I have loved Jacques Brel deeper and longer than I have loved any singer, with the possible exception of Tom Waits – whose lyrics I can understand but still perversely choose not to really pay all that much attention to. I did try to get into Brel’s words – a book of his lyrics sits on my shelf, pretty much untouched from when it came home with me from a trip to the Gibert Jeune bookshop in Place St Michel – but it’s always been about the music for me, his emotional content (as Bruce Lee might have put it). And I didn’t just listen to Brel’s music, but to every nuance in his voice, to every breath, to every rolled or growled or clipped or popped consonant, to every hushed or barked vowel, to the lively universe of characters that he invented for you and the drama he invested them with.
More than any other singer, he made me want to sing. He made me want to find and give voice to the well of otherwise inaccessible, inexpressible emotions – the kind that language always disappoints. In Brel, they found their way into the world with an immediacy and a clarity that was utterly astonishing, frequently breathtaking, rarely less than moving. It still thrills me to hear the intensity of feeling in that voice carried by the beauty of the melodies he invents. I still want to sing. And to sing like that.
The closest I got to manifesting my love for the man and his music was, well, I made a bust of him – a canny unlikeness – for my proposed pantheon of personal gods that never really evolved beyond a trinity. He sits on my shelf, coarse hewn and tragically earnest but permanently on song, like a Hogmanay drunk.
Amsterdam: I listened to Jacques Brel for the first time in my flatmate’s bedroom in Spain some time in 1996. V- thought I’d quite like him. And she was right; I loved his voice instantly. I’d never heard anything like it. Which is because there is no-one like Jacques Brel. V- had French; I hadn’t a clue what he was singing. Then, I’ve never been big on words in songs. Never been big on songs. But whatever that man was feeling when he put that track on record, I was feeling every single shred of. V- translated but it didn’t really go in. Something about drunks and whores and accordeons.
Au Suivant: Once you’ve heard The Sensational Alex Harvey Band doing this, you kind of want to hear Brel bite a bit harder. Which isn’t to diminish Brel’s version, rather to underscore the sensational ferocity of Alex Harvey’s.
La Chanson de Jacky: Singing the English version unaccompanied at a New Year party to a room full of mortified strangers, relatives of my brother’s then-girlfriend, who had demanded that everyone sing a party piece. I listened to myself, in a kind of disembodied horror, as my already quite shaky grasp of the melody modulated into a lost continent of uncharted harmonics and unattainable registers. The host, an insufferably smug woman with a nasty streak, smirked uncontrollably throughout.
Not sure which is worse: that memory, or the recollection of the first time I heard the song – before I’d even heard of Brel – in an abominable, unforgivably flaccid, version by Marc Almond. If you need to hear it in English, Scott Walker sings it like he at least means the camp insincerity.
Many years later, trying to shoehorn karaoke versions of Jacky and Jacky Wilson Says into a failed play about Jocky Wilson playing darts with himself in a nightclub in hell.
Les Coeurs Tendres: In maybe 1999/ 2000, I was in a band of sorts with my brother that existed for maybe four or five rehearsals and possibly only two performances. We played Jacques Brel songs and Serge Gainsbourg songs and a song by Charles Trenet.
And the band was definitely born in Oblomov on Great Western Road, on a snowy winter’s night early in the new year. Graham and I were out with his flatmate A- and his pal, who were both busy gigging jazz musicians and fancied a bit of the exotic. Graham was just about to graduate in French and could also sing. I could play accordeon (a bit). We called ourselves Jacquesattaques – or Jacques Attack, I don’t think we ever wrote the name down.
We played our first gig at a graduation party for Graham’s French class at a pub in town for which he earned much respect from his – mostly female – classmates. This was one of the songs. The slow and loping rhythm insinuates itself into your ear. It’s coarse rather than tender, I think, and fails to take on much of a shape. I prefer Mary Coughlan’s version to Brel’s, unusually, though I fancy we treated the song with equal tendresse.
Tenderness of a brotherly kind was missing from our second and final gig at the old Uisge Beatha in Woodlands. We had a set-to about something that felt very important to Graham at the time, and a punch was thrown. But time heals these lesions and we all learn our lessons. A- still calls us the Gallagher Brothers.
Mathilde: Playing the Scott Walker version full volume in the car and singing “Matilda’s coming back to me!” at the top of my voice, full of excitement and longing heading to the airport to pick up my (long-distance) girlfriend (not called Mathilde) trying to drive away the bitterness and sadness of the realisation that the end of our relationship was inevitable and drawing closer, as she drew closer, temporarily tethering our diverging paths.
Ne Me Quitte Pas: Brel recorded two studio versions I know of, one with a weird annoying musical saw intro, and one that sounds like they raised Ravel or Debussy from the dead to record the piano accompaniment. Both will shatter your stone hard heart into innumerable pieces and cast them into the coldest corners of your life where they will bleed for Eternity.
Vesoul: Judith’s party. Playing DJ with the less popular CDs in the collection at an age when these things really mattered (to me). My stint on the decks resulted in a snack fight, throwing cheez puffz around the room, mostly at a girl who wanted to get off with me. Ended up getting off with her better looking pal. The song has that kind of frantic madness about it. And accordeons.
Voir un Ami Pleurer: For every friendship squandered, for every love lost, for near souls once so dear to us but never again to be encountered. “Of course our hearts lose their wings.”