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Recommended buy: "L'intégrale Jacques Brel"
10 CDs! Grand Jacques - La valse à mille temps - Les Flamandes - Le plat pays - Jef - J'arrive - Les Marquises - Brel en public : Olympia 61 - Brel en public : Olympia 64 - Ne me quitte pas - L'homme de la Mancha - Brel Knokke. All in all almost 8 hours of the most poignant and relevant of French chansons ever released.
>>> Order this CD-box at Proxis <<<
>>> 6.740 Bfr - 167,15 Euro - 147,59$ (on Oct 14, 2001) <<<

Legendary poet, performer, musician, actor, director.


"Ne me quitte pas"
46,1 sec. - 90 Kb.
song : Jacques Brel
Year : 1959
Record co. : Barclay

"Le plat pays"
37,0 sec. - 73 Kb.
song : Jacques Brel
Year : 1962
Record co. : Barclay

61,5 sec. - 121 Kb.
song : Brel, G. Jouannest
Year : 1961
Record co. : Barclay

40,5 sec. - 80 Kb.
song : Brel, G. Jouannest
Year : 1964
Record co. : Barclay

"Les Flamandes"
39,4 sec. - 77 Kb.
song : Jacques Brel
Year : 1972
Record co. : Barclay


Although it is often thought that Brel is French, his roots are in Belgium. Or, as Arno (who definitely has inherited a lot out of the legacy of Brel) once said in Humo "One thing we mustn't forget : Brel is the biggest singer-songwriter of all times. A wonderful human being : a loner, a brilliant storyteller, an excellent singer, a very good actor. And the energy on stage, and the things he was telling there ... that's pure rock'n'roll. And he was from Belgium, you know. The brightest songwriter of the whole world. We tend to forget that."

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 confines his poetry to paper. Brel feels locked in.
In 1953 he finally takes the gamble : he records a 78-tour with two songs ("La foire" and "Il y a"). The record is discovered in Paris by Jacques Cannetti (the writer and future winner of the Nobel Prize). After a session at the studios of BRT-radio Limburg, he decides to take another gamble : he goes to Paris by train. He performs in cabarets and music-halls, records some music, but stays mostly unnoticed (his aspirations were not so much to become a performer himself, but to write songs for others to perform) until 1957 when the song "Quand on a que l'amour" is discovered.

The themes in his work include friendship (Jef), goes from idolized love to hatred for women (Les Biches), from the belief in God to anticlericalism (à mon dernier repas) and from a certain sweetness to a manifest anti-conformism and a horror of hypocrisy (Les Bourgeouis, Le Moribond).

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."

Let the French intellectuals speak about him : "Son oeuvre, qui ne se distingue pas particulièrement par la recherche mélodique, brille surtout par une science du texte et du jeu de mots qui fonctionne essentiellement sur le principe des oppositions binaires (le noir et le blanc, les paires minimales approximatives) et sur une certaine prédilection pour le néologisme. Mais c'est sur scène que Brel frappe surtout, apportant à ses chansons une nouvelle dimension, gestuelle, grâce à un travail d'expression très minutieusement préparé". A poor translation would be : "His works excel, not so much because of the study of the melody, but because of a science of text and wordplay that functions essentially on the principle of binary opposition (black and white, approximate minimal pairs) and for a certain predestination for neologism. But it is on stage that Brel makes the biggest impression. He gives his songs a new dimension, in gestures, by a very carefully prepared expressionism." Although a bit bombastic : well said Gaston!

Or, as France Brel (his daughter) once said : "The French relate to my father intellectually, they analyze him. But the Belgians feel him. Brel is somebody who ate mussels and fries and drank beer. He belongs to them, he's one of them. It's a certain look. a way of being."

Brel has never denied his Belgian roots. A number of songs were recorded both in Dutch and in French (Mijn vlakke land - Le plat pays. De Burgerij - Les bourgeois). Others carry bits in Dutch (e.g. Marieke). He also often sings of the time of his youth and the country of his origin (Bruxelles, Le Plat Pays, Jacky ...). The song "Les F..." causes quite a stir in 1977 : Flemish nationalists and the clergy felt attacked.
But, says France Brel: "He also made fun of the clergy, the bourgeoisie, of everything. He loved to provoke, to demystify. In fact, he was very Flemish. He believed in discipline, hard work, he was always punctual. Our family is Flemish in character in many ways, Jacques was proud of his Flemish blood."
"If I were king," Brel himself once said, "I would send all the Flemings to Wallonia and all the Walloons to Flanders for six months. Like military service. They would live with a family and that would solve all our ethnic and linguistic problems very fast. Because everybody's tooth aches in the same way, everybody loves their mother, everybody loves or hates spinach. And those are the things that really count."

Some simple analogies also 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."

In 1967, he says farewell to the stage after the musical "L'homme de La Mancha" and dedicates most of his time to cinema. The reason : "he felt like a trained monkey unpacking his bag of tricks and singing the same songs every night". In "Vieillir", he ridicules himself : "thundering old men ... spitting out their last tooth singing Amsterdam". However, he continues to record songs.

In 1973, he had enough of the cinema as well and "retreats" to the Iles Marquises. After four years in that lonely paradise (the islands where Gauguin painted), he comes back to Paris and records another album.
To give an idea of the impact Brel has had during his lifetime this anecdote from "Big in Belgium" by Jan Delvaux : "In 1977, after a number of years of silence, he announces the release of an album. Eddie Barclay of his record company frees up all available means : the record goes into a box with a lock to all the French radio stations. On the official release date he announces them the secret code of the lock. The record sells 650.000 copies on the first day ! The total well surpasses 2 million." The album "Brel" contains all the themes of his oeuvre : friendship (Jojo), hatred of women (Les remparts de Varsovie, Le Lion), death (Vieillir) and generosity (Jaurès).

At the end of his life, lung cancer is discovered. In 1974 he has an operation in Brussels. He continues to sing with one lung, one song at a time. The disease gets the upperhand in October 1978. He is buried on the cemetery of Atuone on the island of Hiva-Oa on Tahiti.

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 interprets 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 scores a n°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".

As jazz-performer Mike Zwerin recalls : "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 that impact of Jacques Brel has been lost.

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