René Seghers’ completely revised Dutch language Jacques Brel biography Jacques Brel | The Definitive Biography includes hundreds of photographs and more than 200 new pages.  Good news for Brelians, but… have there been enough novel insights into Brel’s life in the span of nine years time, to justify a new biography? Seghers: ‘Regarding Brel’s life, the larger part is of course well known. In addition, the book has over 200 new pages, ficusing on completely new topics, such as Brel's boat, the Askoy II, and the subject of Brel interpretation. Brel. He is the most covered artist of the 20th Centrury, isn't that amazing.  Then, regarding the biography: all specifics that I wasn’t aware off in 2003 have been made clear to me in the years thereafter. For this new biography I have worked closely together with Brel specialist Dries Delrue, who made numerous corrections in the old text.’

Corrections? Seghers: 'Of course. Jacques Brel was the subject of my first biography ever. Without the experience I gained in writing and meeting my audience, I would never have been able to produce my very well received American Franco Corelli biography in 2008. Still, when writing your first book, you more or less work in the dark. It isn’t until readers approach you at book signings and lectures, or through the website, that you meet people that have significant things to add. Some have stories to share, others have huge clippings and photo collections, which made you, wish that you had known them a decade earlier. On the other hand I'm glad to break the news on brel's alleged son including photographs in The Definitive Biograhy. Then, there are pictures of the real Marieke, and the disclosure of the real names of some of his long time lovers that were hitherto only known under pseudonyms.'


Seghers’ fascination with Brel has little to do with Brels’ career. Seghers: ‘No matter how unique Brel was as a singer/songwriter, this would never have been enough to lure me into writing a book on his life. I am a part time journalist and therefore write commercially, which is a nice and adventurous profession. As such, I don’t really care for subjects that I cover in writing or photography. My spare time, however, is reserved for labors of love: Franco Corelli, Hariclea Darclée, and also Brel. What intrigued me about him was his life as a sailor. The unique thing about him was his radical decision to stop performing, made in 1967. He was the truly at the height of his fame. One should not compare this with Madonna announcing her retreat today, but rather with Rihanna doing so in 2012. He made further recordings, but kept his word and never performed again, bar an impressive sequence of subsequent 1967/68 appearances in the musical Man of La Mancha, in his own French translation – the artistic highlight of his career as a performer.

Brel then tried himself in acting and as a movie director. Both attempts ultimately failed, although he had some major triumphs as an actor. These blockbusters, however, were little more than simplistic comedies such as Mon oncle Benjamin (My uncle Benjamin; 1969), L'aventure c'est l'aventure (aka The adventure is the adventure; 1972) and L'emmerdeur (aka A pain in the ass; 1973). Brel aimed higher, but his own directing in Franz (1971) and Le Far West (1973) proved too extreme for the mass audiences he still hoped to draw. Seghers: 'Once again a man who did not make compromises, he closed the door on his movie career. He bought a boat, and sailed away to the Pacific with his new love since L’aventure c’est l’aventure, the Guadeloupe beauty Maddly Bamy. This journey over the Oceans fascinated me. I visited Bamy, a very poetic, spiritual woman with a fascinating life, and then made those chapters the heart of my book.’


Brel’s sea journey with the Askoy II is at the heart of the new biography. The chapters on Brel’s final years have been expanded with the remarkable story of the things that happened with Brel’s boat after the artist died. Seghers: ‘The story of Brel’s boat and its ultimate recovery in 2007, is one of those incredible coincidences that makes you believe it can’t be a coincidence. It all started when I found references to the salvage of the Askoy. I looked into it and contacted the rescue team, united in the Save Askoy II Foundation. The two men behind it proved to the brothers Piet & Staf Wittevrongel, assisted by secretary Gerald Muylle. The name of the brothers rang a bell in the back of my head: hadn’t I written of a certain Johan Wittevrongel, the sail sewer from Blankenberge who made Brel’s sails. Indeed! Piet & Staf had helped him as teenagers in the family company.’

Walking through the 2003 Brel exhibition Le droit de rêver and reading the Askoy chapters in my first book, the Wittevrongels started looking into the history of the boat after Brel passed away. Their research resulted in a thriller. The Askoy II was first sold to a hippy couple that celebrated their love on it under the ‘No Nukes’ banner. Then it was owned by an adventurous fisherman, who turned the yacht into a deep freeze boat, before reselling the ship to a gang of soft drugs smugglers!



All owners of the Askoy since its creator, Hugo van Kuyck, were adventurous people, and yet no one of them, including Brel, was more adventurous than captain Helmut Rutten. His plan: to use the Askoy II as mother ship in a trans Pacific soft drugs smuggling operation. On June 26, 1988, the Askoy II sailed from New Guinea and the Chinese Sea to Hawaii, with on board 12 tons of Red Thai marihuana. The crew existed, besides Rutten, of Randall Scott Harrack en Suzanne Pearson. Not exactly by chance, the trio was held up for interrogation in New Guinea, where they had violated immigration rules. When no other irregularities came to light, they were allowed to sail on to open water, North of Hawaii. There, a rendez-vous with satellite vessel Pyrgos was arranged. On July 25, 1988, the Pyrgos sailed from California to Hawaii, where the marihuana was loaded from the Askoy. John Hoine and Rex Olander sail the Pyrgos to the Red, White and Blue nude beach in Santa Cruz County. On August 26 and 27 1988 they meet the distribution team there. Small speedboats take the cargo to land. An innocent bystander, who was camping there, didn’t trust the activity and alarmed the police.  Upon arrival, they intervene in the smuggling operation and arrest the smugglers. With 66,5 million dollars of street value, they make a record breaking catch of a lifetime in Santa Cruz County.

The complete crew including the owner of the Pyrgos, George Contaxis, even though not present on the beach during the operation, is arrested and sued. The crew subsequently points to the Askoy as the mother ship. Around December 3, Rutten is arrested on board of the Askoy, and then anchored in the Suva Yachting Club. The ship is confiscated and parked in the harbor. Harrack and Pearson are still on the run, but soon thereafter, they are likewise arrested, Pearson while out camping in a tent.

With the crew in jail, the Askoy is awaiting years of rotting away in the harbor of Suva on the Fiji islands, without maintenance and care. The end of 1993 auctions off the ship. The happy new owner/adventurer is Lindsay Wright. In the next six months, he provisory prepares the ship to a level that should enable it to sail to New Zeeland, where he wants to renovate it more thoroughly. By June 1994, he sails the Askoy out of Suva. A long journey, made solo, eventually brings him in sight of the harbor, on the Tasman Sea, before the West Coast of New Zeeland. Then a storm hits him by surprise, close to the coastline. The ship loses power and is wrecked on the beach, with Wright making a narrow escape.

Salvage operation

Askoy II, and have it transported to Belgium. The first emotional moment in that adventure is of course when they first visited the wreck n Baylys Beach, New Zeeland. Piet Wittevrongel: ‘Only the steel hull was still there, buried in the flood line. At low tide, is emerged a few inches from the water. A couple actually made a child on the wreck; yes, we have located them too! The apex of the operation was arguably the salvaging of the wreck. It took some years, but on December 19, 2007, the steel rump emerged from the sands, and the Askoy emerged from it’s grave. The enormous hull was dragged ashore, and eventually transported to a container ship. Thus it was taken to the harbor of Antwerp. To date, the workers of the Nieuwe Scheldewerven, Rupelmonde, are working on its restauration. The plan is still that the Askoy will eventually sail again!’


Als het gaat om covers denk je binnen de popmuziek al snel aan The Beatles of The Rolling Stones. Dat zal beslist waar zijn als het om beginnende garagebandjes gaat, maar officiele covers van hun repertoire zijn verhoudingsgewijs maar weinig uitgegeven. De meest gecoverde artiest ter wereld is met meer dan 3000 officiele coverreleases... Jacques Brel! En bepaald niet alleen in Frankrijk. In Amerika namen wereldsterren zijn liedjes op. Rod McKuen en Terry Jacks danken hun doorbraak aan Brels als 'Season in the Sun' vermomde wereldhit 'Le moribond'. Maar ook Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Liza Minelli, Nina Simone en zelfs The Beach Boys deden net als nog ruim 200 andere Amerikaanse artiesten, hun voordeel met Brel. In Duitsland noemen we Marlene Dietrich, Gisela May, Klaus Hoffmann en jawel, Katja Ebstein, maar ook ijvoorbeeld Gruppe Horsturz en Reinhard Mey. Jazzmusici inclusief Toots Thielemans stortten zich de afgelopen decennia op Brel. IJslanders, Iraniers, Finnen en bewoners van de Kaaiman en Aland eilanden (van de laatste eilanden had Seghers tot de cover van Bitte Bamberg-Thalen zelfs nog nooit gehoord), allemaal raakten ze onder de betovering van Brel.


Brels bekendste nummer is natuurlijk 'Ne me quitte pas'. Maar dat komt volgens Seghers vooral omdat bijna niemand weet dat Terry jacks wereldhit 'Seasons in the sun' een cover is van Brels 'Le moribond'. Jacks miljoenensucces leidde tot een golf covers van dat nummer die tot op de dag van vandaag aanhoudt. Seghers: 'Soms weten ook de artiesten die 'Seasons in the sun' coveren niet waar het origineel vandaan komt. Zo was er een Frans-Canadese zanger die inderhaast een Franse vertaling maakte, niet wetende dat het een Franstalig origineel betrof. Zo kunnen we nu genieten van Jacques Amars terugvertaling in 'Adieu la vie adieu soieii!' Zoals dit verhaal zijn er honderden te vertellen. Zo weet bijvoorbeeld bijna niemand dat David Bowie 'Jef' parafraseert in de beroemdste passage van 'Rock'n roll suicide': 'Non Jef, tu est pas seul/Oh no love, you're not alone'.''




Het bijzondere van de biografie is onder meer de wisselwerking met deze website, waar de complete cover top-200, alsmede de complete recensies van de complete Brel coveralbums en de complete Brel Tribuutalbums zijn gepubliceerd. U vindt ze onder de button 'COVERS'. Op alle covers en ook op de hier gerecenseerde boektitels van andere auteurs, kunt u stemmen. De notering wordt vervolgens automatisch aangepast aan het aantal verzamelde stemmen. Seghers: 'De top-10 zoals die in het boek is opgenomen zou in de loop der tijd dus wel eens substantieel kunnen vernaderen. Het boek bevat ijn persoonlijke Top-10. Maar ik vind het juist leuk deze te vergelijken met de Top-10 van de lezers van mijn boek. Daarom heb ik ook de mogelijkheid geschapen voor bezoekers om zelf recensies aan de mijne toe te voegen. Het is niet goed maar een visie op alle covers te hebben. Het is veel leuker te zien hoe verschillende mensen tegen dingen aankijken. Brel is geen wetenschap. Ik ben daarin gesterkt door mijn eigen ervaringen met mensen die mij heel dwingend hun wil inzake Brel wilden opleggen. Dat bracht mij op het idee van mijn site een soort vrijplaats voor andere meningen te maken: denk niet alleen wat u wilt, maar schrijf ook vooral wat u vindt!