Monday, October 21, 2013

Momma, can you hear me yell, Your baby boy's gone back to hell: Jacques Brel in Spirit and Word

I've made my case for Jacques Brel before (here and here). Brel ( 1929-1978) was the Belgian singer/songwriter capable of wringing more expression from his teeth than a legion of vocal contestants from The Voice/American Idol/etc. His performances were a masterful balance of black comedy and heart shattered pathos delivered like a meth-crashing Pagliacci. And if the vocal and facial intensity weren't enough, watch him sweat buckets enough for a menopausal squad of Tina Turners. Intensity was his meat.

But what of the songs? Even in their English "translations" his lyrics are the opposite of cloying and sentimental. He seemed incapable of seeing love as anything other than humiliating, doomed, or worse, cancerous; or, as in Mathilde, all three together. (Not ironically it was lung cancer that took Brel's life at 49.) Purists have argued that the only way to understand the true depths of Brel is to hear him in his original French. No doubt this might be the preferred vehicle for the French enabled but that's not to say that some of the third-party English reworkings don't have a power of their own. (The title of this post is a line from one such translation.) As representatives of the translations, both Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey make cases of their own, understatement in the former and eye-shifting displays of power in the latter.

See Brel in action with a series posted at Network Awesome.

Below, Scott Walker—who famously recorded a hefty number of Brel translations—takes a crack at a reworking of Mathilde.

It's been argued that Michigander creative writing professor Dr Arnold Johnston may be the best translator for locating the truest spirit of Brel. As he notes in the video below, after Ne me quitte pas was voted Love Song of the Century in Europe, Brel asserted that it was not a love song at all but a description of one man's humiliation. Vocally, Johnston's performance will never suspend beliefs that he's anything but a professor singing in a small town library, still, he manages to get his point across.

Below, two Brel chestnuts offered with a little perspective and translations that promise to be more in the maestro's spirit:

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