I first came across Jacques Brel in my teens when I saw the film Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris directed by French-Canadian wunderkind, Denis Héroux. The film was released to universal critical disacclaim (or whatever the opposite of acclaim is) but to pretty, fifteen year old unreconstructed Emily (my good self), it was marvellous.
I'm going to begin with my favourite covers of Brel because that means, I get to listen again to my favourites from Héroux's film, and dear old Joe Masiell and Mort Shuman. Alors!
1) The Port of Amsterdam by Dresden Dolls.
It's the Dresden Dolls, the fucking Dresden Dolls. Brel was invented for Amanda Palmer, and she was invented for Brel. This is my favourite song by Brel and this is my second favourite version (and my favourite by anybody whose name is not Brel)
2) The Bulls by Nastascia Diaz
Now I can't find the version by Joe Masiell from the film (obviously) Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. I could see why the bull was pissed off that day. I was snorting and growling along with him and with Joe Masiell's Marine. And so, here's one from a live version of the film. Ms Diaz brings different qualities to the song, and yet, I am just as delighted by this version.
3) The Statue by Joe Masiell
When I first watched THAT film, I barely noticed this one, but now, listening through. I come to this and think, yeah. They make statues of the assholes, and even the assholes weep. I love it, and so...
4) The Old Folks by Elly Stone
I loved Brecht's September Song, which ploughs a similar furrow, but this is horribly beautiful. You always live too far away when you've lived lived so long. Elly's voice is clear as a bell and the words pierce straight into the centre of the brain, and that barb carries Brel's delicious venom. The old folks never die, they just go to sleep one day.
5) Jackie by Camille O'Sullivan
I first heard Camille covering Nick Cave's the Mercy Seat. I once dragged my wife to Edinburgh JUST because Camille was playing at the festival. Still never saw her then though. And so, this too makes the cut.
And so, without any of Marc Almond's fabulous oeuvre. Without Mort Shuman's version of Amsterdam. Without Bowie. Without Piaf. Yes, it hurts to leave all those out but you know what? It is Brel himself that matters most.
And so let's carry on to see my top five numbers by Brel himself.
1) Le Port d'Amsterdam
Time was, my favourite would have been les Taureau until a Greek friend sent me a link to the video in which Brel sings so passionately the song which has become my favourite. Brel is so deliciously ugly that Emily pines for him and so filled with passion that when Brel sings this, I too want to sing. Marvellous.
2) Ne Me Quitte Pas!
There are so many cover versions of this that I could take or leave, but this, the original with Brel himself singing. Mois je ne lui JAMAIS quitterai. Never would, never could. How could anyone.
3) Les Bourgeois
I love it when Brel sings these vicious little pieces in such a jolly voice. It sounds like a song you could sing along to... and yet, listening to the words, we are reminded that Brel was a punk and a beautiful punk at that.
There is always that we have lost. There are always times we wish to smile and show we have no regrets. This is sharky for me. A trigger but I love it. Et moi je ne regrette rien!
5 Les Désespérés
I heard this for the first time today. A song of broken hope. Of course I'm going to love it and listen until the blood comes out of the dansette. And some time from now, this may become my favourite.
And it hurts to leave out every song I mentioned in the covers, plus Quand Maman Reviendra, and Seul, L'Amour et Mort, Fernand, Jojo, Mathilde, Marieke, Ces Gens La, A Suivre and so on and on.