Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Distractionfest 2008: day 1 - Jacques Brel

Dear friend James gently chided me over the weekend for not posting more than twice a month recently. He was right, of course, I have been otherwise occupied for a while. But never one to miss an opportunity to overaccept an offer, particularly one of James', I hereby announce that today begins the annual installment of Distractionfest:

Distractionfest 2008
...because you demanded it!

Well, by 'you', of course, I mean 'James' - only he didn't really demand it either.
But before getting further bogged down, let us dash on to other matters.

Over the last year I have been acquainting myself with the delights of French pop music, in particular some of the songs of Jacques Brel (about whom I have known for a while, and even own a CD of his which is in storage in the US). But I have realised that, as incredible as Brel is to hear, he is even more moving to see.

Probably the best known song of Brel's to American audiences is 'Ne Me Quitte Pas' (translated - quite inadequately - into English as 'If You Go Away', and covered by numerous artists such as Dusty Springfield. A better translation would be 'Don't leave me'.). It is a desperate, poignant - and ultimately fruitless - plea for a lover to stay. It moves me whenever I listen to it; it is hard for me to watch him sing it without becoming choked up. Some have described it as a love song, but that's wrong - although it might be Romantic in a certain sort of (capitalised) way. It is filled with such raw, pleading emotion, only to end with abandonment; it's not love, but a deeply poignant vulnerability, a humanity. The video clearly shows Brel as both an astounding lyricist and an amazingly talented performer. He clearly communicates the emotion, without going 'over the top'; watch it, even if you can't follow the French, and see if it doesn't affect you. Vraiment, un maître!

Another song of Brel's which I have discovered more recently is Amsterdam, first performed live in 1964 and apparently not originally intended for recording, it is nevertheless another of his more popular songs (and covered in English by many, including David Bowie). When first performed, it was met with a three minute standing ovation, almost 30 seconds longer than the song itself. The music itself, as well as the singing, constitutes a crescendo which builds to the very end. The lyrics themselves speak about sailors in the port of Amsterdam and all that they do there - sing, sleep, dream, be born, die, whore, eat, drink (and drink, and drink), and so on. One commentator - who posted the 1966 version with English subtitles on YouTube - described this as 'Brel's vision of freedom', the implication being that this is something great and good. But interestingly, the singer himself - in the form of I (je) - only appears in the very last full line before the final chorus: 'Et quand ils ont bien bu Se plantent le nez au ciel Se mouchent dans les étoiles Et ils pissent comme je pleure Sur les femmes infidèles' = 'And when they [i.e. the sailors] are well and truly drunk, they put their noses in the sky and blow their noses in the stars and they piss like I weep for the unfaithful wives.'

I think, on the contrary, that this is deeply ambiguous about freedom: the narrator's not a sailor, the women of Amsterdam (or at another point in the song, Hamburg) are not sailors. They instead endure the sailors who sail from place to place with no home, no roots, exercising a kind of 'freedom' which is parasitic on those they find themselves amongst. The narrator does not style himself as eating, sleeping, singing, whoring, drinking, enjoying it all but merely weeping. Not accidentally, this comes at the very end of the song, at the very height of the crescendo; after that, the refrain is hastily repeated twice and it all ends abruptly, perhaps to some surprise, and we are left wondering about this reversal. I don't think this is a paean to freedom at all, but a startling presentation of its enduring ambiguities.

The presentation is dramatic and, like the other, worth a look even if you don't know French.

Come back tomorrow for more Distractionfest 2008 - space and time permitting.

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Blogger James Lark said...

Vive la distractionfest!!

And many thanks for directing me to these clips of the mighty Brel.

My favourite Brel cover version is to be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfwbRWMuNS0

And although it was Bowie who first introduced me to "Amsterdam", let's also give kudos to the Dresden Dolls, not least because they perform it in the original French: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEM4SJ8YH5w

Thursday, February 07, 2008 12:55:00 PM  
Blogger marcia said...

Thank you very much for this, Jason, very moving indeed...

And some distraction comes in handy anyway :-)

Friday, February 08, 2008 2:08:00 PM  

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