Wednesday, December 29, 2010

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."

They walk without a sound
Down forgotten streets
Their shadows kiss the ground
Their footsteps sing a song
That's ended before it's begun
They walk without a sound
The desperate ones

Just like the tiptoe moth
They dance before the flame
They've burned their hearts so much
That death is just a game
And if love calls again
So foolishly they run
They run without a sound
The desperate ones

I know the road they're on
I've walked their crooked mile
A hundred times or more
I drank their cup of bile
They watch their dreams go down
Behind the setting sun
They walk without a sound
The desperate ones

And underneath the bridge
The waters sweet and deep
There is the journey's end
The land of endless sleep
They cry to us for help
We think it's all in fun
They cry without a sound
The desperate ones

Let he who threw the stone at them
Stand up and take a bow
He knows the verb to love
But he'll never know how
On the bridge of nevermore
They disappear one by one
Disappear without a sound
The desperate ones

Here is Brel himself singing Les désespérés.

While much of Brel's lyrics are often dark but he did not leave his fans in hopeless despair. In what could be his most beautiful song, and one of the most beautiful songs of all time, Quand on n'a que l'amour (If We Only Have Love) Brel lays out the importance of love in human existence. For me this is one of the most meaningful songs I have ever experienced.

If we only have love
Then tomorrow will dawn
And the days of our years
Will rise on that morn

If we only have love
To embrace without fears
We will kiss with our eyes
We will sleep without tears

If we only have love
With our arms open wide
Then the young and the old
Will stand at our side

If we only have love
Love that's falling like rain
Then the parched desert earth
Will grow green again

If we only have love
For the hymn that we shout
For the song that we sing
Then we'll have a way out

If we only have love
We can reach those in pain
We can heal all our wounds
We can use our own names

If we only have love
We can melt all the guns
And then give the new world
To our daughters and sons

If we only have love
Then Jerusalem stands
And then death has no shadow
There are no foreign lands

If we only have love
We will never bow down
We'll be tall as the pines
Neither heroes nor clowns

If we only have love
Then we'll only be men
And we'll drink from the Grail
To be born once again

Then with nothing at all
But the little we are
We'll have conquered all time
All space, the sun, and the stars.

Below is Johnny Mathis doing his rendition of the song.

My last comment is for Spencer Day: do it! Brel is a perfect match for you. Below is some vintage Brel for those who want more, many will find the English version far more interesting however.

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