Monday, February 06, 2006


Some prople think that Jacques Brel was the biggest singer-songwriter of all times. A wonderful human being : a loner, a brilliant storyteller, an excellent singer, a very good actor. Born in the year 1929 in a well-off family in Schaarbeek, Brussels. In between his studies (Saint-Louis), his military service (in Limburg), a marriage, kids and work in a cardboard factory he confined his poetry to paper

For Brel, the words to the music were more important than the music itself : "He wanted to get a message across. Not paying attention to the lyrics, you lose Brel. His heroes and anti-heroes come from life itself. Above all, he uses his personal experience, he projects his dreams. He is haunted by the effect of time on the body, the disgrace and the physical degradation. For the women in his songs, the breasts are often portrayed as lowering. For the men and for himself, Brel fears aging more than death itself."

The legacy of Brel : some 100 songs, the appearances in his films, the International Brel foundation, films of his live-performances at the Olympia in Paris and the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels that send shivers down your spine.

Brel surely is one of the most covered artists around. Among the interpreters of his music are the likes of Scott Walker, Alex Harvey, Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey, David Bowie, Nina Simone, Mark Almond, Arno, Leonard Cohen ...

His talent also widely surpasses the areas of the world where French is spoken : In America for example, Terry Jacks scored a number 1 hit with an adaptation of Le Moribond (Seasons in the sun) and even to this day a "libretto-less" musical tours the country : "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris".

Here's a story that illustrates Brel's impact. As jazz-performer Mike Zwerin recalled : "my friend ... called me and asked if I wanted to go to Carnegie Hall with him that night to hear 'some Frenchman named Brel' sing. Neither one of us had ever heard of him or understood one word of French, but free tickets are free tickets. We were surprised to find the hall packed. We were even more astonished when we heard Mr. Brel. Though jazz musicians are known for their hostility to singers in general - considering them a commercial necessity taking away time from more talented instrumentalists - we were overwhelmed. Transfixed. Brel's language was universal and the intensity of the performance overflowed the boundary of such a limiting definition as 'singer'."

Now 20 years after his death, almost nothing of the impact of Jacques Brel has been lost. Some simple analogies could give you an impression of the power of Brel : "as poetic as Bob Dylan, as introspective as John Lennon, as virile as Bruce Springsteen; his intense stage presence, and the killing involvement it reflected, was reminiscent of Edith Piaf."

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