8th & 9th April, 2010
Photo by Eric Yeager
©2009 All Rights Reserved
A Thought for Today
Nothing is more beautiful than work
TO BEGIN WITH
April 8th (today) would have been Jacques Brel’s eighty-first birthday.
What follows are some accumulated thoughts written over a 35-year period
about Jacques and our songs.
These musings began as notes for a 1971 album and the final words were
written earlier this week.
REMEMBERING JACQUES AND OUR SONGS
It has been 22 years since Jacques died. Protestations to the contrary
the depth of feeling and loss you have for someone you've loved, lived
and worked with who's been absent for decades doesn't lessen, in some
secret part of the heart it intensifies. No day goes by that I don't
think about Jacques. It is a loss compounded by the fact that we had
barely hit our stride as collaborators and had planned so much together
that only we knew about and that as the survivor I have never shared
with anybody. Even after all this time the memories are too raw and
unnerving to write about.
Jacques would have turned 81 today. April people, lovers, brothers and
friends have made all the difference in my life. Jacques is no less a
brother than Bill or Edward who also claim April birthdates.
The following notes, with some amendments, are from the booklet that
accompanies The Jacques Brel/Rod McKuen Songbook CD.
Jacques & Rod, 1964, Paris. Photo by Phillipe Boutet.
I first met Jacques in 1964, but I was into his performing and singing
long before that, courtesy of Ellen Ehrlich, who used to interpret his
songs for me before I began to translate them myself. My first
experience with Brel consisted of doing an unauthorized adaptation of Le
Moribund, which I called Seasons in the Sun. Ellen, unbeknownst to me,
sent it to Jacques.
While in France that summer of '64, I went to visit a friend, Philippe
Boutet, who published some of my songs in translation for Europe. During
the course of a very pleasant afternoon, I asked him if he had any new
songs I might adapt for America. He said yes, that he did have one that
was fairly new. It had been written by Jacques Brel for the singer Jean
Sablon. He then proceeded to play for me a very rough dub of the song.
As I listened, I couldn't help feeling I'd heard the song somewhere
before, and it was only toward the end of the piece that I realized it
was my own song, The Lovers.
Somewhat astounded, I pointed this out to Philippe, who said it couldn't
be. He went to the phone and called Jacques in Brussels. Jacques
confirmed that it was indeed my song and that he had no way to send me a
copy of it.
I subsequently learned that Brel had received my recording of "Seasons
in the Sun " (I liked it so much it became the title of an album.) The
album not only contained my adaptation of "Seasons" but The Lovers as
well) after returning from a long and tiring tour of France. He remarked
that he had been so pleased by someone doing something for him without
requesting and expecting anything that he immediately returned the
compliment by adapting The Lovers into French. Thus it became Les Amant
de Cour (The Lovers of the Heart.)
Brel allowed as how he was coming to Paris to see his dentist, and could
I stay over? Obviously I could and did. From that meeting has grown a
continuing friendship, and the songs in this album. Listening to It, I
am struck with the many references to death, the accumulative political
overtones - especially from two men who don't give a damn about polities
but who both love our countries passionately, and that oddly -even
though we both have a reputation for writing love songs - there is
hardly a conventional love song here.
If You Go Away and To You are pleas for a new start to an affair that is
drawing to an end. The Statue takes apart hypocrisy. The Women is about
the incredible hold females have always had on us mere men - I had an
unusual experience with this song once. Glenn Yarbrough was recording it
at a session and three generations of females in his life sat in stony
silence during the playback. A daughter who was just being quiet, a
former wife who glared at a current girlfriend, and Glenn's mother, who
said to me, "Are we really like that?" To which I replied, "Yes, and
Glenn was very uncertain about putting the song in the album and it
continues to be the most controversial song of mine he has ever sung.
Song Without Words was a collaboration from start to finish. The French
and English lyrics are very much alike. On To You I wrote the melody
first and we collaborated on the story line.
Les Bourgeois is humorous and nibbles at the so-called aristocrats. This
version of Zangra includes a comment I made to an unsuspecting
photographer who nearly blinded me with a flashbulb while I was
performing the song live at London's Royal Albert Hall. I hope in a
subsequent McKuen/Brel album to include the first recording I made of
the song, which is a bit different than the way I perform it now.
Come Jef is an attempt to dissuade a friend from suicide as he stands on
a bridge above a river. The Far West is set in the western part of my
country. Brel's French Iyric refers to the low hills, meadows, and
flatlands of Belgium.
(The Port of) Amsterdam could be any seaport in any major European or
American city, but it will always evoke the Netherlands to me. I'm Not
Afraid has only Jacques' melody in common with my Iyrics; his song is
totally different. As a matter of fact I've written four lyrics to that
same melody. Still We Go On is included in a duet album I did with Dutch
singer Liesbeth List (Two Against The Morning) and the other two remain
Jacques condensed The Lovers by eliminating the bridges in my music. I
expanded The Women by adding bridges. Both Seasons in the Sun and The
Far West take in the entire spectrum of a man's life.
This album contains a very unique, and until recently unreleased
rendition of Brel singing his adaptation of The Lovers. The original
tape was said to have been lost in a Paris warehouse fire during the
1960's. If was only rediscovered when Philips records began to assemble
their mammoth 10-disc survey of Brel's complete oeuvre. For the most
part, these songs were never meant to be translations - we think of them
Jacques Brel died in 1978 - but for me he lives on. He was the most
brilliant performer I have ever had the privilege of seeing. His writing
is both intelligent and concise. As an actor he was fluid and able to be
precise and abandoned at the same time. As a friend he was a clown and a
bit crazy. I would rather sing songs by Brel than anybody else unless
perhaps they were songs by me. For me, then, this album is the best of
all possible worlds.
The songs in this collection were written over a seventeen-year period
that completely changed my life. It will not be the same ever again. The
world is not only richer because this most gentle of all men lived and
worked in it; but the songs and recordings he made during his lifetime
are a legacy to history... a blueprint for performers, writers and
audiences all over the world.
A while back, anticipating Jacques birthday, I started searching through
files and discovered 28 Brel-McKuen songs that haven't seen the light of
day. Some complete, others partly finished, a couple only sketched out -
but none abandoned, merely put aside.
For the last several years I have been back at work on what can only be
termed as NEW Brel-McKuen songs and have completed half a dozen of the
28. They include Happy Anniversary; (audiences have greeted it warmly
since I started performing it in concerts) and the first televised
performance of it will make its debut next week as part of a concert in
Amsterdam last year that was taped for Dutch TV. A separate studio
version of Happy Anniversary will be released later this year in an as
yet untitled album of new songs.
Souvenir is a plea by one lover parting from the other requesting a
memento of their time together. Move On is about letting go of the
superfluous things in life as well as love. The Two Of Us, The Few Of Us
takes on the subject of a man’s love for another man in what I hope is a
very sober but warm statement. So, like our other collaborations,
translations and adaptations these are by no means conventional songs. I
could go on but I prefer writing and singing songs to writing about
them. These completions of songs/chansons Jacques and I started together
are taking longer to finish than I thought they might but the work is
challenging and I am enjoying the process.
Based on the notes from Rod McKuen Sings The Jacques Brel / Rod McKuen
Songbook, April, 1971, January,1992 with new material 4/8/2000 and
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