Thursday, July 23, 2009

If I Were a Brel

These come and go on YouTube -- it's possible they originate in some other site that I haven't seen -- but there's currently a good selection of Jacques Brel performances with English subtitles.

Since the English versions of his songs don't usually do anything like justice to the original lyrics -- to be fair, a song like "La Valse a Mille Temps" is basically untranslatable, depending as it does on a series of elaborate puns -- this is the best way for an English-language audience to get to know Brel: his lyrics, his performances, and a running guide to what the lyrics mean.

Brel's almost over-the-top intensity as a performer took a bit of getting used to for me; I was used to his voice because my dad had his audio recordings in the house, but his broad acting of the songs took some getting used to. English-language performers of similar material -- songs that are vignettes about very specific characters, or dramatic musical character monologues -- tend to be more restrained, while Brel grimaces, gesticulates and sweats his way through his characters' lives. He's one of those performers who can literally change his appearance depending on what the song is about; sometimes he's good-looking, sometimes he's ugly, and it really depends on the song or even a moment within the song.

You can see this in one of his best and best-remembered songs, sung by a man whose best friend has just been dumped by the woman he loved. The singer is uncomfortable seeing his friend crying in front of other people and starts babbling about various "guy" things they can do together; it's both a celebration of friendship and a satire of men who aren't comfortable expressing emotion to each other (long before that became a cliche).

Some of the Brel videos aren't concert performances; some appear to originate from TV shows, and there are a couple that were done on color film, the French equivalent of Scopitones, like "Rosa," a fairly straightforward coming-of-age song about how boys find girls more interesting than Latin.

Not all the subtitled videos have found their way onto this YouTube channel, but some can be found on other sites; here's a subtitled version of my favorite Brel patter song, "Vesoul," sort of a French-language version of a James Thurber scenario, about a man whose domineering wife is dragging him on a cross-country trip. I prefer the audio version, which is a patter song straight through, to this video version, which starts as a parody of classical singing and then becomes a patter song after the first verse. Still, once the first verse over, it shows off Brel's amazing ability as a patter singer, spitting out more words more quickly than anybody this side of Danny Kaye.

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