Love, Sex, Desperation, and Relationships in the Poetry of Jacques Brel

jacques-brelSometimes I have to reach back through time, across continents and languages, to get at the right kind of sound for a particular kind of night.

I can “speak” two languages (English and Russian), but I can “feel” three languages (English, Russian, and French). The extra one there is due to the fact that I’ve studied French for many years, in more ways than one. “Feel” comes from memory and from experience.

There is a particular kind of musician that I turn to time and again. The music is simple, the lyrics are dark, but hopeful somehow (like writing by Camus), and always: clever to the point of tears. To me, wit unlocks something very central to life: the humor in its absurdity. Wit in poetry and in lyrics is not just icing on the cake, often it *is* the cake.

In English, an example is Tom Waits. In Russian, an example is Vladimir Vysotsky. In French, an example is Jacques Brel. The latter is simpler than the former two, but then again my “feeling” of French is simpler. Here are some examples of his take on sex, obsession, desperation, relationships, and the four letter word: love.

Amsterdam: All three of the guys I mentioned have songs about prostitutes. Why? Because, this profession gets at the lowest of our animal ambitions. The pull of sex is a gentle reminder that we are mostly ape, and the yearning for something more than sex (see Denial of Death by Ernest Becker) is a reminder that we are not all ape.

Ne Me Quitte Pas: No song captures better the desperation bordering on madness that love can create in a man. Covered by many from Sinatra to Nina Simone, but they all make it sound like a heart-felt loved song, and not the turmoil of a broken human being.

Vesoul: This song cracks me up. The lessons is: Don’t try to please a cat. If you’re a dog, act like it.

Chanson Des Vieux Amants: Every relationship I had has been less than 2 years. When the ship caught on fire, I jumped in the cold water without hesitation and swam away. I think of “love” as the thing that makes you stay on a burning ship, and sink with it. Romantic notion, I know.

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