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Sunday, 22 August 2010

~Kitten Wine~#15: Jacques Brel, And The Poetry Of Desolation

It was always inevitable that I would run into the words and music of Jacques Brel one day. He had already been a major influence on some of the artists I admired; David Bowie, Marc Almond, Dusty Springfield, to those I couldn't live without; Momus and Scott Walker. Momus, Walker and Almond had all recorded entire collections of Brel's work, so it was obvious we would collide one day. I just didn't expect it to be such a long strange path to his door....

It all began in the late October of 1989.....SHE had gone, and this time for good, the sting of anguish still hung on me like a fresh tattoo. It was a Tuesday night, the first Tuesday since early April that we hadn't been together. I had a bit of a flu coming on so decided just to stay in with a bottle of Jack Daniels and the four Scott Walker albums I had recently acquired. They had been a bit of a bargain...through Record Collector magazine I had managed to pick up Scott Walker's first four solo albums for £40. This was quite something as I had seen both 'Scott 3' and 'Scott 4' for sale in RC for over £60 EACH.
The rest of my family had gone away on holiday that afternoon so I was alone in the house. I know what you're thinking....empty house, broken heart, melancholic music, Jack Daniels, flu remedy accident waiting to happen, right? Wrong....somehow I felt both uplifted and soothed as I listened to the four albums in chronological order. There were certain songs that I felt did the job better than others, and as I perused the sleeve notes found that the songs I connected most with were those written by a certain J Brel(as the label had it). The three song Brel finale of 'Scott 3' especially; 'Funeral Tango', 'Sons Of...' and 'If You Go Away' in particular was simply miraculous. Scott's interpretation of 'If You Go Away' in particular sounded, at that moment, like the greatest piece of words and music combined in all musical history. I played it over and over again. Better than any Beecham's Powders.

I thanked Scott and Jacques for their combined efforts in getting me through the longest night of the soul and made a point to find out more about Brel and check out his own work.

What you have to remember is that back in 1989/90 there were no huge CD reissue campaigns on the go, in fact there weren't really an awful lot of CDs of old music at all, it was all new stuff that was being put out on the spiffy new format. And there was certainly no Internet!
Every time I went to Glasgow I tried to find Brel albums or CDs but to no avail. Then one day, in the late Summer of 1990, in Tower Records Import section....there were THREE Jacques Brel 12" vinyl albums....a kind of 'hits' compilation, a Live In Paris 1961 album, and a double album set of songs he recorded in the mid-sixties. Needless to say I snaffled all three immediately. On the train back to Stirling I studied the sleeves longingly....I couldn't wait to hear them. This was SO exciting!!
Finally I was in my room, the Dansette fired up and I put the first album(the 'hits' one) on.....
The music was like a mix of music hall, cabaret and the soundtrack to Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, then came a big shock....he started singing...IN FRENCH!!!! Huh? Now, get the stupid looks off your faces!! I was genuinely surprised! Somehow I just imagined he'd be singing in English....I mean, how had all my idols understood his lyrics?
But as the album played on, one thing became didn't matter that I couldn't understand the lyrics, it was the delivery, the emotion, the timbre....THE TIMBRE!!!! that kept me hooked. As an interpreter of song, Brel is almost without equal....

On 'Les Bourgeois', his attack on the lazy middle classes you can virtually hear him stamping up and down as he vents his spleen on the idle rich...

On the extraordinary 'La Valse à Mille Temps', he seems to fit more words into a song than is humanly possible....

The song 'Amsterdam' has been covered quite superbly by Bowie, Almond and Walker, but check out Brel's own interpretation below as proof that nobody delivers vocal drama like Brel. Look out especially for that moment right at the end where he vanishes from the takes the breath right out of your lungs....

On 'Quand On N'a Que L'Amour' he fills a gentle acoustic ballad with so much emotion, pathos and depth that wonder about all these flouncy singer/songwriter types that faff around these days and the pencil-kneck geekery of it all...

And then there's 'Ne Me Quitte Pas'...the original of 'If You Go Away'. I thought it would be difficult to better Scott's interpretation, but again it's all in the drama....the sobs in the vocal, the moments when the voice all but disappears or where it suddenly bursts into anguished longing. Painful....but, just like a broken heart, that 'good' pain.

Jacques Brel tought me that it doesn't matter if you can't understand the lyrics, a good interpretor of song should move you regardless, and had it not been for Jacques then I probably wouldn't have sought out the music of Juliette Greco, Sylvie Vartan, Meiko Kaji, Amalia Rodrigues, Reiko Ike or even Edith Piaf.

Discovering music when you are at your lowest ebb can often lead to a longtime love affair with certain songs or artists and 20 years on Jacques Brel can still move me to tears without me having a clue why.



1 comment:

  1. I like your description of the way Scott Walker's rendition of "If you go away" affected you. For me it was, as you say, the best piece of music and lyrics combined in all musical history.....and whenever I play it, it still is.