balladeering tradition, although he himself was unable to speak or understand any French whatsoever. Still, it was this connection that eventually led him to Jacques Brel, and just as he had done to Blau, Brel seeped into McKuen’s very being. Very early on, McKuen decided that this man’s lyrics and songs must be presented to an English speaking audience.
Far away from such activity, Brel’s recording career had continued apace. In 1962, he quit Philips in a dispute over his target audience – the label considered him ripe for the Easy Listening market, Brel himself still believed he could hold his own in the younger market, and proved this by decamping for Barclay, an upstart label whose grasp of “pop” sensibilities was second to none.
It was an audacious move, tantamount to a reinvention of Brel’s own career whilst leaving the essentials of that career untouched. Yet it would also pave the way for Brel’s later absorption into the rock marketplace, a process which was completed (albeit without Brel’s approval) with the 1977 release of his swansong, Brel. Indeed, in terms of iconography, there was only one other Barclay release that year which even came close to emulating the impact of Brel; the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The U.K.”
Barclay built its reputation on aggressive marketing, and in late 1962, the company decided it was time to export its enfant terrible. Brel was booked to appear at New York’s Carnegie Hall on March 20, 1963, a veritable baptism of fire for a man who had yet to perform before any English speaking audience of note.
Brel approached the challenge with caution, but still, performing his songs to an astounded American audience, he had the crowd on their feet at the end of the show. Amidst the applause and cries of an emotionally drained theatre, Brel would forgo his encore that evening. Instead, he asked them one simple question, if they had understood a word he had sung? The audience responded with a rousing “NO!,” even as they continued their thunderous applause, and that was all the thanks Brel required, this fevered testament to Brel’s indelible strength as a performer. He transcended language. The heart always speaks the truth, and it doesn’t really matter what the words are.
That, perhaps, offers a clue to Brel’s activities throughout the remainder of his career; believing that he had already accomplished all he set out to do, Brel would spend the next three years simply consolidating his continental fame, touring, recording, and writing, of course, but also preparing for the life he would lead once he quit the stage. And by that time, he knew his legacy had life of its own.
Unbowed by this apparent proof that translating Brel was essentially unnecessary, at least so far as Brel’s own performance was concerned, McKuen began his labor of love in 1964
He began with “Le Moribond”, a song which he mysteriously retitled “Seasons In The Sun.” It was a contentious decision, although in this instance, success speaks far louder than barbs. Some critics, for example, have argued that McKuen’s whole purpose in life is to create an eternal cliche, and it goes without saying that with “Seasons In The Sun,” he achieved that and then some.
McKuen sang and released his definitive version of “Seasons In The Sun” in 1964. Although his lyrics don’t much resemble the originals penned by Brel, and purists may find fault with this, the song remains to this day one of the best recognized, and well loved songs in this country. This was confirmed when the Kingston Trio released their own version of McKuen’s translation later the same year.
McKuen himself defends his reinvention of Brel’s lyricism by acknowledging that he did indeed find it difficult to literally translate each song, and keep the spirit that drove it intact, while fitting the words to the melody. Instead, then, he would choose not so much to translate, but to reinterpret, an approach which was fully endorsed by Brel himself. The singer worked very closely with McKuen during this period and, according to McKuen, even claimed that McKuen’s vision of certain songsactually improved on Brel’s own.
McKuen and Brel would collaborate on several new songs during the mid 1960s, most notably, on “To You” and “I’m Not Afraid”, songs which began as Brel melodies, with lyrics added by Mckuen. Considerably more lasting, however, are those Brel originals which McKuen then manhandled into English: “Les Bourgeois”, “The Statue” and the sea shanty “Port Of Amsterdam,” among others. Even if one detests the often maudlin sentimentality which McKuen attached to Brel’s hard hitting originals, one cannot deny his effectiveness.
Brel himself returned to the U.S. in December, 1965, for two more shows at Carnegie Hall, bolstered not only by the success of “Seasons In The Sun,” but also by the arrival of a new American record deal. The Reprise label, in keeping with founder Frank Sinatra’s demand for top quality songwriters, had now licensed Brel’s repertoire from Barclay, and Brel arrived in America to discover he had three “new” albums on sale.
The first was an eponymous collection released by Reprise in 1964, which drew from the last two years of recording, and included several of his greatest recent compositions: “Jef,” “Mathilde” and the chilling “Au Suivant.”
Then came The Poetic World Of Jacques Brel, a compilation primarily of his Philips era material, released as part of the American wing of the label’s “Philips Connoisseur Collection” (and mistakenly claiming to be his U.S. debut); once again, listeners were offered an intelligent cross section of material, but one which disappointingly duplicated parts of the Reprise disc.
Now there was a second Reprise set, Encore, issued (as the sleeve notes so grandiloquently put it) “on the occasion of his triumphal return to Manhattan, where his first concert received the highest acclaim.” The cover illustration, incidentally, included a reproduction of a two year old New York Times review. This album, too, simply compiled highlights from the last few years of work, and it is notable that when McKuen again leveled his sights on Brel, he turned to another older song, with which American record buyers were unlikely to be familiar, “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”
Eric Blau, of course, had already translated this melancholy lament, and McKuen’s first approaches to the song’s publishers were rebuffed out of hand, as McKuen remembers. “The U.S. publishers were reluctant to give it another try. In the end, I had to promise to talk Glenn Yarborough into recording the song to finally cement the deal”.
His pledge obviously worked; not only did McKuen get his hands on this loveliest of songs, but Yarborough, too, would become an unlikely champion of Brel’s work, also recording McKuen’s interpretation of “Les Biches” (“The Women”) on his TheLonely Things album.
“Ne Me Quitte Pas,” meanwhile, took on a life of its own. McKuen published what swiftly proved to be the definitive translation, “If You Go Away,” in 1966, and was promptly rewarded for his efforts when Damita Jo recorded the song the following year. And it didn’t stop there; on into the dawn of the next decade, an extraordinarily massive outpouring of talents covered the song, seldom adding more than a new voice to their version, but imbibing it with a touch of their own personality regardless.
Some are sordid, some are sappy, and some (stand up soul combo The Dells, who medleyed it with the theme from Love Story) are just plain bizarre. But “If You Go Away” was a hot song to sing, and one could fill a C90 with disparate versions, from English songstress Sandie Shaw, to that ol’ Wichita Linesman, Glen Campbell; from the immortally named 50 Guitars Of Tommy Garrett, to the singularly titled Oliver; from a beautifully rendered performance by Michelle Lee, to the smokey supper -club tones of the Guerillas.
The crowning irony, however, has to be the version offered up by MOR crooners Sandler and Young; Sandler himself is Belgian, yet he turned to an English translation before covering his best known countryman! Tony Sandler, too, grew up in Belgium during the Second World War, and felt a kinship with Brel. He paid tribute to his fellow countryman in A Tribute To The Poetic World Of Jacques Brel. Unfortunately, rather than sing the songs in his (and Brel’s) native language, Sandler instead drew upon the English translations for his album.
Another talent in the United States was also consumed with Jacques Brel and his songs. Mort Shuman, like McKuen, wanted very much to keep the Brel flame burning; unlike McKuen, he intended doing it without once mentioning seagulls. This most legendary of American songsmiths was just twenty eight in 1966, yet with partner Doc Pomus, he had already penned songs for the likes of Elvis Presley and Ray Charles. As Eric Blau remembers, “after hearing Brel and getting to know Brel’s work, Mort had turned off rock. Brel had wiped him out, and Brel was for Mort a bridge to his own future work. And that’s not a small thing, because Shuman is an intensely gifted man.”
Shuman was one of the rapturous hoards who caught Brel at the ’65 Carnegie Hall shows, and would also be in attendance at Brel’s only London show at the Royal Albert Hall, the following year. Thoroughly entranced by the music, Shuman shifted gears, and left the world of rock’n’roll behind to focus on Brel. And by 1966, he had begun his own odyssey of translation.
Eric Blau, meanwhile, knew Shuman through the New York scene, and as the two discovered their mutual love of Brel, they decided that it was high time to do something about it. Shaping Brel’s songs as they saw fit, Shuman would often relay the duo’s progress to their author via phone, singing what they had done over lines across the ocean, and more often than not, winning Brel’s approval. The culmination of this effort was to be the magnificent stage show, Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris.
It was decided early on that the show must be kept simple, that the songs must carry the show, be allowed to take over from the singers. Once the initial preparation was complete, an ensemble cast of four was assembled. Elly Stone, Alice Whitfield and Shawn Elliot brought the number to three, and after much cajoling by Blau, Shuman joined the cast over his protests that he was a writer, not a singer. To Blau, Shuman was the obvious choice, and indeed, after vocal coaching to repair early damage to his throat and save his voice, Shuman filled the gap marvelously.
Alive And Well suffered some difficulties as Blau and Shuman scrambled to find backers and a director. But after hiring and losing several, Moni Yakim, took the directorial helm. Like the others, he, too, had a profound appreciation of Brel’s music.
The show opened at the Village Gate Theatre on January 22, 1968 to mediocre review.
“Elly Stone, whose voice reminds you of Joan Baez’s until it goes strident at full volume, tries to emulate the gestures of Piaf, and looks like a salesgirl measuring yard goods,” critic Dan Sullivan wrote the next day. Each cast member followed in turn, taking a vicious slash from the pen, until Shuman came under the gun. “The one who comes closest to the country these songs are about is Mort Shuman. If Mr. Elliot plays Mr. Brel’s sensitive -young -poet side, Mr. Shuman is his tough -young -longshoreman side, and it is a reasonable facsimile.”
Tough as nails was this young cast, and they weren’t going to cave into one bad review. They pushed on, and found that word of mouth from patrons of the audience soon had the little theatre filled, where the gently subversive “Timid Frieda” (“Les Timedes”), the freakish “Marieke” and, of course, “If We Only Had Love” became sing along standards. They went into the black with the show, and waited fearfully for the harshest critic of all to attend, Jacques Brel himself.
First, though, came Miche, perhaps sent by Brel as an advance scout. She sat through the performance, impenetrable and seemingly unmoved. She departed after a perfunctory “You were good” to the cast, leaving them shattered… until the next evening, when Madame Brel returned and applauded as heartily as any other member of the audience. Backstage that second night, she gushed, “It is marvelous! I was so frightened. I didn’t know how it would be. I was paralyzed. I went to my hotel after, and I cried I was so happy.” Brel, who saw the show shortly after, shared her delight.
Alive And Well would move over to the stages of Broadway in 1970, where the show would enjoy an impressive run of 1800 consecutive performances, although reviews continued to be mixed. The show also burst from New York to theatres across the country, with the cast of the Detroit Alive And Well even releasing their own soundtrack that sold alongside the original Broadway cast album. And even today, this cabaret is still being revived across the country, most recently by the Strollers Theatre in San Francisco. Although the show isn’t scheduled to open until March 1998, tickets are already selling fast.
Following on the success of the stage production, both Elly Stone and Mort Shuman would reprise several Brel songs in their own solo work in the 1970s, with Shuman adding “Caramels” (his version of “Les Bonbons”) and “Mon Enfance” to his My Death album. Stone, meanwhile, included “Carousel,” “Marieke,” “My Childhood” (“Mon Enfance”) “Old Folks” (“Les Vieux”) and “Song For Old Lovers” (“La Chanson Des Vieux Amants”) in her repertoire.
Much of the team, Shuman and Stone included, reconvened when a movie rendition of Alive And Well was slated for a release in 1974. Several songs were included in the film that never were performed on stage, notably, “My Childhood,” “The Taxicab” (“Le Gaz”), and The Last Supper” (“Le Dernier Repas”). The highlight of the film, though, is Brel himself, sitting alone at a table, where he delivers a moving performance of “Ne Me Quitte Pas”.
The stationary camera captures not only brilliance of the song, but the exhausting movement of feeling pouring through Brel’s face. It remains the most riveting part of the film, and earned an almost instant tribute when Bryan Ferry reprised the stance in his video for “These Foolish Things.”
But of course, Brel knew how to play to the camera. Following his retirement from the stage in 1967, he leapt effortlessly into film and theatre, successfully rendering the Broadway hit Man From La Mancha into French, and reviving the title role in Paris at the Theatre de la Champs -Elysees in 1968. Brel’s stunning versions of “La Homme De La Mancha” and “The Impossible Dream” took on a depth unparalleled by any English renditions.
He also appeared in several films during the late 1960s and early 1970s including, Les Risques Du Metier, and Mon Oncle Benjamin, where he proved himself to be quite an actor. In choosing to become a beginner again, he then wrote and directed The Far West in 1973, and although it didn’t catch much public interest, it was another highlight for Brel.
He continued writing as well, although again it was film which attracted his attention. He contributed songs to each of his own films, and also wrote “Ode A La Nuit” and “La Chanson De Zorino” to Tin Tin creator Herge’s 1969 animated film Le Temple Do Soleil.
And he hardly needed to do more. By the end of the 1960s, McKuen and Shuman had produced a vast English -language canon of Brel’s songs. And although rumors of bad blood between these two translating camps have surfaced through the years, the body of work which McKuen And Shuman created has become the standard for the masses of musicians who would cover Brel through the end of the sixties and well into the seventies. So it doesn’t really matter, then, who wrote which song. McKuen and Shuman simply performed a labor of love, an ode to a man whom they respected and adored.
Comparing the two men’s work, too, is fruitless. They generally avoided reworking the same songs, although on the occasions they do clash, the results are often fascinating. “Port Of Amsterdam,” for example, exists in both a Shuman translation, which has become the standard for subsequent rock interpretations, and a lesser-known McKuen lyric. Yet it is McKuen’s which is more accurately mirrors Brel’s intent, eschewing the gratuitously bawdy rhyming of the Shuman lyric, in favor of a more narrative approach.
However, in general terms, while Shuman’s translations are essentially dark cabaret turns, awash with whores and death and drunkenness; McKuen’s work approaches its subject from a far greater Easy Listening bias, a factor which does much to explain Brel’s adoption by the giants of that genre. Singing actor Howard Keel even included a Brel medley in his live show, while Nancy Wilson, Johnny Mathis, Tom Jones, Neil Diamond and Noel Harrison have all wrapped their golden throats around Brel/McKuen compositions.
Young folkie Judy Collins was one of the first performers to save Brel from the pits of Easy Listening hell, with her wonderful versions of “Sons Of…” (“Fils De…”), “La Colombe”, “Marieke”, and “Song For Old Lovers” (“Chanson Des Vieux Amants”). Collins was already highly respected for having picked up on the talent of Canadian Leonard Cohen long before the rest of the world came running; her patronage of Brel, then, was to prove equally astute.
Her choice of Brel covers reflects that; both before and after “If You Go Away” exploded into the popular vocabulary, Collins chose songs that weren’t in danger of being sung to death. She was joined in her endeavors by Scott Walker, one third of the teen sensation The Walker Brothers, but now striking out on his own, very individual, solo career.
Having discovered Brel through his girlfriend, the themes of anger and love, a weariness of life and the world around him struck a deep chord in Walker. It was exactly this eclectic and electrifying mix that he had been searching for within his own music. Recording Brel’s songs gave him the vehicle to develop these ideas slowly, and eventually the confidence to incorporate them into his own songs.
Walker remembers, “It was one of the happiest days in my life when a girlfriend gave me the first translation I’d seen of Brel’s lyrics.” Walker had found his soulmate in song and quickly obtained Brel’s blessing to move forward and record his work. In fact, Brel personally ordered Shuman (who had already worked with Walker in the past) to hand over his translations to the young Californian.
Although Brel and Walker would never meet, Scott felt a kinship with the Belgian, from a restless disillusionment of having to live life, to the horrible stage fright they both suffered from. Brel was dreadfully frightened before a performance, and for the duration of his career, would vomit before taking the stage.
Over the next two years (and three albums), 1967 -1969, Walker would record nine of Brel’s songs, a tally which included “Mathilde”, “Funeral Tango” (“Le Tango Funebre”), “Amsterdam” and “Jacky” (“La Chanson De Jacky”), and by way of a sideways tribute, “The Impossible Dream” as well. He sang the songs in a very straightforward manner, unlike artists later on, and while some, like “Sons Of…,” and McKuen’s “If You Go Away,” stand out, his interpretations of “Next” (“Au Suivant”) and Shuman’s “Amsterdam” seem almost stilted. Both of these songs are full to overflowing with frenetic energy and darkly disquieting passion, neither of which is quite manifest in Walker’s versions.
Nevertheless, Walker was intensely proud of his Brel songs, and rightly so. Even within the confines of the Popular Entertainer genre which his record company insisted on keeping him, he set a standard for Brel’s work within the rock world.
And although Alive And Well would be the doorway to Brel in the United States, it was Scott Walker whose songs drew Brel into the hearts of English -speaking musicians and fans across the ocean. All this glory was not without controversy, however. Walker created quite a stir in 1968, when he chose to release Brel’s “Jacky” as a single from his second solo set, Scott 2. A somewhat autobiographical song, originally written in response to those comments about Brel’s physical appearance early in his career, Walker understood the true focus. “I put out ‘Jacky’ because I felt it was so refined and beautiful. The song is about a man’s reflections of his childhood. I’m not deliberately going out to shock…I want it to be looked at.”
But with its lyrics of brothels, opium dens, asses and phoney virgins, “Jacky” was all but banned from radio play. Slotted as suitable for late night listening only, “Jacky” reached a meager #22 on the British charts, while a BBC spokesman declared, “we haven’t banned it, we’re just not playing it.” The BBC also cited public outcry over the song as the reason why Walker’s Top Of The Pops slot was cancelled, while the song also sparked protest from Walker’s female fans, outraged that their nice little Scotty should sing such a nasty song.
Almost a quarter of a century later, Marc Almond proved how disparate two takes on the same song could be. Whereas Walker, in his casual style and his tight orchestrations, chose a straight take on the song, Almond blew it completely over the top and out of the universe, turning “Jacky” into a dance extravaganza, replete with driving beats and saucy strings.
Originally released on Almond’s Tenement Symphony album, the song is best heard live on Twelve Years Of Tears. In true camp style, Almond introduces “Jacky” after a wrenching “If You Go Away,” feyly insisting, “that was one way to do a Jacques Brel song… and this is another.” The ensuing whirlwind would have turned Walker’s detractors grey haired with horror. So would the song’s performance on the chart. Walker’s was banned and condemned to obscurity. Almond’s was embraced, and was a Top 20 smash!
But controversy was no strange dilemma for Brel either. With a reputation among some as a rather bawdy man with a penchant for protest songs, he had often borne the brunt of societal disapproval. Indeed, Brel seemed to glory in this status, deliberately including one or two questionable songs on his albums, simply to inflame uptight radio and record company executives, a fate which befell both “Amsterdam,” with its references to whoring, and “Les Flamandes,” banned in Belgium because Brel sang it in his native accent, and the Belgians simply assumed he was making fun of them.
It was, however, never Brel’s intention, as it was never Walker’s, to shock or hurt people through his music. Brel’s songs were written entirely in response, selfishly, to how HE felt about things. Never what others felt. From the skewed perception of a man in “Jacky,” to the beautifully rendered homage to his native Belgium in “Le Plat Pays,” Brel spoke only from his heart.
Scott Walker made his last assault on the Brel songbook with his third album, 1969’s Scott 3; thereafter, his own songwriting moved far more to the fore, absorbing as it already had the manifold lessons that Brel had taught. Brel’s notoriety through Walker would not, however, stop there. An assortment of Brel tracks would be included on the myriad Scott Walker compilations that appeared through the Seventies (beginning in 1970 with The Best Of Scott Walker), a process which culminated in 1981 with the release of an all Brel compilation, Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel. If no one else had ever tackled Brel, he would have lived on in the soul and voice of Walker.
Yet Walker opened a door through which would emerge a small stampede of rockers who identified with Brel.
Despite his efforts, of course, the Easy Listening Marathon would continue well into the early 1970s, culminating in 1974, when Canadian folkie Terry Jacks shot to the top of both the American and British charts with “Seasons In The Sun.”
Almost simultaneously, McKuen returned to the fray with his own fresh passel of Brel songs, also titled Seasons In The Sun. Jacks then unleashed a similarly heart wrenching take on “If You Go Away” (surprisingly absent from the corresponding album), but while Jacks ruled the soft side of the United States, in Britain, it was another matter entirely.
By some bizarre quirk of musical association, Jacks’ “Seasons In The Sun” was embraced by the same youngsters who idolized the Gods of the Glam Rock movement that was stomping the country. Both David Bowie and Alex Harvey had already established Brel as an underground cult hero; Jacks simply tapped into the prevalent mood and made it palatable for everyone.
Heavily influenced by Scott Walker, David Bowie was the first to bang Brel around the clubs of London, beginning in 1968 when “Next,” “My Death,” and “Port OfAmsterdam” were included in a cabaret routine Bowie and his then-current band, Feathers, were ruminating over.
“Next” did not survive in the set for long; however, both “Port Of Amsterdam” and an increasingly chilling reading of “My Death” would blossom into staples of Bowie’s live act well into the 1970’s, while he also made several stabs at recording a studio version of the former. The first, taped for a BBC session in September, 1971, has never been released (although it is available on bootleg); the second, dating from a year or so later, would appear as the b -side to 1973’s “Sorrow” 45. It has since been appended to Rykodisc’s reissue of the Pin Ups album.
Brel too, must have been on Bowie’s mind in 1972 for “Rock And Roll Suicide”, a song which could have been an interpretation of Brel’s “Jef.” Live performances of “My Death,” meanwhile, are now available on three official albums: the 1972 Santa Monica set (released in 1995), 1973’s Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture soundtrack (released 1981), and as an excerpt from Bowie’s own 1972 Carnegie Hall debut, on the 1995 Rarestonebowie collection. This latter, infused with Bowie’s own awareness of the historical import of the occasion – Brel returning to tread again the scene of one of his greatest triumphs – is possibly the best of them all.
Both songs have also reappeared in Bowie’s post -Ziggy live set, albeit not without mishap. Onstage in Brel’s home town, Brussels, in 1990, Bowie began “Port Of Amsterdam,” only to discover he had forgotten the words (!), while 1994 saw “My Death” briefly resurrected during the critically panned 1:Outside tour of America.
1973 also heralded the release of the definitive, and completely over the top, cover of “Next” by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Frantic, crazy and addled, Harvey sang the tale of a young army inductee in a way no one, not even Brel, could have imagined, his thick Scottish brogue delivering the horrors of the military, the “mobile army whorehouses” and the unforgettable “wet head of my first case of gonorrhea.”
A revelation on album (the Next set, of course), the song took on even greater dimensions when the band performed it on British television’s Old Grey Whistle Test, complete with a bevy of masked violinists, and Harvey cradling his guitar, wildly cavorting in his standard French nautical stripes. Now available on the Live On The Test album, this version of “Next” is a classic, and would remain Brel’s most outrageous rendering until Marc Almond gave us “Jacky.”
After the spectacular Alex Harvey, the equally intense David Bowie, and of course, the image -dropping Bryan Ferry, rock apparently forgot about Brel until the Eighties dawned in aflamenco dashed flurry of ruffles and cabaret angst, in the form of Marc Almond’s Marc And The Mambas.
Though still collaborating with Dave Ball in Soft Cell, the synthipop duo which made him a star, Almond put together an ad hoc group of musicians in what would become one of his first solo projects. The Mambas had a flair for the fantastic, with long songs, beautifully arranged for pure pleasure, and Brel slipped easily into the world of subversive glamour which was the Mambas’ stock in trade. From the simple melodies that said so much, to the cabaret feel of the songs, everything about Brel appealed to the gutter heart of the chansonnier’s back streets that Almond loved so well. He knew he had to make these songs his own.
Surely fuelled by the Walker/Brel revival in 1981, the Mambas included “If You Go Away” on 1982’s Untitled debut album, but anyone reacting to the news with a “not again” groan was in for a genuine treat. Almond’s version of the oft sung song is enough to break a thousand hearts. He knew instinctively what was sweet and fragile in Brel’s songs, and was easily able to infuse his own voice within the lyric. Unlike any other performer before him, Almond turned in a performance of such bitter frailty that, if not always true to the song, certainly captured Brel’s original intent. It would be no surprise to find that Brel’s heart beats within Almond’s own chest.
The Mambas quickly followed the next year with a second album, Torment And Toreros, turning their attention this time to “The Bulls” (“Les Toros”), and also recording the song in February, 1983 for an as yet unreleased Peel Session. A delightful romp through the eyes of a young boy wishing to become a torero, in “The Bulls” Almond once again captured with perfection the nuances and high spirit of the original. Neither was this to be the swansong of the young Almond’s Brel-ian revelries.
Though both the Mambas and Soft Cell had by now disintegrated, Almond carried Brel with him in live performance through the rest of the decade, and in 1984 gifted his fan club with a now impossibly scarce live flexi-disc, featuring a characteristically impassioned rendering of “My Death.”
Another fledgling early eighties band, the Bolshoi, habitually performed “Amsterdam” as a set opener through this period, while Irish Goth shockers the Virgin Prunes would alsocover “My Death” live, although they never set the song down on vinyl. Subsequently, co -frontman Gavin Friday would resurface as a solo artist, and return to Brel with his debut, 1989’s Each Man Kills The Things He Loves.
He explains, “I wasn’t interested in playing old Prunes’ songs. I wanted to find my own identity.” Friday would find that in “Next.” Fusing his old themes of anger, love and pain with the French chanson, he said of “Next”, “I like the sentiment … it was like the whole punk angst thing, about not liking being told what to do. Brel, on stage, just spat it out, like punk. There’s that kind of streak in me.”
Similar energies inspired two subsequent revisions of that other, comparatively grisly, old standard, “Seasons In The Sun.” In 1993, Boyd Rice and former Strawberry Switchblade vocalist Rose McFowall included a frightening version of the song on Spell’s Seasons In The Sun album, a truly gorgeous collection of classic death songs. The flipside of that treatment, of course, was the freakily irreverent rendition served up by Seattle popsters The Squirrels, who combined the song with “The Hustle” (yes, that Hustle!) to create a truly unholy medley.
This might well be what a bunch of French musicains had in mind when they named their band Jacques Brel Massacre!
There remains, however, the boldest of all revisions of Brel’s work, within the confines of Momus, another mid 1980s band. Singer Nick Currie, unlike many of his contemporaries, was introduced to Brel, not through Walker or Bowie, or even Jacks, but through film. He remembers, “I lived in Montreal in the 70s and I used to get Thursday afternoons off school to go and see films in a shopping center near the airport. They were arty and strange films, and the strangest was called Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris.”
Brel himself immediately caught young Currie’s eye, that moody performance of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” rattling his soul to such an extent that “the whole thing gave off this strong odor of something morbid and vital at the same time, something hyper -intense and very adult. This music mapped closely some of my teenage anxieties about sex and death and it left a strong impression.
“But it took me another ten years to pluck up the courage to go out and buy a Jacques Brel record.”
Currie understood Brel completely, knew that “he could also be trashy, touchy, given to throw -away and ephemeral references, bitter and narcissistic”. What Currie needed to do for himself was to rework the songs, put himself into them rather than just recreate them. This bold move gives us a refreshing vision of Brel.
“When I became a singer, Brel was one of my role models. I was learning and playing his songs at the same time as writing my own. I found Shuman and McKuen’s translations missed the point completely. They turned Brel into a sort of flamboyant, decadent and romantic sophomore poet, whereas I thought he was the last of the Lumieres, a sort of singing Voltaire, jabbing with a lance of pure reason at the unsightly boils of European culture.”
The culmination of this revelation, in terms of Brel’s own songs, would be the three song Nicky EP in 1986, an extremely rare record which would later be appended to CD reissues of Momus’ Circus Maximus album.
Rather than simply reiterate, or even re -translate, Brel’s originals, Currie took the most audacious approach yet, rewriting the actual lyric to meet his own requirements. “If You Go Away,” for instance, becomes “Don’t Go Away,” while “Jacky” becomes “Nicky,” a fearlessly autobiographical song still, but one which ponders not Currie’s own life, but that of David Bowie, that other arch -interpreter of Brel’s original vision: “suppose some day in Bromley, Kent/I live my nightmare and I’m sent/to sing for blonde suburban women/before the wives of double glaziers….” Currie also recorded the first version of Brel’s 1977 “Voir Un Ami Pleurer” as “See A Friend In Tears,” and his take on the song is as moving as Brel’s own. Currie and Brel had momentarily become one.
And Brel has not left Currie. Although Nicky would be the beginning and end of official Brel releases for Momus, a cassette of Brel originals, titled (after another of Brel’s songs) L’Age D’Idiot, was made and distributed to friends in the mid to late eighties.
More recently, in May, 1997, Currie explained, “Brel casts a long shadow down my career. Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy told me last week I look like him (not the first time I’ve heard that). Ten years ago, I was showing interviewers from the New Musical Express Brel interviews on video instead of talking about my own work… I like the one from 1967 where he looks like Nick Cave, and says, in response to a question about his supposed misanthropy ‘I believe men are gods. And one day they will become that’.
“And ten years later Brel is still putting me in the shade. A review in today’s NME ridicules a record I just co-wrote and produced with Anthony Reynolds of the group Jack, How To Make Love. For this side project, we chose the group name Jacques, an explicit tribute to a persistent ghost.”
Neither would Marc Almond be able to exorcise the spirit of Brel. In 1989, Almond released a poignant and stunning tribute to the man who had captured so vital a part of his being, Jacques, an album which broadened the range of Brel’s songs in English by allowing listeners new translations of songs that had previously been available only in French.
While drawing on translations already available for many of the songs on the record, including reprises of “If You Go Away”, “The Bulls” and My Death”, Almond felt it important to diversify. He worked closely with Paul Buck, a translator he had met while preparing songs for Violent Silence, the Georges Bataille tribute festival, reworking some songs and translating new ones before recording finally began in 1986.
Jacques was, for Almond, a straightforward record, not intended to be a chart buster (unlike “Jacky” two years later). And indeed, the album slipped quietly onto the streets, garnering critical respect, but precious few sales. But Almond’s tribute to his muse was also a treasure for his fans. Anyone expecting the glittering camp and torch of Almond’s prior solo work, of course, would have been disappointed. But for admirers of Brel, familiar with the full range of Almond’s work, Jacques was a stunning achievement.
Almond recorded phenomenal versions of “The Devil (O.K.)” and, for the first time in English, the impassioned “I’m Coming” (“J’Arrive”); equally new to English ears were the tender “Litany For A Return” (Litane Pour Un Retour”), “We Must Look” (“Il Nous Faut Regarder”), “If You Need” (“S’Il Te Faut”) and “The Lockman” (“L’Eclusier”), all rendered in true Brelian form. These songs in their necessary simplicity, needed no twist, carrying themselves as they were first recorded.
Also included on Jacques is a new version of “Next”. Because of earlier covers, namely Harvey’s, the song had taken on an indelible image; Almond and Buck, then, returned to Brel’s original lyrics and reinstated them, faithfully reproducing the song, stripping it back and reinvigorating Brel’s own, very different, dynamics.
And in a touching farewell to a man who meant so much to so many, Almond included “The Town Fell Asleep” (“La Ville S’Endormait”) a song from Brel’s final album. And this, too, speaks volumes for Almond’s devotion; whereas most artists relied only on the favorites, Almond painstakingly pushed the barriers farther, exploring songs and making them his own, choosing compositions that would normally be overlooked or discarded. He has truly become the keeper of Brel’s music, allowing it to breathe on within the confines of this last decade of the century.
Paul Buck has said, “Jacques Brel died in 1978, just as Marc Almond started out as a singer. I’d like to suggest that some of Brel’s spirit transferred itself during that October night.”
And perhaps it did. One wonders just what Brel would have made of all of these songs, of all of these performers, over the past twenty years. Unfortunately we’ll never know. Brel died less than a year after the release of his final album.
Having got his cinematic ambitions out of his system, Brel became a beginner yet again, only this time it was life itself, not work or art, which he wished to explore. Brel was a man who was perpetually haunted by the need to escape, to take in as much of life as he could, fearing that if he didn’t, it would ebb, that death would grow too close.
Living comfortably on the many royalty checks he was by now receiving, Brel took up first flying, then boating. He earned his yachtsman certificate in 1974, and set off on a voyage around the globe aboard his own L’Askoy II. He loved the open sea, the wild waters around him; they made him feel more alive than he had ever felt. But he was tired, of his reputation, of the press that hounded him, and of the realization that his own mortality was catching up with him.
Brel was diagnosed with lung cancer in the fall of 1974, and took time out from his Homeric voyage to undergo treatment and surgery for his condition. Refusing to be a prisoner of such a devastating disease, however, Brel was back on his yacht a mere six weeks after surgery, clowning for the camera with a childlike frivolity in home movies. Then he set sail.
L’Askoy II brought him to the Marquesas Islands, in the South Pacific, in the fall of 1975. After a year on the oceans, exploring in whatever port caught his fancy, Brel found his second, and final, adopted home.
With his latest partner, Madly Bami, he set up house in a white bungalow surrounded by lush vegetation. He loved the people of the Marquesas, they were warm and friendly, and they loved Brel for who he was, not for the star he had become. He felt comfortable with that. Often he’d fly his small plane to neighboring Tahiti, picking up supplies for himself and others in the village, with as little effort as city dwellers would run to the corner drugstore.
He was also writing. Fully relaxed, and without the taxing schedule that had dogged him for twenty years, his pen scribbled the songs that would become his first new album in a decade, Brel. Contacting Rauber, arrangements were made for Brel to travel quietly to Paris to commence recording.
Although the songs were solid, recording at the Barclay studios was far more difficult this time around. There was a tension between Brel and Rauber over Brel’s insistence that Miche and his children not be contacted. Added to this was Brel’s fragile health. The cancer had left him fatigued, and although Brel stubbornly insisted that the recording process be as live as possible, the three take rule was hard to keep up.
Yet, the songs on Brel are strong. An album comprised primarily of ballads, it also contained a few surprises, like the startlingly, contemporary “Les F…” with it’s disco -esque arrangement, and “Le Lion” where an overtly seductive woman repeatedly calls out “Jacques, Jacques.”
But outside of these aberrations, Brel turned out a remarkably beautiful album. Standouts included “JoJo”, a touching song for Georges (JoJo) Pasquier, who had been Brel’s friend, confessor and confidant from 1955 until his death in August, 1974. Heartbreaking in its message, “Six feet below the ground, JoJo, you are not dead/Six feet below the ground, JoJo, I love you still.” one can’t help but wonder if Brel knew his own time was short in delivering this message to a dear friend.
“Les Marquises” is a quiet, almost otherworldly portrait of the islands he had grown to love, the place where he had been happiest. It’s a song not necessarily about specifics, but more about how the islands made Brel feel, and how he felt about them, and it is fitting that this final track is the best on the record.
Brel knew life was too short to hang around Paris and plug the record, but he was disappointed, too, with the marketing campaign that had been cooked up leading into the release of Brel. He wanted the album to come out very quietly, with no fanfare.
Instead, Brel was hyped with secrecy. Advance copies of the album were shipped in boxes sealed with a lock, whose combination would only be given out by Barclay on the day before the album hit the stores. Advance orders were enormous, and magazines cried out that this was a most mysterious Brel album.
Brel, of course, would only have added to the frenzy with his reclusive ways, and all the speculation regarding the state of his cancer. Long before the record hit the streets, Brel and Bami left the country, stopping in Switzerland before returning to the Marquesas.
On November 8, 1977, Brel was released, and the stampede through record stores to snatch up the album was more akin to the release of a rare Beatles recording than that of a Belgian vocalist, who had removed himself from the business a decade previous. It didn’t matter. Fans in both France and Belgium couldn’t get enough and the record went straight into the charts at number one. In Britain, Brel’s historical resonance was sufficient for the music press there to swoop on the record, even at the height of Punk Rock. Around the world (although not, strangely, in America), the excitement was almost tangible.
Brel listened to all this fuss from the South Pacific, and continued to live his quiet life. Again, he wasn’t feeling well, and in July, 1978, he flew to Tahiti following a serious relapse. The cancer, it transpired, had spread to his other lung, and now it was only a matter of time. Flying to Paris, he checked himself into the hospital, only to be forced to flee the enormous press surge which hounded him, whatever move he made.
Incredibly, the tumor would shrink during his final months, giving him the respite of a recuperation period in Provence. Short lived though it was, Brel had managed to escape one last time. But finally, the illness proved to be too much, and Brel was admitted to the hospital once more. He died in the very early morning hours of October 9, 1978. In death, perhaps, Jacques Brel could become a beginner all over again, secure in the knowledge that his songs would continue to do his living for him.
It has been said that Jacques Brel, toward the end of his life, wondered if people ever really understood what he did with his music. To look at the list of musicians that Brel touched with his songs, and the numerous reissues and compilations that appeared after his death, the answer is crystal clear. (AH Goldmine, 1997)