8th & 9th April, 2010



















Photo by Eric Yeager ©2009 All Rights Reserved

A Thought for Today

Nothing is more beautiful than work completed.



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.


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 more."

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 unissued.

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 as collaborations.

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.

RM 4/7/2010

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 4/6/2010.

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notable birthdays

Thursday 8 April

Kofi Annan o Patricia Arquette o Michael Bennett o Jacques Brel o Robin Byrd o Franco Corelli o Michael DeLeo o Fred Ebb o Betty Ford o John Gavin o Shecky Green o E.Y. Harburg o Sonja Henie o Julian Lennon o John Madden (director) o Carmen McRae o Mary Pickford o Bette Robley o John Schneider o Kirsten Storms o Robin Wright

Friday 9 April

Charles Baudelaire o Jean-Paul Belmondo o Ward Bond o Brad Dexter o Antol Dorati o William J. Fulbright o Hugh Hefner o William Hooper, Sr. o Sol Hurok o Tom Lehrer o Nicolai Lenin o Michael Learned o Austin Peck o Carl Perkins o Paulina Porizkova o Keshia Knight Pulliam o Dennis Quaid o Paul Robeson o Avery Schreiber o Rachel Stevens o Toots Thielemans o Victor Vasarely o Brandon de Wilde

Rod's random thoughts Some voice inaudible to man speaks to the month of April, and so we have pink blossoms everywhere.

Love must be the best life has to offer for most of us are miserable without it.

Old poets are forever trapped by thoughts let go of in their prime.


I wanted to write you some words you’d remember
words so alert they’d leap from the paper
and crawl up your shoulder and lie by your ears
and be there to comfort you down through the years.
But it was cloudy that day and I was lazy
and I stayed in bed just thinking about it.

I wanted to write you and tell you that maybe
love songs from lovers are unnecessary.
We are what we feel and writing it down
seems foolish sometimes without vocal sound.
But I spent the day drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes
and looking in the mirror practicing my smile.

I wanted to write you one last, long love song
that said what I feel one final time.
Not comparing your eyes and mouth to the stars
but telling you only how like yourself you are.
But by the time I thought of it, found a pen,
put the pen to ink, the ink to paper, you were gone.

And so, this song has no words.

-from Through European Windows, 1965 & Listen To The Warm, 1967


Thanks to all of you who wrote with concern and inquiries about Easter Sunday’s Earthquake. It occurred about 100 miles south of Los Angeles along the California-Mexico border. Indeed there was ‘a whole lot of shakin’ going on that day and evening but fortunately this far north there was no real damage.

Yes, we do await “The Big One” almost any time now but the most exciting thing in these parts over the weekend were the lines at Apple stores for the new iPad. And no, dammit, I don’t have one yet.

Sleep warm and God and various Southern California faults willing I’ll be back on the weekend with a new edition of Ask Rod.

RM Holmby Hills, CA / 12:36AM PDST 7 April, 2010

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