Friday, June 09, 2006

Le Moribond no me

Play it: A Jacques Brel Sampler
Play it: Jacques Brel Covers

With blogger tools back up today, I can finally deliver on my promise for some Jacque Brel love. Rhapsody only has a second rate greatest hits collection, but a few songs from the collection can illustrate Brel's magic.

Brel is widely considered the greatest French-speaking songwriter of his era, and is one of Belgiums' greatest exports in any occupation. Brel grew up near Brussels but spent most of his life in Paris. His songwriting was more conservative until his wife and daughters relocated back to Brussels, leaving him alone in Paris. After that, his songs took on a grimmer tone, singing life, death as well as love, and became famous for his compassionate portraits of the so-called dregs of society - prostitutes, alcoholics, drug addicts and the like.

English translations soon began to come, most notably through a partnership with his American poet friend Rod McKuen, who took songs like "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (which was recently named the French song of the millenium) and translated/modified it to become "If You Go Away" which became a huge success, performed by artists Dusty Springfield, Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell and Julio Iglesias to name a few. But first on the scene to sieze on English translations was Scott Walker, who practically tied the launching of his solo career to Brel's songs. The great album Scott Walker sings Jacques Brel documents songs from Walker's first three solo albums that Brel wrote. Walker's appreciation of Brel lead more artists to the altar of Brel, specifically Dusty Springfield and Walker follower David Bowie (play "Amsterdam.") The translations also lead to a very successful Off-Broadway musical based on his work entitled Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.

Another song of Brel's that McKuen translated was "Le Moribond" (loosely trans. The Dying Man) and he renamed it "Seasons in the Sun." The Kingston Trio recorded an early version of this translation in 1963, but didn't have a hit with it. Terry Jacks liked the song but thought the lyrics were too dreary, so he re-wrote it, lightening up the content, and made a cheezey huge smash of the song. It's quite possibly the worst cover ever recorded, but it sold tremendously, and is still stuck in our heads to this day. While it's too bad that most Americans would only know (if at all) by that song, Brel's estate (and McKuen) still receive a tremendous amount of royalties on that song.

Jacques Brel performing "Ne Me Quitte Pas":

More Video:
Jacques Brel doing "Au Suivant" (redid later by Walker as "Next")
Scott Walker performing Bel's "Jackie" (1969)
Scott Walker performing Bel's "Mathilde" (1967) on Dusty Sprinfield's Variety Show

A moving aria for a vanishing style of mind (Scott Walker)

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Shawn Anderson said...

A Jacque Brel sampler

* "Ne Me Quitte Pas" - Jacques Brel
* "Mathilde" - Jacques Brel
* "Les Vieux" - Jacques Brel
* "Amsterdam" - Jacques Brel
* "Madeleine" - Jacques Brel
* "J'Arrive" - Jacques Brel
* "Jef" - Jacques Brel

Shawn Anderson said...

Jacques Brel Covers

* "If You Go Away" - Dusty Springfield ("Ne Me Quitte Pas")
* "If We Only Have Love" - Nancy Wilson ("Quand On N'a Que L'Amour")
* "Amsterdam" - David Bowie
* "Seasons In The Sun" - The Kingston Trio ("Le Moribond")
* "Ne Me Quitte Pas" - Nina Simone
* "Sons Of" - Judy Collins
* "If We Only Have Love" - Dionne Warwick
* "My Death" - David Bowie
* "If You Go Away" - Neil Diamond

Anonymous said...

Amen! I recently discovered the magic of Brel myself. I feel like I've found a great secret the French-speaking world has been keeping for themselves. :)

I'd add "Quand on n'a.." and "Le Plat Pays" to the sampler list.

I think it's easily the majority opinion of Brel fans that McKuen's translations are pretty bad.

"Seasons in the sun" is of course an even worse bastardization. Not just the lyrics changed, but overall tone of the song went from defiance to sedimentality. For all intents you might as well consider it a completely different song that happens to have the same melody.

I'm not a big Walker fan myself. However, Brel's rather 'traditional' chanson style went increasingly out of fashion towards the end of the 60's. Whereas Walker's Brel covers on the other hand, had a much more 'modern' sound to them then. So at the time, many probably considered Walker's versions better in some ways.

What's I find interesting is that the same 60's-ish elements make Walker's versions sound much more dated to me today, whereas Brel's originals have a more timeless quality to them.

Calling Bowie a 'Walker follower' is doing him a bit of a disservice though. While Bowie probably discovered Brel through Walker, he certainly appreciated Brel himself since Bowie visited him in Paris in the early 70's, a year or two before recording his covers.

I rate Bowie's version of "Amsterdam" as the best English-language version I've heard. Like Walker, he uses Shuman's translation, which as usual is superior to McKuen's.(*) It's also the most reverent cover on Bowie's "Pin-Ups" album. (Bowie's covers are always loving, but seldom reverent.)

(*) To nitpick: My only complaints on that translation is the decision to make the sailor eat "fishheads and tails", as contrasted to "frites" (chips) in the original. Since chips are a typical Dutch food, I feel it enhances the realism in the original, wheras the translated line detracts from it. I also find "the dawn's early light" to be a bit irritating because it (perhaps unintentionally) makes me associate to "The star-spangled banner".


Shawn Anderson said...

Bravo... excellent comments indeed. The songs you refer to most definitely would be on the sampler list if they would've been available in Rhapsody at the time I posted this (they've since been made avaiable (via the album Infiniment, so perhaps I should revisit!)

I don't think it's possible for me to downplay Bowie's stature, given that Walker's mostly unknown here in the states. While I'm sure of Bowie's reverence to the source (Brel) he's certainly indebted some to Walker (as is Dusty Springfield, actually... if you notice, Walker sings a Brel song on her show, before Springfield, in turn, would tackle "If You Go Away")

This post essentially was me killing a couple birds with one stone... giving props to two artists rarely given props here in the US - Brel and Walker. I love the underdog (especially, the artistic underdog ;)