Quand on n'a que l'amour.
Jacques Brel once said that "in a mans life, there are two important dates :
his birth and his death. Everything we do in-between is not very important." If taken literally, this would mean reducing his whole life to an elliptic
"1929-1978", abrupt and cold as grave markings. Yet there is so much to say about his life, and not only about his career as a singer.
For starters, although some people are overeagerly trying to lat' claim on him as
one of the greatest figures of French chanson, we should not sweep the Belgian issue under the carpet. For Brel was Belgian to the extreme, as he was extreme in
everything he did, clearly and loudly claiming his "Belgianness." Born to a Flemish but French-speaking family, he always had a. conflict meaning
"passionate" relationship with his home country, readily saying that Belgium was actually "only an abstraction" since the country in its current
form has only existed since 1830, i.e. barely a hundred years before his birth. He ridiculed it at times to the point of caricature or made splendid declarations of
love to it such as "Le Plat Pays" and "Mon Père disait".
But Jacques Romain Georges Brel was born in Belgium, on April 8, 1929 in Schaarbeek,
a Brussels suburb at a stone's throw from tramline 32 mentioned in "Madeleine". Whether an abstraction or pot, Belgium is the environment where he
grew up and would be the backdrop for many of his future songs. It is a rainy setting, where "from gloom to silence" Jacques was dreaming of China and the
Far West and stifled in an obstructed world : "My line of horizon was limited to one or two hundred meters, with a factory, a coat mining plant - or - whatever
always blocking the view." Later he tried to erase the boundaries of these landscapes by learning to pilot a plane and sailing across the ocean.
"White waiting for that day, I am sometimes bored", sighs the character
in a song strongly inspired by The Tamar Steppe by Dina Buzzati. Like him, Jacques was bored in his family's cardboard factory where his father had hired him to end
his poor academic achievements which never went beyond junior high school. After spending almost twenty years of his life in Belgium‑colonized Congo, his
father was then managing the factory as a prosperous bourgeois. "My father was a gold digger", wrote Jacques about him. "The problem is that he did
Both attracted by acting and playing and needing to meet other people, Jacques
joined the Franche Cordée, an amateur Catholic‑inspired troop performing for free in homes for the sick and elderly. In addition to learning to play the
guitar and sing, Jacques developed his natural gifts as an emcee and showman and Boon became leader of the troop. It was also white at the Franche Cordée that he
met Thérèse Michielsen a.k.a. "Miche", who became his wife on June 1, 1950. One and a half years later, the couple celebrated the birth of their first
child, a daughter named Chantal.
Stuck between his lob at the cardboard factory and his responsibilities as a young
husband and Esther, Jacques seemed to have permanently settled down. But security and certainty were a burden to him and he was secretly dreaming of adventure. And,
at that point, adventure wore the face of singing.
His real debut as a singer took place at the Brussels cabaret La Rose Noire. A few
months later he made a non-commercial test recording for the Belgian operation of the Philips label which eventually ended up in the hands of Jacques Canetti, the
most extraordinary talent scout of that era. Excited by what he had heard, Canetti invited Brel to perform in Paris for a two-week trial period in his music theater
Les Trois Baudets.
success was limited, but Jacques did not care and, after this first contract, decided to quit his father's factory and try his lock. He moved to Paris. a decision
made all the more difficult since Miche had recently borne him a second daughter named
Day after day, Brel was struggling, performing every night in several different
cabarets, given that each of them only paid him a pittance. He suffered countless rebuffs and cruel jeers partly because of this unattractive looks, but also doe to
the Boy-Scout-like naiveté of his repertoire which earned him the insensitive nickname "Abbot Brel." Yet, behind the clumsy preaching of the young
Christian resembling of the Franche Cordée, the clear-headedness of an anxious albeit uncompromising man was already showing.
In early 1954, Jacques Canetti had his protégé record a debut LP. It was a
commercial failure, but Canetti refused to give up and, white waiting for Brel's talent to mature and reach a mainstream audience, he sent him to learn the ropes in
the provinces and even to Morocco, beside such distinct diverse artists as jazz musician Sidney Bechet, French singers Dario Moreno, Philippe Clay and Catherine
Sauvage and French comedians Poiret & Serrault and Raymond Devos.
In March 1965, Miche, along with their daughters, joined him in France. That Same
year marked Brel's first meeting with Georges "Jojo" Pasquier who soon became
his inseparable companion in the multiple capacities of driver, stage manager, secretary and right-hand man.
After Canetti managed to talk the Philips
managers into taking another shot, Jacques Brel recorded a second LP, which received the Academie Charles Cros Award in 1957 and included "Quand on n'a que
l'amour" as the opening track Brel's first real hit song.
By that time, several signs were revealing
Jacques's nascent success. Simone Langlois had recently recorded an album entirely written by him for which she would receive the Grand Prix du Disque award the
following year and Juliette Gréco had included "Le Diable" in her repertoire.
Meanwhile, Jacques, who was on tour in
Grenoble, France, made another crucial encounter when he met pianist and conductor Francois Rauber, who soon explained to him that writing melodies on a guitar -
and given the few chords Brel knew - would only curb his inspiration. From then on, Brel and Rauber never stopped working together and the latter would write the
arrangements for all the recordings to come. The Charles Cros award greatly improved the relationship with Philips and Jacques recorded a third LP in June 1958
which sold over 40,000 copies within two months, a very respectable score at the time. Although Brel was not quite a star yet, he had attracted a faithful following
and the lean years were drawing to a close.
Miche was pregnant again and chose to
deliver her baby in Brussels. Brel was therefore alone in Paris as he prepared for L'Olympia in a supporting act to Philippe Clay, a contract signed the hard way
because L'Olympia manager Bruno Coquatrix still had "Abbot Brel" in mind and did not want to hear about him. During the premiere, however, Brel literally
brought down the house and Philippe Clay's performance paled in comparison. In the next day's papers. a journalist summed up the general feeling in one brief
sentence: "The best part in the program Jacques Brel!"
To reach complete star status, Brel had to
quickly confirm his L'Olympia success, which he did through his next record. with songs such as "La Valse à mille temps", "La Dame
patronnesse", "Les Flamandes", "La Colombe" and most of all "Ne me quitte pas".
With over 500,000 records sold within six
months, "La Valse à mille temps" was a proverbial "smashing hit" and "Ne me quitte pas" would become Brel's ultimate
classic. From then on, Brel toured frenetically. Asking Charley Marouani, his agent, not to turn down any offer as a matter of principle, he would give as many as
three hundred recitals a year, a pace all the more frantic since he barely slept he was hanging out in bars and clubs until the wee hours, drinking beer, chain
smoking cigarettes and reinventing the world with Jojo.
The last test before Great Jacques no
longer had to prove himself came in October 1961, obviously at L'Olympia, where French rocker Johnny Hallyday had just pushed his audience to the verge of rioting
with furious twist music and broken seats. Marlene Dietrich, who was supposed to perform after him, diplomatically withdrew and nobody else wanted to risk being too
closely compared to Johnny. Only Brel accepted the challenge, which was typical of him.
At the time when the "Blue Angel"
should have performed, Brel came on stage supported by Francois Auber's and Gerard Jouannest's pianos and Grand Orchestre de l'Olympia conducted by Daniel Janin,
with a fifteen-song set including "Les Prénoms de Paris", "Les Bourgeois", "Les Flamandes", "Marieke",
"Madeleine", "L'Ivrogne", "La Valse à mille temps", "Ne me quitte pas", "Le Moribond"
and "Quand on n'a que l'amour". The next day, the press was raving but Edith Piaf's opinion probably summed it up best: "He goes to the limit
of his strength because, through his singing, he expresses his reason for living and each line hits you in the face and leaves you dazed."
A live LP captured the extraordinary
atmosphere during this recital. At the same time, a new studio LP of songs created for the occasion marked the end of Brel's collaboration with Philips.
As his contract with the Dutch record
company was about to terminate, Jacques Brel decided to work with Eddie Barclay, harvesting three enormous hits from the outset "Rosa", "Bruxelles"
and "Le Plat Pays".
At this point in his career and creative
development, Brel seemed ever more inspired and his songwriting was asserting itself as violent poetry where the sound of the words was as significant as their
meaning. At the same time, his already maddeningly fast lifestyle seemed to pick up even more speed, as he increased his touring, traveling and projects. He learned
to sail a ship and to pilot an airplane. His compulsion to make the most of his life was boundless and, whatever aroused his interest or curiosity, he always had to
"check it out."
It was often mentioned how extraordinarily
comfortable Jacques Brel was in a studio, singing everything live, with all musicians present and never
The year 1964 was marked by personal problems for Jacques Brel (his father and
mother died within two months of each other) as well as what is considered to be the crowning point of his career. A new series of recitals at L'Olympia in October
1964 shaped both his personal legend and the history of this famous music hall. For this is when he created "Amsterdam", to a completely stunned audience who,
right in the middle of the set, gave him a standing ovation and demanded an encore. Needless to say, the rest of the performance with "Les Vieux", "Les
Toros", "Le Plat Pays", "Les Bonbons", "Mathilde", "Les Bourgeois", "Jef",
"Au suivant", "Madeleine", etc. was also a triumph This Olympia 64 album received the Francis Carco award from Academie du Disque
and Brel was nominated Best Singer of the Year by magazine Music-hall. At the same time, a book about him was released by a major French publisher. Jacques Brel was
now top of the class and would remain so until he decided to vacate this position.
At this stage, one might have wondered what being a singer could still bring to
this man constantly trying to discover and experiment with new things. Not much, probably, especially since his new passion, flying a plane, was taking more and
more of his time and energy. Therefore, after releasing one final, masterpiece LP (featuring "Ces Gens-là", "Jacky", "Grand-mère",
"L'âge idiot", "Fernand", "Les Désespérés"), Brel announced that he was permanently retiring from the stage.
But these farewells were extended over a long period of time because Brel had signed so many contracts in advance that it took him close to a year to fulfill all of
them. Then, after literally cramming L'Olympia for almost one full month, New York's Oarnegie Hall and London's Albert Hall, he had his last performance in a small
movie theater in Roubaix, France. For his very final bow to a heartbreaking standing ovation, he had these overwhelmingly simple words : "Thank You. This
justifies fifteen years of love."
Opposed to the concept of funerary monuments, Jacques Brel refused to release a
live album from these farewell recitals but, since retiring from the stage did not mean renouncing his recording career, he put out a new studio album several
months later (featuring "Mon Enfance", "La Chanson des vieux amants", "Mon père disait", "Le Gaz",
etc.) Then he turned to acting and, over the next six years, played in a dozen films with mixed success, including two movies he wrote and directed himself (Franz
and Le Far-West).
In late 1968, after an exceptionally intense final album (featuring "J'arrive",
"Je suis un soir d'été", "L'éclusier", "Regarde bien petit", "L'Ostendaise", etc.), Jacques Brel
finally turned the page. However, he later staged the musical Man of La Mancha about Don Quixote, whose quest is like a synopsis of Brel's life. But soon, prying
tabloids announced that Brel had escaped to sandy beaches under the sun. Allusive and only partially denied rumors of illness were spreading about him. But
rumormongers eventually went silent again and news became infrequent. Nine years later, however, in the fall of 1977, the unexpected news dropped like a bombshell
Brel had recorded a new album!
Rarely was a recording event so anticipated, with one million pre-orders ; people
living up in front of record shops as if these were bakeries in times of war or food shortage and some record stores posting "No more Brel" signs whereas
the record had not come out yet. Over the next few weeks, the album sold a further million copies black vinyl platters filled up with deeply emotional words and a
voice coming from afar, suddenly demanding that Jean Jaurès's assassination be accounted for (on "Jaurès"), evoking Jojo's death (on "Jojo")
and expressing the unbearable pain at losing a friend (on "Voir un ami pleurer") or seeing a relationship crumble to pieces (on "Orly").
This record was permeated throughout with the urgency to steal a few sentences away from the approaching death before quitting the game "by a referee's
On October 9, 1978, the curtain fell once and for all. Three days later, Jacques
Brel took one final plane trip to the small cemetery of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands where he now rests a few feet away from Paul Gauguin.
© Marc Robine - Published with autorisation of Marc Robine.