Le Bon Dieu – Who was Jacques Brel?

In 1985, seven years after the death of Jacques Brel, the French monthly Lire asked their readers which personality they would prefer to have as a parent. The results:
Jacques Brel 40%; Gerard Philippe 19%; Albert Camus 13%; Charles de Gaulle 11%.

In 2000 the music magazine Mojo asked leading British and American songwriters to nominate the greatest songs of all time. Brel’s Ne me quitte pas was the only non-English song on their list. In 2003 the city of Brussels payed a tribute to Jacques with a series of exhibitions and concerts; this, more than 25 years after his death. Brel is not widely known in the English-speaking world – probably in part because he refused to sing in anything other than French – so who was Jacques Brel?

The French claimed him as one of their own, but Jacques Brel was actually born into a middle-class Catholic family in Schaerbeek, Brussels, in 1929.

His father owned a cardboard-box factory and was a well respected business man. Jacques went into his father’s business, married at the age of 20 and by the time he was 23 he had two daughters and was stuck in solid respectability. Brel, though, had always dreamt of something different than the tedium of a ‘respectable life’ and was driven by tireless energy and a taste for adventure. He began to strum a guitar and write songs about his growing frustration. Later, when he was 41, Brel was to tell television interviewer Marc Lobet: “I think man spends his live compensating for his childhood. A man wants to realize the astonishment of his dreams. But by the age of 17 or so, he’s finished all his dreaming. He learns to deal with “reality”, to go after security. The adventure is over”.

But not for Jacques Brel and his astonishing dreams: in 1952, at the age of twenty-three, he left his father’s business and moved from Brussels to a working-class suburb of Paris with his wife Michelle, and daughters Chantal and France. They lived in a wooden shack without running water. He wrote songs and made the rounds trying to sell them to publishers. Soon it became clear that the only way he could get his songs performed was to sing them himself.

Jacques Brel’s songs were about real people and real situations and ranged from love songs to raunchy condemnations of hypocrisy, injustice and insensitivity that shocked more conservative countrymen (Jacques is often compared to Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Leonard Cohen). He achieved fame mostly because of his intense stage presence, and the killing involvement it reflected. Jacques Brel’s songs are almost impossible to dissociate from his performances. Eric Blau described his stage presence thus: ‘… The voice spinning out of the body; the body as alive as the voice. His hands comb the air. His legs seem filled with coils and springs. He leaps without moving. He extends; he contracts. He is puking young, he is muling old. He trembles. He sweats. He is shortening his life…’

In 1963, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote: ‘It seems to me sometimes that Jacques Brel was brought to this earth by a jet plane rather than a stork.’

Brel gave more than 200 concerts a year in Europe for 12 years; he toured the Soviet Union (18,000 kilometers from Siberia to the Black Sea in five weeks); he packed Carnegie Hall in New York; 5,000 Londoners cheered him at the Royal Albert Hall; he received a 20-minute standing ovation at the Olympia in Paris. Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, David Bowie and many others sang and recorded Brel’s songs. His own records sold well. Royalties rolled in. Money was not a problem. Brel learned to pilot an airplane; he bought one. He learned to sail a boat; he bought one.

France Brel describes her father’s life: ‘He did not get enough sleep, he never ate at regular hours. He smoked four packs of cigarettes a day. He was always moving, working. He never refused to do something he wanted to do because he was tired. He did everything to the limit. He never economized by saying, “I’ll go to sleep early tonight because I have to get up early tomorrow.’ Never. Everybody had trouble keeping up with him.’

Including the women in Brel’s life, of which there were many. His wife Michelle knew about them, but they never divorced and even remained close in their way to the end. (Michelle continued to manage his money and she and the three daughters inherited it.). Brel was wary of women. ‘I hate to suffer,’ he said about them. ‘I hate tooth-ache,’ He also said he had a better chance of understanding the mystery of the Holy Trinity than of understanding women.

‘My mother understood what kind of phenomenal man she had married,’ said France Brel, ‘and she had the intelligence to understand that if she wanted to continue loving him and being loved by him, she should certainly not put him in a cage.’

In 1967, Jacques Brel stepped out of his cage and stopped performing. He said at the time that he felt like a trained monkey unpacking his bag of tricks and singing the same songs every night. Brel decided to retire from the stage. He said: ‘I’m going to go and look somewhere else’. He never sang his songs in public again. Interest in Jacques Brel remained, though, and he continued to write songs and record them. Eric Blau and Mort Shuman staged Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris, and filmed it – the play was a huge success in New York and enabled Brel to break into the American market. He acted in ten films by directors such as Marcel Carne and Edouard Molinaro. Brel also directed two films himself, which received negative reviews.

Brel was still curious about what was on the other side of the waves, and in 1974 left the port of Ostend with his daughter, France, and his female companion, Maddly Bamy. The idea was to sail his yacht across the Atlantic Ocean on the first leg of a five-year trip around the world. However, Jacques became ill in the Canaries and flew to Geneva for tests. A malignant tumour was discovered and one of his lungs had to be removed. Jacques continued to smoke four packets of cigarettes a day and continued on his voyage around the world, eventually settling on Hiva-Oa, in French Polynesia, where Paul Gauguin is buried (there’s 20 seconds of adverts before this track starts).

Jacques Brel waged a battle with lung cancer while leading an unabashedly pleasurable life in French Polynesia. He came back to Paris in 1977 to record what was to be his last album. He looked terrible and tried to hide his ravaged face from the hoardes of press photographers. In the recording studio he went on his knees to look under the piano, asking: ‘Has anybody found a lung?’

Brel went into a hospital in Bobigny, France, for further treatment. Checking out early against his doctor’s advice. He died in 1978 and was buried on Hiva-Oa in the same cemetery as Paul Gauguin. Since then many artists have tried to imitate the songs and style of Jacques Brel. All have failed miserably, perhaps highlighting the fact that Jacque’s success came not just from his voice and words, but also from his inimitable sincerity and uniqueness.

The Jeff in the above song is a guy who has been ditched by the woman he loves. Jeff is standing on the parapit of a bridge and is about to jump off in despair. The guy singing the song is Jeff’s friend and is imploring him not to kill himself: “come Jeff, come, come down off the parapit, we’ll go to a whorehouse, we’ll get drunk” etc, etc.

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