Brel under a bridge

brelOver this last weekend, Jacques Brel was paid tribute under the bridge Torensluis. Brug 9 is an amazing location indeed — keep an eye on their agenda. Below I pasted an article I wrote for the 25th anniversary of his death.

Brussels Goes Brel/
The Face of Brelssels/
Oui, I’m Talkin’ to Jou: Brel is Belgian!


The Globe & Mail, 2003

¬†Brussels is out to remind the world that the king of French chanson, Jacques Brel, was in fact as Belgian as fries, waffles, comic books and bilingualism. This chain-smoking icon of heart-on-your-sleeve expressionism died from lung cancer 25 years ago and his hometown is now spending 2003 striving to commemorate him with an intensity that befits a man of such walloping charisma. By organizing hundreds of events such as concerts, cabarets, exhibitions, guided tours, sculpture competitions and outdoor screenings of concert films, it’s as if Brussels wants to overshadow its perceived facelessness brought on by being home to EU bureaucracy with Brel’s horse-toothed and handsome face convincingly twitching between tender romanticism and spitting vitriol within a single wheeze of a melancholic accordion. And indeed, Brel can be seen as worthy poster boy for the dream of what the EU should be. His songs and performances – both singular in their urgent need to shake the world free of hypocrisy – transcended language barriers and made for large rapt audiences whenever he toured across Europe, USA, USSR and the Middle East. As one of the most covered songwriters in history, Brel’s message was also echoed in such diverse English interpreters as David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey, Nina Simone and Mark Almond. He also came up with a concept for Belgium that seems equally applicable for across Europe (not to mention, Canada…): “If I were king, 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”. ¬†

But what really counted for Brel was to follow his heart and that meant that he was quick to forsake his family’s suburban Brussels cardboard factory – as well as a wife and two daughters – for the chanson clubs of 1950s Paris. Here he paid his dues with years of heckling from the black turtleneck set who could not quite get their beret clad head around this rather odd and emoting foreign entity. But with the help of the business brain of Jacques Canetti (brother of the Nobel Prize winning writer, Elias) and an immortal song, “Ne me quitte pas”, Brel entered the 1960s as France’s most shining star. With the mastery of his art, he could now nail audiences to their seats with his sweaty and intense sincerity. But just as American journalists were hailing him as the “magnetic hurricane”, his heart told him to quit the “idiotic game” of touring and with typical dramatic flair he emphasized his resolve by coming out during his 1967 farewell concert dressed in pyjamas and slippers. But he did not rest… Perhaps spurred by the feeling of mortality brought on by a cancer diagnosis, he went on to focus his considerable energies on film acting and directing while still finding plenty of time to indulge in his passions for flying, yachting and exotic affairs. This latter obsession subsided when during his last film, L’aventure c’est l’aventure, he fell in love with the young dancer/actress Madly Bamy and together they spent the last four years of his life on Hiva-Oa island, the same Polynesian pearl made famous by Gaugain. Here Brel created a huge fan base among the natives by air taxiing much needed supplies between the islands. He only returned to Europe on occasion: once in 1977 to record his final album – managing to attain new heights with but a single lung – and the last time to die at age 49. His body was later returned to Hiva-Oa and buried a few meters from Gaugain.

Paying worthy tribute to such a dynamic legend – especially one who did not shy away from depicting his countrymen as “Nazis during the wars and Catholics in between” – has proven a challenge. For example, the contrast between an inspired exhibition of comic strip tributes and the decidedly kitsch fireworks program at the Mini-Europe theme park seems to suggest that Belgium remains a divided country. But perhaps a year’s worth of reminders to Brel’s legacy will prove unifying. As his daughter France observed: “While the French relate to my father intellectually… the Belgians feel him. Brel is somebody who ate mussels and fries and drank beer. He belongs to them, he’s one of them.” And visitors to Brussels can perhaps best express their oneness to the idea of both a united Belgium and a united Europe by settling themselves down in one of Brel’s charming old haunts to listen to his worldly tunes and to indulge in some fine mussels, fries and beer…

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Posted in Uncategorized 13 years, 1 month ago at 10:59 am.

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