Friday, April 11, 2014

J is for Jacques Brel

“I like the soulfulness of this song,” I said tilting my head toward the car radio.
“It’s ‘Marieke’,” my friend said steering the car. “Ay Marieke, Marieke je t’aimerais tant, Entree les tours de Bruges et Gand—” he sang along with the radio.
“You have a nice voice.”
“It’s nothing compared to Jacques Brel.”
“Jacques who?” My friend hit the brakes. 
“You don’t know Jacques Brel?

When you’re vacationing in a foreign country it’s impossible to know everything about that country and if you did know everything about that foreign country, then it wouldn’t be a foreign country, now would it? Traveling overseas introduces one to new foods, new sights and new ways to hide your passport on your person, which are excellent things to learn while visiting an unknown country. But while you’re there—or better yet, before you go—you’d better learn something about their local heroes or else you’ll cause a lot of locals to slam on the brakes and say: “You don’t know Jacques Brel?

Jacques Brel (1939-1978) was a popular Belgian singer of the 20th century, although calling him “popular” is the greatest understatement of the 21st century. The man played Carnegie Hall; toured the world to sold-out concert halls; performed with Charles Aznavour, Serge Gainsbourg and Maurice Chevalier; and was covered by Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Sting and Nirvana. Gone for over 35 years he is still voted the number 1 all-time singer in Belgium. And in France he frequently ranks as more popular than Edith Piaf. The Edith Piaf.

“Does any of this about Jacques Brel sound familiar?” my friend asked as we sat in the car.
“No,” I shook my head. “But can we go someplace besides sitting here on the side of the road?” He shifted the Peugeot into first gear and we merged with traffic. 

My friend kept talking. He told me that Jacques Brel was born in Schaarbeek in Brussels to a Flemish family that spoke French. A terrible student and untrained singer, Brel taught himself how to play guitar and write songs. Early in his career before playing a gig at a club with his band, the hired singer did not show up and with no time to find a new singer who knew Brel’s songs, Brel decided to sing the songs himself. He never hired another singer again. In total, he wrote and performed 13 studio albums as well as released a couple live albums and box sets. He sang in French and in Dutch, also he acted and directed movies. At the Cannes Film Festival, he won the Palm d’Or—as in, France's Academy Award.

“Ring any bells?” I shook my head.
Pulling a CD from the glove compartment, my friend popped it into the radio and strains of music erupted from the speakers. 

“Madeleine c’est mon espoir, C’est mon Amérique à moi—”
“I like the energy of this one,” I said nodding at the radio.
“He’s saying how he’s waiting with lilacs for Madeleine and how he loves Madeleine,” my friend said. “Even though Madeleine never comes to meet him.” 
“How sad.” The song continued then in an even more upbeat tempo.
“Demain j’attendrai Madeleine, on ira au cinema…”
“Nevertheless, he says that tomorrow he’ll come back with lilacs and will wait for Madeleine again.” 
“Do you recognize this song at all?” 
I shook my head.

My friend stared at me with eyes as big as dinner plates. He ran a hand through his hair and continued the monologue saying that the key to Brel’s success was the passion with which he sang. As an actor, he used his face to reveal the song’s emotions. His face would flash a grin then a grimace, then end with a pout so that even if you didn’t understand all the French or Dutch lyrics, you could understand the emotional truth of the song just by watching him. No wonder Jacques Brel was popular with gazillions of fans.

My friend parked the car and we entered a typical Belgian café complete with potted plants, Leffe and Stella Artois on tap and a jukebox. My friend ordered us two beers and popped a coin in the music machine. The strains of a sad song wafted toward us.

“Ne me quitte pas, ne me quitte pas, ne me… quitte… pas”
 My friend opened his mouth to speak but I cut him off.
“He’s saying ‘don’t leave me, don’t leave me, don’t… leave… me’.”
“Yes,” my friend exhaled a sigh. “He’s begging his love not to leave him. But in the end she, leaves him.” In silence we sat listening to the song play out. Then it ended. We both sipped our beers.  
My friend spoke, “So you know this song?”
I shook my head. “I just understood the lyrics.” His face fell. “But,” I continued “Having heard so much about Jacques Brel today, his memory will stay with me. He won’t leave me and I won’t leave him. And isn’t that what he wanted with his music: Not to be left alone?”

Imagine the writing ability of Bob Dylan, paired with the club performance of Frank Sinatra, matched with the mellifluous vocal range of Elvis and the visual expressiveness of Journey’s Steve Perry and maybe—just maybe—you have something akin to Jacques Brel.

The fact that so many millions of people still treasure Jacques Brel and his music ensures that he will never be left alone. My friend raised his glass to mine and we toasted to Jacques Brel, the hero of Belgian music.