Thursday, July 29, 2010
Even Brel-ier than Before: Amsterdam
Until recently, like most of the hegemonic English-speaking world, I too was mostly ignorant of Jacques Brel. What a shame.
For those of us in living in the land of the Freedom Fries, we really don't have a proper cultural equivalent for the likes of Brel. Unlike many of his contemporaries at the time whose careers also came of age in the rock and roll era, Brel remained strangely inert from it. Perhaps it was the French in him. (More precisely, the Belgium-born, self-described "francophone Fleming" who spent most of his life in Paris in him.) The French never really got rock and roll anyway.
Sure, I'd heard Sinatra and Neil Diamond take their stabs at Brel (If You Go Away), and Bowie's take on Amsterdam (from a Mort Shuman's translation and a Dave Van Ronk arrangement). But now, through the grace of YouTube, to hear these songs in the master's voice, and face, is a another experience altogether. There's nothing in the covers that could prepare you for the originals.
The lyric of Amsterdam entails a mash-up of life's many tragedies described through the milieu of sailors on shore leave. There's no Tin Pan Alley in this Amsterdam, unless the Alley reached all the way to the Wiemar Republic and Bertolt Brecht. Brel's style as a performer is as much facial as it is vocal; his expressions, gestures and gesticulations, the whipping head shakes and Uzi-like rolls of the tongue, and the labial twisting in his French — and how theatrical are those teeth! — create a singular synergy that makes these performances so extraordinary. And then there's the way the song sneaks into its crescendo, almost unnoticeable, until he's nearly screaming at the end. This isn't "song styling" like you might expect from other singers: Not just new skin on an old nag, this. Instead, Brel's strikes are more surgical. Watch this and wonder if there are any singers, alive or dead (Brel passed in 1978), who might conjure more song out of their face than him? I don't think so. (His years spent on the cabaret stage were not for nothing.)
I chose this version for the English subtitles. The performance stands with or without the story, but the story adds even more gleam to the song's razor edge. (Appreciation to the translator for adding the double entendres.)