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Waiting In The Wings: On Jacques Brel, David Bowie And Death
Jeremy Allen , November 7th, 2017 09:34

Jacques Brel and David Bowie had more in common than just their genius. Jeremy Allen revisits Brel’s final album Les Marquises and notices some parallels with the latter’s latter days

Jacques Brel’s rise to legendary status in the English speaking world was achieved posthumously and by stealth. Type his name into the UK Official Charts’ search engine for instance, and your total results will stand at zero. The Belgian chansonnier remained doggedly loyal to the French tongue throughout his life despite his father being a Flemish speaker, and he never learned English properly either, even when other artists were selling millions of copies of his songs with the most spurious of translations. Jacques wasn’t worried about the lyrical embellishments of either of the regular English language translators, Rod McKuen or Mort Shuman, who he both gave his blessing to. In truth he just wanted to see the money. After securing a plot of land in the Polynesian paradise he’d sequestered himself in for much of the 70s, it was ultimately the reason he came out of retirement to record Les Marquises in 1977, a record that would prove to be his last.

McKuen for the record, translated a lot of the big hitters, and Shuman wrote the lyrics for the musical review Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris with Eric Blau, favoured by Scott Walker, who we’ll come to in a minute. Canadian singer Terry Jacks sold five million copies of ‘Seasons In The Sun’ when he released it 1974, which was basically Brel’s ‘Le Moribond’ with the theme of death toned down and the chorus turned into an inane singalong. Jacks’ followup hit ‘If You Go Away’ was also written by Brel and translated by McKuen, from the original ‘Ne me quitte pas’. Other versions have been recorded by Dusty Springfield, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Shirley Bassey and so on, while Nina Simone did it in the original French. In these cases, Brel’s songs became famous, but not the man.

It was through the patronage of cult artists like Scott Walker that Brel became better known; or Walker’s obsession at least promoted the general awareness that there was this enigmatic Belgian behind much of his early solo work, helping to transform him from moody boy band pin-up to something altogether more difficult to pin down. Walker’s versions were soothing simulacra that fuelled a fascination with the writer but still kept him at arm's length. Brel was difficult and confrontational; sweaty and spitty and violent in his gesticulations and all the while having the audacity to do it all in French. You could make it easier on yourself with Walkers’ versions, and Marc Almond’s essentially picked up from where Walker left off. Other artists that have clearly been touched in some way by Brel’s style range from the great Leonard Cohen to Mercury winner Benjamin Clementine more recently, taking in Stromae - whose 2013 album Racine Carrée is currently France’s 16th best selling album of all time and rising - along the way.

And then of course there were two songs recorded by David Bowie that had both been performed previously by Walker: ‘My Death’ (‘La Mort’) and ‘Amsterdam’. Bowie’s ‘My Death’ was more beholden to Walker’s version (in the same way his ‘Wild Is The Wind’ channelled Simone rather than Mathis), but his ‘Amsterdam’ has some of the grit and guts of Brel’s live version from the Olympia in 1964. ‘Amsterdam’ was eventually replaced by ‘My Death’ in Bowie’s set, at least until he’d written his own version of a Brel song, which he managed with aplomb in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’. ‘Time’ too, on Aladdin Sane, is perfused with the Belgian’s brand of dark chanson.

Walker may have discovered Brel first, but both artists became possessed by him in a way that eventually manifested in their writing. While I’m critical of many of Bowie’s covers, which rarely measure up to his own material, there’s something about his version of ‘Amsterdam’ that has a similar desperate energy and sordidness to Brel’s. Maybe it’s the mention of sailors, or the fact he smoked 60 cigarettes a day and rasps at the top of his range. Evidently there’s something in Bowie’s voice that makes the delivery of the song all the more believable, and it’s a song you have to believe in for it to truly work. Whether Brel believed in it is another matter. He never recorded a studio version, despite it being one of his best loved songs, which is why the Olympia recording is the go to version for most.

Bowie’s interest in Brel ran deeper than him merely stealing ideas from Walker. The key lyric “you’re not alone,” from ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ was a direct lift from Brel’s ‘Jef’ (“Non, Jef, t'es pas tout seul”), and he was still using his lines translated and intercut, Burroughs style, for songs like ‘Sons Of The Silent Age’ five years later. What Bowie identified in Brel that he saw in himself is unclear, but we can probably guess; as a Paris-dwelling Belgian, Brel was always an outsider, and he scraped by in the city for around four years not being taken very seriously before he suddenly had a surprise hit with ‘Quand on a que l'amour’ (the latter detail probably chimed with Bowie, whose early experience of show business was similar).

For Walker, Brel epitomised the cultural sophistication that Europe had to offer, alongside auteurs like Ingmar Bergman. He managed to amalgamate the spirit of the two by the time he came to write the excellent ‘The Seventh Seal’, featuring the famous image of Death playing chess. The song opens Scott IV, the first Scott solo album without a Brel song on it, a tacit declaration that he’d served his apprenticeship.

Brel wrote wryly about death throughout his career, but on Les Marquises the end is clearly advancing and suddenly it’s not nearly as funny. Mournful opener ‘Jaurès’, with just his voice and an accordion, asks, “Why did they kill Jaurès?”, in reference to the leftist leader Jean Jaurès who was assassinated in Paris a month after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914; the nod and the wink never materialise unsurprisingly. The next track, ‘La ville s’endormait’ is also instrumentally minimalist but for the odd gong, and the lyrics about the light slowly falling and turning a dark shade of blue could certainly be interpreted as a metaphor for the oncoming empyrean blackness.

‘Jojo’, a song about one of his best friends who’d died a few years before, drips with pathos: “Six feet under, Jojo, you're still singing / Six feet under, you're not dead.” Jojo had appeared in one of his best loved songs, ‘Les Bourgeois’ from 1961, where he and Brel and their mate Pierre sit in a pub singing: “the bourgeois are pigs, the older they get, the more stupid they become”. By the third verse they’re admonishing young punks who show them their arses, demonstrating by what they’ve become that they were right all along. ‘Les Bourgeois’ is a funny song, ‘Jojo’ is a lament. Where on 1967’s ‘La Chanson des vieux amants’ (song for old lovers) Brel’s characters wink at each other about historical assignations outside of their union, on ‘Vieillir’ he’s dreading the experience of getting on a bit, stating that “Dying is nothing, Dying? Big deal! / But getting old… Oh! getting old.” Dying a year later at the age of 49, it wouldn’t be an indignity he’d have to go through. ‘Vieillir’ is at least more musically upbeat and certainly more like the sly old chanteur with the wicked sense of humour.

The deliberately profane ‘Le Mon Dieu’ waltzes along as he reflects on how the subject of the song isn’t a deity, but rather something better than God (a human being). ‘Knokke-le-Zoute Tango’ is a bawdy tale about cruising around the red light district of a Belgian seaside town on the Dutch border, and ‘Orly’, where he observes a young couple at the airport, is staggering in its precision and its poetry. “The two bodies are torn apart and I swear they're yelling / And then they grab each other again / Become together as one again / Become fire again…” It’s beautiful in English, in French it’s preternaturally good. The encounter turns out to be adieu; he’s swallowed by the stars, she walks through a crowd that “nibbles her like old fruit.”

He’s clearly in the mood to stir up some controversy on ‘Les F…’, a follow up to the Wallonian attack on Flemish conservatism ‘Les Flamandes’ from 1960. The ‘F’ is short for flamingants, a pejorative that Flemish nationalists would come to adopt as an ironic nickname. He complains they were “nazis during the war, catholics in between” and if that weren’t insult enough, he adds: “My dear Flemish speakers, to hell with you”. But elsewhere the mood is more sombre, as on ‘Voir un ami pleurer’, where he suggest that while we might be sad about the wars in Ireland, to see a friend cry is the hardest thing a person can endure. Brel apparently wrote the song for his pal in French Polynesia, Marc Bastard, who was left distraught when his wife walked out on him. Of the 12 tracks, around half are ballads, and Brel’s voice never scales the heights of previous records given that he had to conserve his strength. It’s a more reflective work than anything before, and the revisiting of themes and motifs seems deliberate.

Whether Brel was aware he was dying when he’d started writing the songs for Les Marquises (which is often known simply as “Brel” because of his name superimposed over clouds on the cover) is unlikely. By the time he came to record in Paris at the Studio Hoche he would have at least suspected he had a 50 / 50 chance. A large part of his lung had been removed, and the disease reappeared after doctors had given the prognosis that he might be okay. Brel’s return to Paris was shrouded in secrecy. He elected to not even let his own family know he was visiting from Hiva-Oa (the island where he would eventually be buried not far from the post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin). Brel’s doctor was informed, as was his pianist, Gerard Jouannest, who he worked on material with at Jouannest’s house on Rue de Verneuil. The musician is the husband of Juliette Greco, who was the first major artist to start performing Brel’s chansons back in the 50s. “He had eyes like charcoal,” she said, recalling the first time she witnessed him play at the Trois Baudets in Montmartre. “He began to sing and I was bedazzled.”

Back in the capital where he made a name for himself, Jacques was unable to keep his cover for long. The Brusselian was snapped remonstrating with photographers after leaving a nightclub, and the pictures appeared in Paris Match. Had he kept a lower profile and got everybody to sign confidentiality agreements like Bowie did in 2012, then the arrival of a new single or a new album may have been a much bigger surprise to his fans than it was. If that seems like a peculiar comparison, then there are many parallels between the latter part of Brel’s career and the latter part of Bowie’s career that are striking (and we’ve already briefly touched on the fact their early careers took on a similar trajectory). Both men stopped performing live - albeit for different reasons - 11 years before their deaths. Both retreated from public life but for some film work, with Bowie living in New York and Brel on the island in the South Pacific. Dark rumours abounded about both men’s health, with Time magazine suggesting Brel was “an almost fictional figure even to his countrymen” and Paris Match talked of a “strange fate that chose Jacques Brel at the summit of his glory”. On his return, Brel elected not to promote his record with any interviews, and remained silent until the end. Bowie obviously sustained that over two albums, Brel only had time for one.

The campaign dreamt up by Barclay was an imaginative one, with review copies sealed in a metal container with a digital lock which opened at precisely 12.51pm the afternoon before the official release; telephonists at Maison Barclay then transmitted a combination to music papers, radio stations and television networks, generating a buzz about the new record that wasn’t a million miles away from the innovative marketing around ‘Where Are We Now?’ And both men attempted to conceal their illnesses, believed they were in remission, and both may have learnt of their fates during the process of the making of the last record. Both released a record without an image of their face on the cover for the first, and last, time. Both were geniuses. If Bowie felt an affinity with Brel, then he maybe had more in common with him than even he realised.

Les Marquises was released on November 17, 1977 and it has sold more than a million copies since that date. It’s a singular record in Brel’s canon, a ruminative, occasionally phlegmatic and often sentimental offering that offers insights over energy. Brel was the singer’s singer who influenced the influencers, and the album with his surname floating airily amongst the clouds was a fitting finale for an artist who was earthy and authentic, a legend in his own lifetime in his native Belgium and his adopted France. In Hiva-Oa he was just Jacques, and in Royaume Uni his reputation was just beginning to take root. He once said, “the supreme madness is to see life as it is and not as it should be,” in which case Jacques Brel is somehow alive and well and still living it large in Paris and London and beyond.