Jacques Brel's lyrics teamed with life and the lust for women, wine, and laughter, yet simultaneously they were ominously spiced with a violent awareness of death, estrangement, corruption, obscurity, and oblivion. The very same obscurity and oblivion he himself might have lived in, had he not dared to take to the stage. Despite the richly evocative and utterly singular talent which would eventually make him famous, this French-speaking Flemish prodigy very nearly wound up in obscurity himself; he could have lived out his life running a cardboard factory, following in his father's footsteps. Though he first began to show his talents through forming a small theatre troupe at the age of 16, his notably poor academic performance (failing most of his exams) led his father to insist that he should, at the age of 18, cease his education and instead learn the family business.
Despite his small, and less than promising beginnings, Jacques chose to gamble on the riskier path of a performing artist. Yet, he at the same time had few qualms about taking on responsibility; rather than wait to be drafted, he enlisted in the military in 1948, by 1950 he was married to Thérèse Michielsen, and by 1951 he was a father. Though as he climbed to success he and his wife would come to live separate and distanced lives, and though there were other women, they were never divorced, and in death Jacques would claim "Miche", as his wife was known, to be his sole heir. Though no saint, he had his principles, and Brel stuck to them throughout.
Accounts differ regarding Brel's early career. Some state that an early Catholic-humanist troubadour style held him back. Others, that from the beginning his friends and family, shocked at the unflinching passion and earnestness his lyrics would later be known for, disapproved of his efforts. The one common thread seems to be that meeting Georges "Jojo" Pasquier (who came to be his manager, chauffeur, and closest friend) in 1955 was an important turning point. While his early years were an absolute struggle, in 1954 placing 27th in the Grand Prix de la Chanson competition, out of a field of 28 performers total, Brel persisted, gradually building on those successes that did come his way, refining his work, and collaborating with two talented pianists, François Rauber (who gave Brel the formal training he had until then lacked) and Gérard Jouannest (whose influence and contributions would be seen in many of Brel's most famous songs). By 1957, Jacques Brel had his first hit single, Quand on a Que l'Amour, which would win him the prestigious Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros. Where in 1954 his performance at Paris's famed Olympia music hall had been met with indifference, a return performance in 1958 left the audience stunned. His fame soon spread, and in time his records sold millions in France alone, in at least one case even without any marketing campaign.
Through his deeply developed perception of the human condition, the unmitigated honesty of his songwriting, and his amazing skill, both physically and lyrically, of expression, Brel rose to become one of the biggest names not only in France, but of Europe, his fame eventually spreading to America, where in the 1960s the feature-length musical film Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris would be produced. Its arrangement and cinematography would influence the concept of the music video to this day.
Jacques Brel was, in short, a rare breed of un-romanticizing romantic; a man whose lyrics practically bled a deep love for and perception of life, while simultaneously honoring that love by refusing to cheapen it with saccharine pretense or wishful white-washing; refusing, that is, to portray the object of his love as anything but what it was in truth. It was beautiful, it was rapturous, it was terrifying, it was heartbreaking - and it could only truly be any of those things, because it in truth was all of those things.
Only a man with such an unflinching perspective, and the will to pour it out upon stage, with thousands watching, could sing of port-side prostitutes selling their virtues for a coin, not with derision, or condemnation, but with anger and heartbreak at witnessing the tragedy of the Faustian bargains such women strike, night after night - and likewise those of the sailors who have given their lives to drunkenness and dissipation, and as such find themselves with no women but those they must pay for. And this is just what Brel did in the final part of one of his most famous pieces, Amsterdam, though it was strangely enough a song he only performed on stage, never recording it in studio:
There's a sailor who drinks
And he drinks and he drinks
And he drinks once again
He drinks to the health
Of the whores of Amsterdam
Who have promised their love
To a thousand other men
They've bargained their bodies
And their virtue long gone
For a few dirty coins
And when he can't go on
He plants his nose in the sky
And he wipes it up above
And he pisses like I cry
For an unfaithful love
In the port of Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam
Though perhaps best known by francophones for his intensely concentrated lyricism, which could express great complexity in but a few perfectly chosen words (unmatched in English translations), those of us farther removed from our eighth grade French lessons (sorry, Madame Nicholson) often better know him for his performances on stage - performances at once seemingly on the very verge of a Dionysian abandon, yet perfect in the expressiveness of their execution:
It is claimed that the morning Brel finished the lyrics to Amsterdam, in a house overlooking the Mediterranean at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, he read them to a friend and restaurateur by the name of Fernand - and that Fernand was so overcome with emotion that he broke out in tears and took to chopping up sea urchins in an effort to regain his shattered self-composure.
Though his songs have been covered in English by everyone from British pop icon David Bowie, to the American neo-cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, none have matched the fire with which Jacques Brel himself burned so brightly. Yet for all the standing ovations he received, Brel never performed a single encore. When the performance ended, it was ended - perhaps a discrete statement on the nature of finality, from a man whose music was in no small part driven by an awareness that everything in human life, be it love or misery, had its own final curtain-call.
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