Brel - Homage to a Proto-Punk
7th Greatest Belgian Writes World’s Greatest Love Song (Homage to a Proto-Punk)
In the Philips recording studio in Brussels a man takes a last drag of his Boyard’s Caporal, and steps up to the mic. The orchestration is sparse, just a violin and a piano. The piano is played by the singer’s regular accompanist for the last three years, and the song’s co-composer, Gérard Jouannest, nicknamed ‘Nikita’ because of his communist sympathies.
What thoughts are in the singer’s mind: his estranged family, Miche, the kids, the home he so rarely visits? As a Catholic he cannot divorce, and, anyway, he still loves Miche. She’s not a showbiz wife, more often than not they’re on different wavelengths, but she is the mother of his children, and in 1959 even the rebellious did not easily break their vows. But now there’s a mistress to complicate things. He’s been away from his homeland, ‘le plat pays,’ for too long. The prodigal son has returned, and despite his ambiguous attitude to Belgium, maybe he never wants to leave it again, or maybe he doesn’t want Belgium, his wife and his kids to leave him.
The tapes roll, the violin breaks the silence: an eerie glissando, Theremin-like, more horror film than romantic melody. The piano picks out a leitmotif - the sound of a music box winding down.
The singer closes his eyes and leans in a little to the mic.
Paris. I was working the third of my four-year IT degree in a software house in Val de Fontenay, in the Parisian suburbs. I’d found a one bedroom, no bathroom studio flat which suited me. It was at the top of a building in a secluded, 19th Century courtyard in the VIIth Arrondissement.
In summer and early autumn I could perch on the window ledge with a glass of red wine, some cheese and crisps and survey the rooftops of the most beautiful city in the world. I enjoyed my Steppenwolf existence. By night, I’d walk to the Boul’ Mich to take in a film, a coffee or a beer.
Paris is a shambolic city off the main drag, full of dark, cobbled alleys, secret turnings and hidden thoroughfares. There was a cinema in the Vth, which showed the Granada film of The Doors pretty much the whole time I was in Paris. I wanted to be Morrison. I must’ve gone a dozen times to watch the preening and the posturing, that shamanic dance he did, the skipping parade through the Roundhouse with the joyful and the stoned in his wake.
One night after a show, I hit a bar I hadn’t visited before. My ‘boisson de choix’ was a large Pernod with a dash of lemonade. This would horrify the traditionalists among the bar-staff -guys who had probably served Hemingway cocktails, and watched Joyce, Picasso and Modigliani get steamed on wine and absinthe. In fact, the bar could have been the one in Manet’s ‘The Absinthe Drinkers’: rustic furniture and purple-nosed street sweepers. The glass front opened onto the cobbled streets and, it being a pleasant October evening, the sickly mix of ordure, moto-bécane exhaust and cooking floated in on the breeze.
The barman, was, for a change, a friendly type. Not Parisian of course. I chased the Pernod with a Gueuze - Brussels champagne. Strong and dark and rich, it hit the spot. Sat at a table with the beer-mat for company, I watched the game of life play out before me.
In the corner, a juke-box would occasionally break the silence. Some students were dancing to their French rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a cliché too often rehearsed - the French and rock ‘n’ roll. Import an alien culture, fail to distil its essence, embarrass yourself before the rest of the world - voilá. A simple formula. Even Pat Boone must’ve laughed at them!
After the students had sat down and the café had sunk back to a mid-volume level of chit-chat, interspersed with bouts of that intolerable shoulder-shrugging the French substitute for conversation, I got up. Moving unsteadily over I scanned the choices on the juke-box. Not a lot I recognised - Halliday, Hardy... Brel. Jacques Brel - at least he had the saving grace of not being French. I’d heard some of the covers: Scott Walker, Bowie, Bassey, Terry Jacks. Familiarity in an unfamiliar world.
I slipped in a couple of francs, pushed the buttons and waited for the good times to roll. The music hit me like an existential crisis - violin, piano, voice, wafting across the smoky room, like the saxophone solo in Sartre’s ‘La Nausée’.
‘Ne me quitte pas’... From the first line, I was hooked. The broken, plaintive cry of the wolf. The meaning transcended language.
In English poetry or in a lyric, you’d expect the key-line to be repeated at most three times - the three-card trick - some primitive call-and-response synaptic line, rhetorically satisfying the Classicists need - thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis in identikit. Brel was singing from the depths of his darkest hell; the requirement for classical structures had taken leave along with his senses. His voice on the edge of tears, quietly screaming ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ he repeats the line not thrice but four times,: ‘Ne me quitte pas’.
The second and third verse are full of promises, full of hyperbole yet full of sadness, like Dylan’s impossible wish: ‘May you stay forever young’, offering pearls of rain from countries where rain never falls.
Le rouge et le noir / Ne s'épousent-ils pas?
Le rouge et le noir - red, the army uniform, black the priest’s robe? Symbols of state and church. The irresistible force, the immovable object of French society. Religion and state - separate. Brel asks, ‘Can they not marry?’ Like oil can marry water? Maybe red for love, black for death? Or just the sun setting red into the black maw of night?
The final verse
Laisse-moi devenir L'ombre de ton ombre L'ombre de ta main L'ombre de ton chien
Abasement on the grandest scale - Let me become/The shadow of your shadow/The shadow of your hand/The shadow of your dog (!).
No pride left to lose, no ‘cool’ worth preserving, nothing but the need for her to come back. He is in the gutter, but he can’t muster the will to look up at the stars. Further out than Iggy: ‘I don’t wanna be your dog, I’ll be the shadow of your dog’.
Squeezing out one desperate, last: Ne me quitte pas, the violin fades with two repeated 4ths in the upper register, and the world returned to its chatter. Like a half-remembered dream, I write these lines nearly 30 years later, but as I turn on the CD and as the violin begins its snaking intro, I am yet sat at that table in that café, the milky smoke of Pernod twisting in the glass before my eyes. A personal counterpoint to Peel’s Teenage Kicks.
Brel’s work covers a spectrum too broad for most English sensibilities: moments of Cohen and Dylan interspersed with vaudeville, Victoria Wood and Sinatra. (For those of a decent vintage, you may remember the late Jake Thackray, a true afficionado of Brel, on the Braden shows of the 60s). Brel had no Presley, no Cochran, no Berry - Brel had Chevalier, Piaf, Brassens.
He was also a consummate actor, appearing in several films, not in the way a Bowie or a Dylan ‘graced’ the big screen with their rock-star presence, but as a genuine actor, again, not something the Anglo-Saxon mentality can attune to with ease. He can act out songs, maybe overplay them, as in Les Bonbons (another personal favourite), but he can also bring that extra level of emotion to the table.
trakMARX is ostensibly about punk. What is punk? It’s an energy, an attitude, a certain nostalgie de la boue, a longing for the perverse, the alien, even the unspeakable. Brel is, by that definition, punk. Nothing in common with that other Belgian punk Plastic Bertrand, Brel is the genuine article. Anger, guts, emotion, raw energy and a soupon of weirdness, dished up in the clothing of a Francophone chansonnier.
Brel is not well served by his translators, in fairness, because Brel is, like any great master, untranslatable. Treat Brel like you would any World Music artist. We can no sooner assimilate the Franco-Belgian culture simply because of its geographical proximity, than we can the Malian, the Aboriginal, the Inuit. Language is only partly the problem. The sensitivities of a Belgian Catholic who flourished in the 50s and 60s are as alien as our own childhood.
But listen to the recordings, with some crib notes, and hear the passion and energy in works like ‘Au Suivant’ (‘Next’, covered by the Alex Harvey Band for whom the song could have been written), about a young soldier waiting in line at an army field brothel, or ‘Amsterdam’ (bowdlerised by Bowie), drinking, infidelity, death, and, should your grasp of French go no further than ordering une biere blonde, I guarantee you will feel the skin prickle, the heart beat faster and a Eurostar booking to Brussels go to the top of your ‘to do’ list: punk without prejudice.
One week after hearing Ne Me Quitte Pas in that café, Brel was dead. I’d discovered him just as he’d come back to a Paris hospital for some desperate last treatment for lung cancer, brought on by the prodigious smoking habit he’d acquired since his youth.
He is buried in Atuona, Hiva Oa, one of the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia, next to the grave of Gaugin. Last year, Vlaamse Radio- en Televisieomroep - The Flemish equivalent of the BBC, voted him the 7th Greatest Belgian. 7th Greatest Belgian writes World’s Greatest Love Song? You decide.
(This is the full version with the Rod McKuen translation. The McKuen version, covered by many, Sinatra included, stands up as a song, without ever quite getting it).
Reference: Olivier Todd - Jacques Brel, Une Vie ISBN: 2221011929
Brian Williams – tMx 25 – 06/06
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