Jacques Brel is the Sinatra of the French-speaking world. Born in Schaerbeek, one of the Brussels municipalities, Brel grew up in a French-speaking family of Flemish descent. Today’s Schaerbeek is a mix of wealthy enclaves and those less affluent with large immigrant populations. Brel’s Schaerbeek was thoroughly middle-class, or bourgeois, as was his family. He would go on to international fame and like Sinatra he would star in film, as well as on the musical stage. Brel would sell tens of millions of albums and remains, even decades after his early death in 1978, one of the most successful songwriters of all time.
Brel didn’t discover the guitar until age 15, and because he was a poor student he began work at his father’s cardboard-manufacturing factory while starting to sing at his Catholic church. It seemed destined that Brel would eventually take over his father’s business, because he had settled into a normal, comfortable life in Brussels. But Brel left all that behind, heading to Paris in 1953. It’s ironic perhaps that Brel’s best-known song, at least in the English-speaking world, is “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” which translates as “Don’t leave me.” To hear Brel tell it though, life in Schaerbeek was more than he could bear; in one interview, he said: “For me, being bourgeois means security, a type of mediocrity of the spirit, it’s everything I dislike.”
It would take time for Brel to find success as a singer and songwriter in France. In his early career, he traveled widely and played at cabarets, focusing on the traditional narratives of the popular French chanson—but he had much more to tell us. Chanson is a story-telling song with origins in epic poems that date to the 12th century. Over the course of his career, Brel transitioned from those modern popular tropes about love and romance to become a dark, brooding existential poet. He lived and performed on the Left Bank in Paris toward the end of the French intellectual movement embodied by Sartre, De Beauvoir and Camus. Along with the politics of the time, the postwar European psyche was a complicated one, but one that confronted its own mortality and made an indelible impression on Brel and the music he would create.
While Beatlemania was taking America by storm, French audiences were enthralled with Brel’s live performances. More akin to today’s dramatic spoken-word delivery than the chanson singers of his time, Brel was a poet. His live shows were almost confrontational, presenting his audiences with the realities that he had come to realize—almost a warning of life’s absurdity, despair and sadness in song. His appearance was unusual. He was tall, gangly and not conventionally handsome, but a force of will. His live shows were exhausting, sweaty, emotional, gripping and wildly popular. But Brel’s grueling tour schedule, along with his constant smoking, would take its toll.
His lyrics were in some cases straightforward, and in others the meanings could be cynical and sly. Which in some ways left room for interpretation and create tension between the Belgian-born singer and fans in his homeland. Brel’s song “Les Flamandes” (“The Flemish”) is seen as a turning up of his nose at his homeland, at least historically. There has always been a sort of linguistic tension in Belgium between the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch speakers of Flanders. The picture long held that Brel paints of Flemish women in “Les Flamandes” is that they are coarse, unintelligent and backward.
The song itself though, released in 1958, has been more recently diagnosed to be a social critique, not of the Flemish people, Brel’s people, but instead of the right-wing Catholic leadership of the country. In part, the song says, “The Flemish girls, they’re not chatty. If they’re dancing, it’s because they are twenty; and at twenty, they must get engaged; engaged, to get married; and get married, to have children! That’s what their parents tell them.”
Brel smiled fondly on his homeland in some moments and had a contemptuous relationship with Flanders at others. “Country means an origin. We all need to believe we’re from somewhere; for me, that means I need the memory of certain smells, like my grandmother’s jelly-making, that’s really my country.” In his song “Les Plat Pays” (“The Low Country”) Brel paints a gray and stark landscape, windy, hard and unromanticized, but at the end of each chorus, his refrain “Le plat pays qui est le mien” or “The low country that is mine” marks his homeland and his sentiment.
Brel’s gift to the world though was not that of romantic sentimentality, it was the stark depiction of life’s despair, the cynical look at our own flaws and our absurdity and willingness to lie to ourselves to save face. Brel was at his most brilliant and compelling as an existentialist troubadour. Whenever his classic songs were translated for Englishspeaking audiences, they lost their nerve. “Ne Me Quitte Pas” became, officially, “If You Go Away” and it was only a close approximation of the original’s sentiments. David Bowie’s “Port of Amsterdam” doesn’t deliver the power of Brel’s original 1964 live version at Paris’ Olympia auditorium; but it does stay true to the lyrical description of despair and darkness amid the longshoremen at Amsterdam’s seedy port.
Brel’s frank confrontation of death, the classic “Le Moribond” (“The Dying Man”), is translated into the undoubtedly most anathema-strangulation of a work of art as the sappy-sweet “Seasons in the Sun.” He sings it as a dying man, speaking frankly to his friends, his enemies and the wife he loves just before his death. It is in this original classic that Brel speaks to us now, something we can surely relate to. He says “C’est dur de mourir au printemps, tu sais” or “It’s hard to die in the spring, you know.” And as our favorite time of year beckons us back to Flanders it’s a sentiment that resonates in our hearts.