A couple or three years ago, whilst in the fair city of Brussels, I had a long list of things to see and do, as I hadn’t been there since a school trip many years previously.
On my list was beer (various) Frites (hold the mayo!) see what costume the Manneken Pis was wearing that day, say hello to my cousin Deb, who has lived out there for years, and take in a visit to the Foundation Jacques Brel, a museum dedicated to the singer of the same name.
I have been a fan of Brel for many years, though I’m not entirely sure why or how? All I know is, I find his lyrics intriguing and his singing style and performances captivating. I picked up a wonderful DVD called ‘Les Adieux a l’ Olympia’ a good few years ago and that simply cemented the deal.
As we will discover over the next few paragraphs, the man has written some songs that you will be familiar with, though possibly performed by other people, and plenty of you will read about him for the first time perhaps, but if your curiosity is piqued just one little bit, and you check out him and his work, then that is all I can hope for.
Jacques Romain Georges Brel was born in Brussels in April 1929 and was from Flemish descent, though his middle-class family spoke French at home. From an early age, Brel displayed a talent for writing. Poetry, short stories and essays, all of which revealed a healthy imagination. He was a member of a youth organisation called La Franche Cordee undertaking voluntary work in the local area, and this is where he met his future wife Miche.
He also served as a corporal in the Belgian Air Force. Not long after leaving the military he began performing locally at cabaret nights. Talent scouts from Philips Records soon spotted him and he was whisked off to Paris to further his career. This was a big step for him, as he was now the father to two, soon to be three, daughters.
He himself struggled at first to gain acceptance as a performer, but his songs were beginning to get noticed, with singer Juliette Greco requesting permission to release his composition ‘The Devil (it’s OK.)’
Brel then toured all over France and later performed at the prestigious Olympia in Paris as his career began to take shape. He began working with pianist Francois Dauber, who would become his accompanist from then on. His singles began to have some success, with ‘When You Only Have Love’ hitting the number three spot in the French charts.
His ultra passionate performance on stage was also gaining him a strong reputation and he was proving to be a very popular draw on his return visits to The Olympia. He was now performing regularly on the same bill as the greats of the French stage, such as the likes of Maurice Chevalier, Michel Legrand, Serge Gainsbourg and Charles Aznavour.
His career was growing fast. However, his wife Miche had taken herself and the kids back to Brussels on discovering the many extramarital affairs Brel had been having.
His work continued though, and his fifth album for Philips in 1961 contained songs that would go on to be Brel classics, such as ‘Le Moribund – The Dying Man’ and ‘Marieke’. His name was now known all over France and he was declared the new ‘King of the chanson.’
Now newly signed to Barclay records, releases included ‘Madeleine’, and ‘Les Filles et les Chiens’ (Girls and Dogs) and ‘Amsterdam’ both later covered by Scot Walker in his burgeoning solo period. Brel’s songs were now also gaining an international reputation; with American performer Rod McKuen translating them into English. ‘Le Moribund’ later became ‘Seasons in the Sun’ which became a huge international hit for the Canadian singer Terry Jacks.
Brel’s touring schedule, which took him all over Europe and then to the USA to perform at The Carnegie Hall, was beginning to take its toll however and he decided to quit the live work. The DVD I mentioned earlier caught his final shows over three weeks at The Olympia as he said his farewells.
He also gave final concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London and then once again at The Carnegie Hall. Many of his songs were now covered in English, with perhaps ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ (If You Go Away) among the most memorable translations. He tidied up his final scheduled performances and then decided to sail around the World, declaring his intention to return as an actor.
Which he did. 1967 saw him appear in the film ‘Les Risques du Metier’ and in 1968 he premiered on stage in Brussels in 1968 in the musical ‘Man of La Mancha’ which was very well received by the critics. Other film work included ‘La Bande a Bonnet’, ‘Mon Oncle Benjamin’ and ‘L’venture, chest l’venture’ in which he met Maddly Bamy, the young actress, he would settle down with for the rest of his life.
Brel then discovered he was gravely ill in 1973. He drew up a will, in which he left everything he had to his wife Miche and he also set up a foundation to help disabled children.
He returned to sailing, planning a three-year trip around the world with Maddly. However, he was now suffering from advanced lung cancer. I guess this was hardly surprising. At one time Brel was an eighty cigarettes a day man. Treatment followed and all the while, Brel continued to sell records in the millions, despite hardly recording any new work.
He was now back in Paris as his health deteriorated. Aged 49 in October 1978, he finally succumbed to the illness and died of a pulmonary embolism. He was buried on Hiva Oa Island, French Polynesia.
His legacy is, of course, the music he left behind. He composed over 400 songs, many of which have been covered by Shirley Bassey to David Bowie, from Marc Almond to Liza Minnelli. They have also been translated into 95 different languages.
Songs I would suggest to check out would include ‘Mathilde’, the original ‘La Chanson de Jacky’ and its English version ‘Jackie’, ‘Mijn Vlakke Land’ and ‘Next – Au Suivant.’
Whilst writing this, I have discovered that there has been a statue of Brel, called ‘L’envol’ – ‘The Flight’ recently unveiled in Brussels.
It seems I have one more destination to aim for next time I’m out that way.
The Mumper of SE5