Jacques Brel - THE STORY OF BREL

Jacques Brel spoke Dutch & loved Flanders

Immediately after Brel died in 1978 a Flemish extremist painted 'Brel is dead, hurrah!' on a Belgian viaduct. This graffiti serves to demonstrate that things between Brel and Flanders were not particularly well. One of the reasons for the troubled relationship between Brel and his native country is rooted in the fact that he was a so-called Franskiljon...

To understand the problem of being a French speaking Flemish in Flanders, a lesson in Flemish history seems unavoidable. While fully explained in the book, I here limit myself to the following comparison: imagine being a USA based communist in 1952, speaking Hutu while being Tutsi, speaking Serbian while being born and raised in Croatia, Japanese in North–Korea and so on. Then imagine yourself being part of that minority, while having the desire to pursue a career in popular music. Against all odds you somehow manage to release a vinyl-single and are invited to an interview in your own province, which you give in the language of the enemy. Who would bet his money on the chances of that aspiring musician? That was the challenge that Jacques Brel faced in Flanders, which had long been dominated by French speaking Belgians from Wallonia.

The last train to Brussels

'Ridiculous', concluded the jury of a singing contest in the Belgian coast city Knokke, where he tried his luck for the very first time. Realizing that his future was not a Belgian one, Brel decided to try his luck in Paris, where the same discouraging pattern repeated itself. 'Brel, the last train to Brussels has not yet left!', wrote one French critic. Still, Brel enjoyed some sort of success, as he lessened the burden of his early Parisian days with extramarital affairs with French chansonieres Catherine Sauvage and Suzanne Gabriello.

The Netherlands and Brel met early enough. The first encounter took place in 1955, when the struggling singer / songwriter served as support act for the now completely forgotten stars Souris and Pierre Dudan. The young Francophile Ernst van Altena (Brel would give him the exclusive right to translate his songs into Dutch) is among the audience. Van Altena remembered Brel opening with 'Ca va 'Le Diable'', which was presented in an atmosphere of blood red light, followed by 'Les pieds dans le ruisseau' and 'Il nous faut regarder'.

A shitty crown of laurels

One year later Brel suddenly celebrated an unexpected victory with the smash hit 'Quand on n'a que l'amour' (If we only had love), a song he later recorded in an unpublished Dutch language version (it is not on the n2003 Boit integrale). Yet for Brel the sudden success arrived too late to enjoy it as he would have enjoyed it only a year before. After the humiliations he suffered in the first three years of his career, not a single smile escaped his lips when he suddenly received the very prestigious French Grand Prix Du Disque. When the hostess of the television broadcast of the awards presentation tried to lure him into saying something positive about Paris, Brel replied:

'I think no city shows its beauty to those who encounter a multitude of personal problems in them.'

The hostess: 'You are more a person of the countryside?'

Brel: 'Call me the singing farmer if you like.'

The hostess: 'In that case, I herewith announce that the singing farmer has won the Grand Prix du Disque. Bravo!'

Brel: 'Thanks.'

Hostess: 'A little more enthusiasm wouldn't harm you.'

Brel: 'I don't believe in the prize mumbo. To my best knowledge no hard working bank employee has ever been awarded a grand Prix du Banque. To me it's pathetic, such a shitty crown of laurels.'

The hostess now takes on the image of a fish on land, trying to breathe and ask what is bothering Brel? Suddenly, upon starting his answer, Brel smiles a devilish grin: 'Morons! That breed multiplies faster than rabbits. So, you'll readily understand that stupidity asks for hard measures, and therefore I think one is obliged to piss off any moron when given an opportunity to do so.'

Ay Marieke, Marieke

In 1961 Brel wrote his only original (partially) Dutch language song, 'Marieke'. It is not just the language that ties the song to Holland, but also its premiere in the Dutch concert hall of The Hague's Kurhaus on May 12, 1961. For Brel this concert is the beginning of a string of Dutch triumphs that will take him to even the smallest and most remote Dutch villages. Perhaps his sympathy for Holland can be explained by the fact that it provided a perfect alternative for Flanders, as it has the same language without the nationalistic, anti French sentiments. The Dutch took Brel to their hearts more on the strength of his music than on the basis of his controversial texts. The reason is simple: only a handful of Dutch speak enough French to understand what he is actually singing about. In fact, the Dutch seem to prefer the French language takes of 'Marieke', 'Ne me quitte pas', 'Les singes', and 'On n'oublie rien' to the Dutch translations of 'Marieke', 'Laat me niet alleen', 'De apen' en 'Men vergeet niets'.

This must have surprised Brel, both in 1961, when he first tried his luck with Dutch language, and in 1972, when he tried it once again. Being born as a Franskiljon, the nom de plume of a Flemish person who speaks French rather than one of the Dutch variants that are spoken in Flanders, Dutch did not come natural to Brel.

The more early experiments with 'De apen' (The monkeys) and 'Men vergeet niets' (On n'oublie rien), mainly served to make him aware of the fact that his pronunciation was lacking to the point where the Dutch versions actually turned into unintended parodies of the originals. By the time Brel tried his luck with Dutch once again, he had done everything possible in order to eliminate his Flemish accent.

The Dutch looked at it with astonishment, for they never understood the Flemish issues with Holland and Dutch. In fact, the Dutch have a strong affinity with dialects, and they usually think of Flemish as a language or Southern dialect. That the Flemish, who separated themselves from1 The Netherlands in 1830, continue to call themselves a Dutch speaking nation is confusing, if not perplexing, unless you studied the very specific circumstances that lead to this divided nation of French speaking Wales in the South & Dutch speaking Flemish in the North.

Fighting windmills

Perhaps the title of this introduction to Brel is a little misleading, but the issue of Brel, Flanders and The Netherlands has much to do with what Brel was about. Admittedly, Brel didn't 'hate' Flanders, as some Flemish have argued on the basis of his biting anti-Flemish songs 'Les Flamandes', 'La... la... la...', and 'Les F'. For all their biting sarcasm and poisonous taste, they merely serve to demonstrate just how much Brel was occupied by the problems, prospects and limitations of his native country, which he surely loved more than Holland, given the incredible tributes he brought to Flanders in 'Le plat pays', and 'Marieke'. Compared with those exclamations of love, The Netherlands truly cut a pale figure as a nation summarized in a song about whores and drunken sailors, 'Amsterdam'.

The artist

Starting from1 his break-through with 'Quand on n'a que l'amour' in, say, 1957, Brel's career took wing, and he started a seemingly everlasting tour of performances and recordings until 1967, when he judged it time to stop. His farewell concert in Olympia, released on LP and various later formats, is still famous to date. Although his subsequent adventures are perhaps less well known with music loving audiences around the globe, they are certainly not less interesting. In fact, what interested me in Brel were foremost his later experiments in life and art, beginning with his stunning run of theatrical performances in the musical L'homme de la Mancha, alongside the great Joan Diener.

Admittedly, Brel only made the translation of this already well established successful Mitch Leigh / Dale Wasserman Broadway musical Man of La Mancha. Regardless, 'La quete' (The unreachable star) became so popular in the French version, that it is now regarded a Brel classic, whereas his Aldonza, Joan Diener, has remained unmatched in both languages (she starred also in the original production). In some ways, his interpretation of Don Quichotte presents Brel's artistic legacy even more than his own songs.

Movie Star

Brel's interest in movies as a way to express his feelings in a different format than the average three minute song, antedates his first experimental movie, 'La grande peur de Monsieur Cle?ment' from1 1956. In fact, as Brel De Definitieve Biografie describes in detail, young Jacky already wrote plays and acted in student stage productions when he was still in High School. It was rather that his success as a chansonier suddenly opened doors in ways that the teenager hardly could have thought possible. Initially, Brel even met with some success, in movies such as 'Les risques du metier' (1968), 'La bande a Bonnot' (1968), and the comedy 'Mon oncle Benjamin'. These proved the upbeat for the greatest cinematographic 'triumphs' of his career as an actor, 'L'aventure cest l'aventure' (1972) and 'L'emmerdeur' (A pain in the ass; 1973).

Although commercially successful, these blockbusters presented precisely the kind of genre that Brel considered 'trash'. Unfortunately for Brel, his more artistic experiments ('Mont Dragon', 1971), his politically inspired experiments ('Les assassins de l'ordre', 1972), and his ill advised experiments ('La bar de la fourche', 1972) all flopped completely. For a while, Brel thought that it was because the cutter didn't know his job, or because the directors were either too inexperienced or less good storytellers than he was himself. He blamed scriptwriters, actors, anyone but himself, and so he thought to solve these problems by directing his own movies...

Movie Director

As a movie director, Brel combined the genius of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder with the technical knowledge of a high school pupil. Instead of surrounding himself with experts, he surrounded himself mostly with inexperienced friends and set out to write scripts all by himself, in addition to which he was also the protagonist, and the one who edited the movie on the cutting table. This resulted in endlessly dragging scenes in Franz (1972), and pathetic settings in 'Le far West' (1973), Brel's ill-fated 'artistic credo' as a moviemaker...

Confronted with the reality of his failed ambitions as a movie director, Brel decided that t was time to quit. Not because he had failed by the way, but rather, in typical Brel fashion, because the public was too stupid to understand him, and because it wasn't ready for his own, refined artistic taste. The enormous box office success that he scored as an actor, in exactly the same period of time, with L'aventure cest l'eventure and L'emmerdeur clearly proved to Brel that the entire cinema going public craved was pulp. Just as he had previously quit his performing career, while limiting his career as a recording artist, he now quit both his work as an actor and a director. His plan was simple: buy a boat and sail away!


The dream to sail away was not new to Brel. He had expressed it frequently since childhood, and both the situation and his financial capacity was such, that there was no longer anything that held him back. He bought the glorious Askoy II, mastered the art of sailing at the maritime faculty in Zeebrugge, and then steered his boat across the dangerous Atlantic Ocean, through the Panama Canal, onto the Pacific. When cancer of the lungs forced him to interrupt his journey over the seven seas, he sort of stranded on Hiva Oa, the Island where previously Paul Gauguin had painted his famous colorful paintings.

Brel's boat trip with the Askoy II is a key element in Jacques Brel | De Definitieve Biografie. This – for the time being Dutch language – book zooms in on this boat trip, made for the larger part with no more crew than his girlfriend at the time, Maddly Bamy, after his daughter France was ousted from1 the ship in Martinique.

More about the boat and its adventurous trips before and after Brel owned it, can be found in a separate chapter which recalls the Askoy's shipwreck, causing it to lay buried in the sandy beach of New Zealand, until the brothers Wittevrongel took the carcass from1 its grave and transported it to Belgium. Currently they are working on its reconstruction, with the aim to sail it back to Baylys Beach, where it once succumbed to the forces of nature. As an addition to the book, this website closely monitors the progress of the Askoy's reconstruction here

Jacques Brel | The Legacy

Shortly before he passed away, Brel returned to the recording studios in Paris, in order to record one, last album, 'BREL'. In terms of sales, it surpassed anything he had ever recorded before and became one of the best selling albums of the entire 1970's. When he died, on October 9, 1978, the world lost a supreme artist. That he was a supreme artist is not decided by my personal taste alone, but rather by the fact that Brel is the most interpreted artist in the World, and therefore also one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century.

Others already performed Brel's songs before he even truly started his own career. Initially, because band leaders/producers such as Jacques Helian and Steve Kirk judged Brel's abilities as a songwriter superior to his talent as a performer. They released his 'Il peut pleuvoir' in then popular jazz-club arrangements with lightweight girlie voices singing the tune, respectively Tohama and Lou Darley. Barbara sang 'Sur la place' live, Greco released 'Ca va 'Le diable''. Regardless, Brel struggled until the release of 'Quand on n'a que l'amour'. After that hit after hit recording emerged from1 his ensemble, leading to an ever-increasing string of covers, which today totals more than 5.000 officially released versions! A staggering number for a French language artist.

Of course, many people aren't even aware of Brel's authorship of English language world hits, such as 'If you go away' (Ne me quitte pas), and 'Seasons in the sun' (Le moribond). In fact, most people who went to non European performances of the 1968 musical Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris, thought Brel was a musical character, whereas arranger/singer Mort Shuman and translator Eric Blau were believed to be the creators of all these songs.

Forbidden covers

Neglected for decades, the Brel cover business was certainly not neglected with the editions Brel in Brussels, who steered this business with iron hand, deciding who was allowed to record Brel, and who not. They actually forbade certain interpretations, either on musical grounds, because they disliked certain translations, and often because any given exotic artist did not obey Brel's rule that the Dutch lines in 'Marieke' should always remain untranslated. This has lead to a few hundred ridiculous covers by Japanese, English, Vietnamese, Icelandic, Spanish language and Italian artists, to mention but a few, who are breaking their tongues on:

Zonder liefde warme liefde
Waait de wind de stomme wind
Zonder liefde warme liefde
Weent de zee de grijze zee
Zonder liefde warme liefde
Lijdt het licht het donk're licht
En schuurt het zand over mijn land
Mijn platte land mijn Vlaanderland

Even though this 'rule' was as ill advised as Brel's movie directions, it did result in a great number of hilarious finds, most of which made their way to the book and/or this website.

Then... in reconstructing the history of Brel interpretation, the 'forbidden' covers were usually the more adventurous and difficult to find ones! Unfortunately, we can't play these forbidden covers. In fact, at the moment we can't even play a single snippet of Brel or Brel cover songs. While we are investigating legal ways to change that (read: selling songs & paying due royalties), my team and me can only say: who seeks will find!