Why you should care
Because this snarling, dark genius influenced singers the world over, from Sinatra to Bowie.
While the Beatles were making girls swoon with their mop-top flips and youthful, cheeky grins, a different and profoundly darker performer was casting a spell on European audiences.
The figure on stage wore conservative suits, howled like a turn-of-the-century Delta bluesman and wracked his body with snarls. He seemed to come apart by the end of each song, leaving his fans both enraptured and unsettled.
Jacques Brel is to Belgium — and most of the French-speaking world — what Frank Sinatra is to the U.S.
Jacques Brel is to Belgium — and most of the French-speaking world — what Frank Sinatra is to the U.S. But he remains off many an English-speaking radar.
Brel came of age in wartime Belgium, part of a strict, tight-knit Catholic family. In the early 1950s, as a new husband and father, he started performing his own music, which openly challenged the repressive norms of his community, criticized the social elite and verged on blasphemy. After moving to Paris, his cabaret singing drew a larger audience, leading to North African and European gigs.
The singer’s emerging career highlighted the changing times: He often played at Christian venues backed by orchestral bands but attracted raucous audiences and attention from America, a rare feat at the time for non-English speakers. It wasn’t long before Brel was enjoying a new level of stardom despite his gangly frame, massive teeth and pronounced Belgian accent.
Brel may not have fit the image of the fresh-faced pop star, but for postwar Europe — still economically depressed and struggling to rebuild — his somber lyrics spoke to the disillusioned, uneasy mood of the time. His gently mocking portraits of townsfolk in “Ces Gens-Là” (“Those People”), so like his wry “Les Bourgeois,” contrast bluntly with his personal loss of faith, delivered with loud smacks of his lips and damning hand gestures: “I must say, monsieur/That those people don’t think, monsieur/They pray.”
He delivers his biggest hit, “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (“Don’t Leave Me”), with visible anguish, drenched in sweat and near tears. In “Amsterdam” and “Le Moribond” (“The Dying”), he sways and shudders, lifting his chin defiantly before exiting the stage.
[His songs] were truthful and fearless — and gave meaning to an uncertain era.
Brel’s punishing live shows, which kept him on the road for more than 10 months a year, took a profound physical toll on the singer. Eventually he cut back on his schedule and launched a film career, but his incessant chain-smoking caught up with him. Brel died of lung cancer at age 49, an early death that — like his fellow French-language grandstander Édith Piaf — merely added to his legend.
In the wake of his death, the English-speaking world started to catch on, including singers whose appreciation for his work helped spread Brel’s name in America and the U.K. David Bowie and Scott Walker translated covers of “Amsterdam,” Nick Cave did Scott Walker’s rendering of “Au Suivant” and both Nina Simone and Sinatra’s English version of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” gave new life to the Belgian star’s sometimes witty, ofttimes wrenching lyrics.
At home in Belgium, Brel’s influence continues to hold sway with young musicians — like the lanky, suited Stromae — who channel him in their 21st-century, angst-ridden ballads.
In a time marked by ambiguity and anxiety, Brel delivered songs that may not have been easy or easily categorized, but they were truthful and fearless — and gave meaning to an uncertain era.