Monday, October 13, 2008

Brel encore

Another follow-up, this time to last week's Jacques Brel's post. Thanks to Charles Bremner's blog on The Times website, I learn that the auction of memorabilia was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Belgian singer's death. In discussing his enduring appeal, Bremner touches on the fact that Brel does not enjoy the full recognition and credit he merits in the English speaking world, and yet:

For people who lived those years, his anthems -- Madeleine, Les Bourgeois, Le Plat Pays, La Valse à Quatre Temps, Le Port d'Amsterdam -- are as much part of the soul as Beatles tunes are for English-speakers of that generation. Non-Francophones certainly know Ne Me Quitte Pas, which was reprised by Sinatra, Nina Simone, David Bowie and many others as If You Go Away.

If you want English versions of his songs, Scott Walker's your man as far as I'm concerned (Here's Mathilde for an example, poor picture quality but never mind). However Brel's been done a far graver dis-service by the Anglophone world in the transmission of his songs. You see the one that virtually everybody does know – sorta – is Seasons in the Sun. Terry Jack's mawkish dirge is an "adaptation" of Brel's Le Moribond; it was more recently given a whole extra layer of ghastliness by Westlife, the thought of it haunts me still.

This might help explain why Brel does not enjoy the status he ought to have in this part of the world. And yet, as you will ready perceive from listening to the original at the top of this post, Jacks didn't so much translate the song as perform a form of musical cannibalism in which he dismembered, chewed up and then regurgitated Le Moribond in a wholly different form. Brel's song is far spikier and terser; more bitter, cynical and subtle – and of course has far more humanity and pathos than the cloying, false and sentimental thing which has someone become so well known.

As a belated tribute on the 30th anniversary of Jacques Brel's death, it's worth remembering this.

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