Jacques Brel | Olympia 64 (1964)
Barclay / Universal (Belgium)
Chanson – 48:12
“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
Ahh – Paris. A city of philosophy; a city of revolution; a city of culture; a city of love. And, unfortunately for me, a city which speaks a different language. Literally. My attempts at French finished 20 years ago, when my GCSE in the language came to an end (with, it must be said, a respectable B grade). Since then, it has fallen by the wayside; like so much of my education to that level, a subject which I learned in order to pass an exam before promptly forgetting everything about it. Having not been to France since my mid-teens either, I’ve had no cause to remember it. Instead, aside from a few pointless phrases (“Ou est la gare, sil vous plait?” – not helpful when you can’t understand the response), I have erased it from my mind. Which causes a problem when it comes to understanding anything about Olympia 64.
Singer Jacques Brel is considered to have been one of the world’s greatest chanteurs. Born in Belgium, by the mid-1960s he was revered in both his native country and his adopted one (France) for his performance of chansons. For those not au fait with this particular genre of music, it is a French style originally dating back to the Middle Ages; epic poems performed to simple tunes. By the middle of the last century, they had developed in content, but the essence remained; they were masterly written poems of love, loss and death. The lyrics are a vital part of the style – and therein lies my problem. If the words are central to understanding chasons, then my lack of French knowledge is a major hindrance in my appreciation of the tunes. Unless I learn the language very quickly, Brel’s interpretation of the poetry is completely meaningless.
Digging on the internet and in books (my copy of 1001 Albums… being one of them) has revealed the meaning behind some of the tracks: essentially they cover the topics of either sex or death (and usually both). The occasional word will seep through and there is the sudden glimmer that you may actually understand part of a song (“I think this one is asking the way to the railway station…”), but within the space of a few notes, you are back to listening to an incomprehensible language. Which should mean that I don’t like it – how can you appreciate something that you don’t understand? But unlike jazz (which I want to like but struggle to comprehend), Brel’s performance on Olympia 64 is rather beautiful. Because while I don’t understand the words, I can hear the passion.
Brel was a consummate storyteller and his ability to turn a yarn is evident on this album. Perhaps it is the fact that it is a live album which gives him an extra passion, but even without knowing what is said, you can understand the emotions behind the words. There is a line in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) puts on an opera record featuring two women which is heard in the prison yard; fellow inmate ‘Red’ Redding, on hearing it, says:
“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”
The same is true for me and Jacques Brel; I don’t know what he’s singing about, but there is a beauty to it. You can create your own stories from the music and Brel’s passionate singing. Sometimes all you need to appreciate good music; the voice of a singer who truly believes in the words he is performing – a man who is living the stories in his songs. And Brel does this to perfection.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Olympia 64 here:
Next time: Rock ‘n’ Soul by Solomon Burke