Jacques Brel Rediscovered by Angela Caldin

It was in Auckland Town Hall of all places that I rediscovered the brilliant performer that was Jacques Brel. In the sixties, I used to listen transfixed to his wonderful numbers, ranging from powerful love songs to deeply felt commentaries on the wrongs of society. In Auckland, four excellent singers – two women, Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Julia Deans, and two men, Tama Waipara and Jon Toogood – performed many of his most popular songs, some in French and some in English, holding the audience at the town hall enthralled for a good two hours.

The life of Jacques Brel

Brel was born in 1929 in Belgium, in the Brussels suburb of Schaerbeek, one of Belgium’s few famous sons. His background was Catholic and he showed an early interest in both writing and philanthropy. In 1952, he began writing songs and performing them at family gatherings and on the Brussels’ cabaret circuit, but his family and friends were shocked by the outspoken lyrics and passionate, emotional performances. In 1953, in spite of being married with two daughters, he left for Paris where his career began to blossom and a hectic schedule of constant touring followed. At the end of the decade, Brel had gained an impressive and enthusiastic following across France and his emotional and impassioned performances were wildly popular with audiences. His reputation soon increased beyond France in the wider world. During the sixties, he became tired of touring and retired from singing to pursue other projects including film, the stage, aviation and sailing. He lived life to the maximum, but his early religious belief did not survive; instead, he placed all his faith in the flawed human race and the inevitability of death. A life-long smoker, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in the early 1970s and died of a pulmonary embolism on 9 October 1978, at the early age of 49. He left a trail of women in his wake, not least his long suffering wife, Micheline, and his three daughters.

The Songs of Jacques Brel

Le diable (ça va) is a song about western arrogance, avarice, the legacy of colonialism and bombs exploding on railway lines; a song about the death and destruction in which the devil rejoices. Fils de… is a deeply felt anti-war song concentrating on the shared youth of those sent to war to die no matter who their fathers are. One of his most famous songs, Amsterdam, documents the lives of the sailors on shore leave in the port of Amsterdam, eating, drinking, spending, brawling and womanising, but most of all living life to the full, just as he did. Brel wrote equally compellingly about old people in Les vieux and the marginalised in Les déséspérés.

But it’s probably for his love songs that Brel is best known, because they’ve been so often translated (sometimes very badly) into English. Perhaps his most famous is Ne me quitte pas in which he begs his lover not to leave him, promising all kinds of treasures if she will stay:

‘Moi je t’offrirai

des perles de pluie

venues de pays

où il ne pleut pas’.

The language is poetic, evocative and beautiful, as he becomes almost slavish and sinister towards the end of the song. In Les vieux amants, he recalls a tempestuous twenty year-long love affair with someone that he still loves deeply in spite of everything they have been through:

‘Moi, je sais tous tes sortilèges

Tu sais tous mes envoûtements.’

And Brel always gives us three or four or even five verses of articulate, literate and wonderfully haunting language, rich, varied and packed with marvellous metaphor.

The Performances

As a performer, he was hypnotic, giving his all to the audience through his songs with flailing arms and dramatic gestures. If you watch some of the live recordings on YouTube, you’ll see how he ended his shows bathed in sweat. In spite of his huge mouth, terrible teeth and flaring nostrils, he was magnetic and attractive on stage as well as off. He had a verve, freshness, and sincerity about him which audiences loved. And his pronunciation of the wonderful French he wrote is both clear and delightful, with every word distinct – I have only to hear him pronounce the word l’eau with a sonorous rounded ‘o’ for something inside me to melt.

Who Jacques Brel Influenced

He became a major influence on English-speaking songwriters and performers such as David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Marc Almond and Rod McKuen. English translations of his songs have been recorded by many top performers including Ray Charles, Judy Collins, John Denver, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield and Tom Jones. He influenced a whole generation of singers and songwriters even though his singing career was comparatively short. Brel said:

I don’t write poetry, I am no poet. I write songs. Poetry has nothing to do with songs.

After you’ve listened to the songs below, you might find that you disagree with him.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGRA-f43FPY          Le diable (ça va)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFbvSEh2Zm0         Fils de …

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2kkr0e_dTQ         Amsterdam

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNkydsPK6ww       Ne me quitte pas

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7oNGtr8QFQ        Les vieux amants

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2 Comments on “Jacques Brel Rediscovered by Angela Caldin

    • But he had a certain something. Women adored him and he adored quite a few of them. Nowadays he’d probably have got his teeth fixed. With his mouth closed he had a definite magnetism.

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