The Desperate Ones: Jacques Brel's music
I recently got back a box of CDs that were mine but left someplace by accident. Among them was perhaps my favorite album of all time: Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Brel, I regret to say seems fairly forgotten these days. Yet I find his lyrics haunting and meaningful. Brel tells stories with his music. The poetic nature of his lyrics means they can be appreciated even when the music is absent.
One of the new songwriters and performers that I like is Spencer Day. Day's style reminds me of Brel is some ways. While their music is different their lyrics both tell stories and the story-telling aspect of music has often been lost with contemporary artists. After attending a concert by Day in Los Angeles I suggested he give Brel some consideration. He wrote me saying that he just flew back to the U.S. from Paris and had been listening to Brel on the trip. I certainly hope to see him do a revival of the famed Brel album. So many of the Brel songs fit Day perfectly.
I am relistening to the Brel album this week while running errands. And I am trying to specially concentrate on the words that Brel uses to convey his ideas. His message is often dark but always important. His thoughts on death and war resonate more and more each day. Much of what he wrote was about the 60s and 70s. But those messages remain pertinent today. His song about the youth movement, Les Timides, is wonderfully descriptive of the anticipation of the young in light of the world they faced. It was the era of hippies and yippies and anti-war protests, it was the age of making love not war. Brel tells the story of a young girl, Frieda, who leaves home to join the youth movement. He describes her appearing on the street in an unnamed big city where the young congregate
On the street where young strangers travel
on magic carpets
floating lightly in beaded caravans.
He repeatedly describes the street corners where the young meet and each time he gives a slightly different image, but relevant one:
On the street where the new dreams gather...
On the street where she's lost in wonder...
On the street where the beat's electric...
On the street where the future gathers....
Just that last image alone is incredibly powerful. The very idea of the future gathering seems counter-intuitive but makes perfect sense. The young are the future and the young do gather in various places. To describe is as "where the future gathers" brings home a very different view of the young than we usually get, especially when we consider young people who are just "hanging out" someplace.
Brel did not perform in English, though the English translations of his songs are available. He was a Belgian but lived much of his life in Paris. He performed in French and periodically in Dutch, such as his Marieke. Brel died of lung cancer in 1978 of lung cancer. Brel did receive some recognition in his lifetime, but not enough in my opinion. One of his songs was translated into English as Seasons in the Sun and it became quite popular. In 1968 a revue of his music was performed in Greenwich Village under the title Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The performers were the wonderful Elly Stone, Mort Shuman, Shawn Elliot and Alice Whitfield. In my opinion the version they did of Brel's music remains the best in English and other versions pale in comparison. And I really can't recommend Marc Almond's renditions of anything by Brel, they were musical massacres.
The collection was released as one of the first "music videos" in 1975 as a joint French/Canadian production, long before the music video genre was widely accepted. The film has no dialogue, just the music of Brel and critics were not pleased, perhaps because the genre was so new. It was the film version that first introduced me to Brel and I will be looking for a copy of the film for my library. I still have a copy I taped off of television somewhere in boxes of old VHS tapes but I think a fresh copy is worth getting.
One song I listened to today and that I found particularly meaningful was The Desperate Ones (Les désespérés). Just as Les Timides focused on the promise and optimism of the youth movement of the 60s I suspect this song looks at the dark side of the same movement, those who dropped out, got high and then never were able to get their lives together again. Even without the music the words evoke powerful responses, at least they do in me. Elly Stone said of Brel's music: "It makes people feel."