Who is Jacques Brel?
The clip above is a fitting introduction to the many facets of the “master of the modern chanson“. In a brief minute we glean a little of the wit and sardonic humor, the emotional honesty, the seeming distrust of contented people, and the occasional false modesty that are so “Brel”.
France’s greatest singer-songwriter (though he was actually a Belgian of Flemish descent) always seemed burdened with an acute awareness of humanity’s shortcomings. Yet his cynicism was tempered by an appreciation for the ironies that color our existence.
His brilliant lyrics – like the man himself – are sharp, biting, funny, clever, and unabashedly intense. Brel’s songs exuded passion and feeling for life in all of its forms. Whether it was wide-eyed hope and romantic longing, scorn and derision, or death and despair, Brel seemed to be an unguarded man who was unafraid to acknowledge, invite, and fully embrace feelings into his heart (very “Zen”, in fact!).
Below is a short sample of some of his best work (in my opinion). These are by no means the best versions of these songs but they are subtitled. Feel free to go on YouTube and search for better videos.
In Le Moribond (roughly: The Dying Man), he calmly speaks of his imminent death, noting that “It’s tough, dying in the Spring-time”. He says goodbye to his best friend, his priest, his rival, and his wife with equal parts tenderness, respect, scorn, and regret.
“I want you all to laugh, dance, and have fun like like a bunch of loonies when they put me in ‘the hole’.”
Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me), is perhaps his most famous song (recorded by many artists, including Sinatra).
“I will make you a kingdom where love will be the king, where love will be the law, and you will be the queen.”
This is one of the best versions available online and I thought it was worth using even though it is not translated. An excellent and subtitled version can be found here (embedding was not available).
Brel, the original lord of brooding, at his most visceral…
Transporting us to the port of Amsterdam and its gritty surfaces and drunken sailors…
In Au Suivant, one of Brel’s finest live performances, the haunting sound of “Next!” is heard both in the whorehouse where he loses his virginity and in the cunning of nations sending young men to their death.
And finally, Brel speaks about fear…