Today is the birthday of Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer and songwriter who had a hugely successful career in the late Fifties and into the Sixties. I first heard his music with the stage show Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which was made into a film around 1974. Alive and well he may have been but he only lived three or four years after the film was released, dying in 1978.
I had heard of him before the film because he was often mentioned in conjunction with Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Both are comparable to him in some ways, not least because of the extreme positions their lyrics can take. Because he writes in French, Brel can be even more elliptical than either of those worthies. He was also a big influence on David Bowie, who recorded a version of Brel’s “Amsterdam” (in the translation from Alive and Well) and also performed “My Death” often on his Spiders from Mars tour. Several of Brel’s songs, in the Alive and Well translations, were also recorded by Scott Walker. I have to say though, that when it comes to English versions, I still prefer the performances in Alive and Well because they are given the theatricality that came naturally to Brel and which even a showman of Bowie’s caliber doesn’t quite get across.
Today’s song, “Ne me quitte pas,” is the only song that Brel performs in Alive and Well, and so it’s the only one sung in the original French. The translation, “If You Go Away,” by Rod McKuen, was recorded by Walker and also by the likes of Frank Sinatra, and many others. The English version doesn’t really do justice to the original (as is the case with most of the translations, though the Alive and Well versions create at times satisfying songs in their own right—such as “Amsterdam,” “Next,” “Jackie,” and “The Middle Class”).
When I was in high school, a huge radio hit was the super-insipid cover of Brel’s “Le mourant” (“the dying man”) called “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks. I always held Rod McKuen, its translator, and the author of many books of “poetry” to be found in fine reading establishments such as drugstores and Hallmark stores, responsible for how awful that version was. But come to find out that McKuen’s lyrics did try to match the acid bite of Brel’s; it was Jacks, apparently, who changed them into the cretinous nonsense that became the bane of the airwaves.
Anyway, Brel has a great way with a phrase and he has a way of singing that is bodily, involving every bit of him. It’s a very passionate approach to performing. In this song, there’s a powerful tension between longing and regret and the pleading that takes the lyrics into some interesting imagery. I’ve linked to a video of Brel singing in French with the English subtitles, and also to a recording with the subtitles in both English and French. I like seeing Brel sing it but I also like seeing the French words.
“Ne me quitte pas” is a haunting song with that airy viol and the droplets of piano notes. It feels misty with time right from the opening. Some favorite moments, for me: “Oublier le temps / Des malentendus / Et le temps perdu” (Forget the times / Of misunderstandings / And the time lost), and this great verse (listen to how he sings it, even if you don’t know French):
Moi, je t’offirai
Des perles de pluie
Venues de pays
Ou il ne pleut pas.
Je creuserai la terre
Jusqu’après ma mort
Pour couvrir ton corps
D’or et de lumière.
Je ferai un domaine
Où l’amour sera roi
Où l’amour sera loi
Où tu seras reine.
(Me [yes], I’ll offer you / Pearls of rain / Taken from a land / Where it never rains. / I’ll dig up the earth / Until after my death / To cover your body / In gold and bright light. / I’ll create a domain / Where love will be king / Where love will be law / Where you shall be queen.)
Only in French can you get that wonderful sound effect of “l’amour sera roi” “l’amour sera loi.” Brel exploits those sound effects quite effectively and the recurring phrase “ne me quitte pas” can’t find any substitute that is so well expressed: “Don’t leave me,” “don’t desert me,” “don’t quit me,” etc.
The part about the fire erupting “de l’ancien volcan” is also nice and the idea of “le rouge and le noir” marrying one another in the burning, like those lovers who have seen their hearts twice catch fire. These are all figures for the return of passion to the romance, and the idea of becoming “the shadow of your shadow” (l’ombre de ton ombre) has a wonderful feel of blending, and swallowing all difference.
For English listeners, here’s Scott Walker’s version. As you can see, “If You Go Away” is a very different sentiment, and a very different song.