Sunday, 8 April 2012

UNE VIE INTENSE Remembering Jacques Brel

Performing live at l'Olympia, 1964

Ce qui compte dans une vie, c'est l'intensité d'une vie, ce n'est pas la durée d'une vie.

[What counts in a life is the intensity of that life, not how long that life endures.]

Stirring, theatrical, passionate, ironic, funny, lyrical, tragic, sentimental – these are just a few of the words that can be used to describe the music of Jacques Brel, the great Belgian chansonnier [singer-songwriter] who was born on this day in 1929.

Le plat pays   
Live in concert, c. 1966
See below for my (very clumsy) English translation of the lyrics

Brel's career must rate as one of the most unlikely and most astonishing in the history of show business.  His father was the director of a company which manufactured cardboard boxes and it was partly to escape the same dull fate that he began performing with his local church group as a boy, first as an actor in self-created plays and then as a vocalist, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.  In 1950 he married Thérèse Michielsen, his childhood sweetheart, and within two years was appearing regularly in the music-halls and cabarets of his native Brussels.   

In 1953, after being invited to perform on Belgian radio, Brel signed to Philips Records, releasing his first single La Foire [The Fair] in March of that year.  Soon afterwards he moved to Paris, where the intensity of his live performances soon earned him the affection and respect of audiences and his fellow chansonniers alike.  His big break came when Juliette Greco, then one of France's most popular singers, recorded a version of his song Ça Va (also known as Le Diable, or 'The Devil' in English).  In 1954, Philips released his debut LP Jacques Brel et ses chansons and in July he made the first of what would be many triumphant appearances at l'Olympia, the most famous music-hall in Paris and the future scene of some his most electrifying, emotion-charged performances.

Live in concert, c. 1966  
With English subtitles

As popular as his records were, it was on the concert stage that Brel truly excelled as a performer, using his large expressive body to act out the stories his poetic and very dramatic chansons told in a way that borrowed as much from the work of comedians like Chaplin and Jacques Tati as it did from the chansonnier tradition personified by artists like Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Trénet.  Unlike Chevalier and his friend (and contemporary) Charles Aznavour, Brel refused to re-record his songs in English, explaining that his music had come from a European tradition and had to be performed in its original European style or risk being deprived of its meaning.  His refusal to sing in English didn't prevent him from selling out Carnegie Hall in New York City when he appeared there in 1965 or keep Rod McKuen from translating his song Ne me quitte pas [Don't Leave Me] into the enormously successful hit If You Go Away a song that would go on to be recorded literally dozens of times by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Russian hard rock group Mumiy Troll.  Another song translated by McKuen, Le Moribond [The Dying Man], became a worldwide hit for Canadian singer Terry Jacks in 1974 under the title Seasons in the Sun.   

In 1966 Brel announced his intention to retire from the concert stage – an announcement greeted with horror by his fans and viewed as something of a minor tragedy in France and many other parts of Europe.  But he was adamant, insisting that he'd achieved all he could achieve as a cabaret performer and needed to pursue new challenges.  In 1967 he appeared in André Cayatte's film Les risques du métier [The Risks of the Profession], playing the role of a teacher unjustly accused of raping one of his female students.  He would go on to appear in eight more films, two of which, including his final film Le Far West, he also wrote, directed, and starred in. 1968 saw him surprise his fans again by translating and starring as Don Quixote in the French version of the successful Broadway musical Man of La Mancha.  Doing this was a very risky move in pre-Les Misérables France.  As he said in 1973: 'C'est dangereux la comédie musicale, surtout en France, c'est trés dangereux.' ['It's dangerous to do musical comedies, especially in France, it's very dangerous.']  It was the danger that drew him to the project, just as it did to learning to fly his own plane and sail his beloved yacht, the Askoy II, through the South Pacific with only his mistress to keep him company.   

Brel was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1974, which an operation soon revealed to be in its terminal stages.  He spent his final years flying, sailing and living on the Askoy II and, when this became too much for him to manage, in a rented house on the island of Oa Hiva.  He returned to Paris in 1977 to record what would be his final album Les Marquises [The Marquesas], named for the beautiful group of islands he now called home.  The album was released on 17 November of that same year and became an instant gold record despite his request that no major publicity campaign be undertaken to promote it.  He did not return to France again until shortly before his death on 9 October 1978.  His body was later returned to Oa Hiva, where it was buried not far from the grave of artist Paul Gaugin.

French TV performance, c. 1964
The song is about a man waiting for a girl who promises 
to show up for a date with him each week but never does.

Click HERE to watch more great performances by JACQUES BREL.  You can also click HERE to visit the English version of his official website and HERE to hear DAVID BOWIE perform his song Amsterdam in English.  And, if that's not enough, you can click HERE to hear SCOTT WALKER perform another great BREL song, My Death, in English as well.  

[The Flat Country] 

With the North Sea for a dumping ground    
And only waves of sand dunes to stop the waves    
And the rocks that grow sick of the waves that pass them  
And which never stop passing in the heart 
With always more shadows to come  
With the wind from the east, hear it clutching on to    
The flat country that is mine    

With cathedrals the only mountains    
Their black steeples like greasy poles    
Where stone devils tear down the clouds  
With the passing of days your only journey    
And roads in the rain your only goodnight    
With the wind from the west, hear it wanting    
The flat country that is mine    

With a sky so low that a canal loses itself    
With a sky so low that it makes itself humble    
With a sky so grey that a canal hangs itself  
With a sky so grey that it has to forgive itself    
With the north wind that comes to tear itself apart  
With the wind from the north, listen to it crack apart    
The flat country that is mine    

With Italy that flows down through the river Escaut  
With blonde Frida when she becomes Margot    
When the sons of November return to us in May    
When the plains are steaming and trembling in July    
When the wind laughs, when the wind's in the wheat    
When the wind's in the south, listen to it singing to    
The flat country that is mine  

Translated by BR  

*This is one of many fine songs that Brel wrote and sang about his native Belgium.    

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.  

You might also enjoy:   
LA CHANSON EST LA VIE #1: Claude Nougaro
LA CHANSON EST LA VIE #2: Jacques Dutronc  
JAZZ ICONS #2: Django Reinhardt  

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