Jacques Brel
October 8, 2003 9:57 PM   Subscribe

Go Ahead And Leave Me, See If I Care! Was not what the late, great Jacques Brel sung. Oh no. (Scott Walker, imo, did the best cover.) And last Tuesday a 16-CD collection was launched, with all his songs - and then some, including 5 he specifically stated he never wanted released. I've heard two of the songs - they're wonderful. But the question remains, with echoes of Kafka telling his friend Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts: should the wishes of dead artists be respected? Does time - in this case 25 years since his death - make it any less problematic? Or the fact that the publication was approved by the Jacques Brel Estate, i.e., his widow? (My favourite Brel song, btw, is his wistful, sardonic tribute to his country: flat, boring Belgium: Le plat pays. It never fails to exercise the tear ducts, nope, never...)
posted by MiguelCardoso (31 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Reservation compulsary

hoity toity! and philatelic too! extra-miguelicious!
posted by quonsar at 10:26 PM on October 8, 2003

i'll go to this (i'll be there next month) and report back, miguel. : >
posted by amberglow at 10:34 PM on October 8, 2003

Brod justified breaking his promise with the theory that Kafka knew he would be unable to destroy the manuscripts. So, if Kafka had really wanted the manuscripts burned, he would have asked someone else. Sounds kind of weak to me - Brod could have just said 'Kafka is dead, and he was wrong - the manuscripts should be read' and no one would blame him.

5 songs is not that big a deal - compare it to the flood of low-quality demos and drunken, aimless live recordings that were released after the deaths of artists like Jimi Hendrix or Jaco Pastorius, and it does not seem so bad. I mean, it is not as if they needed to tack the forbidden tracks on to make money, they have tons of stuff Brel wanted released in this set.

Is it wrong to break promises to dead people in general? I dunno.
posted by crunchburger at 10:43 PM on October 8, 2003

Amberglow, you lucky so-and-so! It may not be kosher but, whatever you do, be sure to sit yourself down at Leon de Bruxelles for a great big saucepan of moules et frites: mussels and "french" belgian fries. They're fat and in season now. My advice: go for the simplest "vin blanc" version; forget the cream and the marinière versions. It's right in the middle of the restaurant street, so you can't miss it. The great thing about Brussels is that all the other restaurants prepare them equally well, so you can forget this friendly reminder! :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:49 PM on October 8, 2003

Is it wrong to break promises to dead people in general?

I think it is, doubly so. After all, they were alive when you made your promises to them. The fact that they can't react later only makes it worst. And I say this as someone who couldn't imagine himself without Kafka.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:54 PM on October 8, 2003

You know, given that the artists presumably *could* have destroyed their work themselves, in their lifetime, I'm given to think that perhaps a respectful release of material that never saw the light of day during their lifetimes is a good thing. In a sense, though, I still bristle a little bit hearing, for example, the hip hop and house remixes of Bob Marley's material that were released a couple of years back. Sure, Bob's stuff *was* remixed when he was alive, in classic Jamaican dub style, but the danger with tampering with it in that way is that the original meaning or intention is lost completely, and whatever of the original material remains is just a garnish on top of the flavour-of-the-moment.

That said though, completed works, released without tampering, are a different matter. There's a saying I'd like to be able to attribute correctly (but can't): "The living are owed respect, the dead, only truth."

on a somewhat related note, what do you think of the longstanding literary trend of releasing authors' (presumably private) correspondance in book form? sure, it can be fascinating to read a conversation between say, Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg, but is it ethical?
posted by arto at 11:13 PM on October 8, 2003

thanks mig! email me with more good suggestions, foodwise : >

I think releasing work that wasn't released during the artist's lifetime is ok, as long as they didn't specifically request otherwise, or if the work is unfinished. The artist probably would have destroyed whatever work he or she didn't think was up to par. And author letters are great--i think most authors who corresponded with others knew that eventually it would see the light of day.
posted by amberglow at 11:20 PM on October 8, 2003

But Miguel - suppose Brod made the promise insincerely in the first place, perhaps overwhelmed by the superior force of his friend's personality. He's already taken an ethical hit by lying. I think this is likely - I doubt Brod ever once intended to destroy the papers. If he later keeps the promise, destroying the writing, does that change the fact that he was lying when he made it? Or mitigate the ethical damage?

The whole question kind of reminds me of this odd passage from Aristotle: do the fortunes of the living affect the happiness of the dead?
posted by crunchburger at 11:26 PM on October 8, 2003

with echoes of Kafka telling his friend Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts: should the wishes of dead artists be respected? Does time - in this case 25 years since his death - make it any less problematic?

An intriguing question that I've mulled over on more than a few occasions (often with the same Kafka/Brod case). I don't believe in any afterlife, so to speak, so spiritually speaking I don't think the death of the artist, and subsequent betrayal of trust, is wrong on any karmic levels.

Personally, I'd have a hard time doing such a thing if my friend asked me not to. However, on the other hand, if the artist has gained a good deal of respect and notoriety (Kafka again being an excellent example), is there really a possibility for anything negative to come of releasing unfinished works that are clearly labelled as such?

Also, if I had no intention of destroying the manuscripts (or music, etc.) but he/she was telling me this at the time of his/her death, I'd have to ask myself whether it would be for the best to tell this person the truth or let them die in peace--again, my answer is skewed by my complete disregard for any afterlife.

Miguel, as for your question about whether the passage of time should have any bearing, I am torn. On the one hand, it seems that if the issue one is wrestling with is simply the betrayal of trust, then it should make no difference. Conversely, the issue might simply be that you don't want to capitalize on the fervor surrounding the artist's death. If this is the case, then waiting a certain period of time would alleviate the problem, allowing the work to be released for fans of the artist who have stood the test of time.

Great question: sorry I couldn't offer anything more concrete, but I don't know if concrete is possibly in such a situation.
posted by The God Complex at 11:46 PM on October 8, 2003

What's with asking somebody else to do it for you after you're dead? If you can't do it yourself, why expect your friend to be able to? It must feel to them like seeing you die all over again.

Brahms had the big bonfire of what he considered his second-rank stuff while he was still around to see it properly done. An artistic tragedy? Maybe. On the other hand he might have been exactly right, with the result that his rep is now much higher than it would otherwise have been. Remember the hoo-hah over the forthcoming uncut Waste Land? And then the realization that Pound had cut precisely the stuff that needed to be cut?
posted by jfuller at 5:15 AM on October 9, 2003

Well, this guy's wife burned a lot of his stuff that she thought was too erotic after he was dead. We have been lessened by her action.

Not really addressing the issue at all but just a plain silly fact.
posted by Dagobert at 5:41 AM on October 9, 2003

"The living are owed respect, the dead, only truth."

I like it! Google provides varying attributions, and an alternate variant which I think is superior, "The living are owed courtesy, the dead, only truth."

And, Dagobert, I curse that woman regularly and only regret that my curses lack the power to do her some actual harm.
posted by rushmc at 6:08 AM on October 9, 2003

When Kafka told Brod that he wanted him to destroy his work after his death, Brod said he wouldn't do it. After Kafka's death he said, "Convinced as he was that I meant what I said, Franz should have appointed another executor if he had been absolutely and finally determined that his instructions should stand."

He also said, "Both sets of instructions to me were the product of a period when Kafka's self-critical tendency was at its height."

But most of all, he thought the artistic value of the work outweighed any value in following Kafka's instructions: "My decision does not rest on any of the reasons given above but simply and solely on the fact that Kafka's unpublished work contains the most wonderful treasures, and, measured against his own work, the best things he has written."

To disagree completely with Miguel, I think Brod was perfectly entitled to rank Kafka's instructions below the artistic value of the work at risk; and would have been even if he had initially agreed to destroy it. Kafka had a right to do what he wanted with his unpublished work while he was alive, but once he was gone it was for others to weigh up the pros and cons of its preservation or destruction; and his instructions were only one factor to be considered in that weighing-up.

Wills are contested all the time - when Grandma leaves everything to her cats, for example, and nothing to her kids. If we consider it reasonable to amend people's wills where money and possessions are concerned, how much more reasonable to protect unique and valuable works of art.

The Brod quotes are from the postscript in my copy of The Trial (Heinemann/Secker & Warburg, 1983).
posted by rory at 6:55 AM on October 9, 2003

> Le plat pays

PS, I thought the modifier came after the noun. Or is this franglais belgique? I mean belgique franglais?
posted by jfuller at 7:16 AM on October 9, 2003

Brod should have burned all his manuscripts. Some idiot professor i once had said "The Trial" should be required reading. I mean, K was allight, had some insight into what made people the horrible automatons they tend to be but The Trial?, a story about someone get who goes along with a sham trial and then goes to his death like some cow?
posted by clavdivs at 8:03 AM on October 9, 2003

What rory said. Vergil wanted the Aeneid destroyed because he hadn't had time to polish it to his satisfaction; good thing he wasn't obeyed. Once an artist creates something, it leads its own life. It pisses me off when writers change their minds about their earlier work (Auden was notorious in this regard) and force publishers to stick to their later (and often worser) versions. Just because you're capable of creating great work doesn't mean you have great critical faculties (or even a lick of sense).
posted by languagehat at 8:25 AM on October 9, 2003

posted by rushmc at 8:30 AM on October 9, 2003

jfuller: that rule is not strictly adhered to. ie: "Le bon Dieu" (The good God)
My favourite Brel is L'ivrogne, a question of memories, I suppose..
posted by ruelle at 9:39 AM on October 9, 2003

That's another great song, ruelle...

Tant pis si tu es menteur
Tavernier sans tendresse
Je serai saoul dans une heure
Je serai sans tristesse

Buvons à la santé
Des amis et des rires
Que je vais retrouver
Qui vont me revenir

posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:53 AM on October 9, 2003

Great post, Miguel. My favorite Brel song is "Marike" - you know, the one with "Ay, Marike, Marike" and all that flemish gurgling. Delectable.

But long as we're on the subject of an artist's original intent and when a work escapes the chains of that intent, what about the English translations of Brel's biggest songs? The two I'm thinking of are "Le moribond" and "Ne Me Quitte Pas," both covered by Terry Jacks, both translated by Rod McKuen.

The former, of course, became "Seasons in the Sun," with such massive liberties taken that only the original lyric idea - somebody saying goodbye while dying (in springtime) - remains. The rest, in Rod McKuen's (!) English version, is an unspeakable travesty.


j'veux qu'on rie
j'veux qu'on danse
j'veux qu'on s'amuse comme des fous
j'veux qu'on rie
j'veux qu'on danse
quand c'est qu'on m'mettra dans l'trou


We had joy
We had fun
We had seasons in the sun
But the hills
that we climbed
were just seasons out of time

The French lyrics, roughly, express the dying man's defiant wish for people to laugh, dance, make fools of themselves when he's "put in the hole in the ground." The English version expresses - what? I can't even tell. Pure unadulterated pap. Almost completely meaningless. "Le Moribond" isn't one of Brel's best songs - he has too many that are absolutely terrific - but there's no excuse for this. If you're going to steal the melody and write a stupid song over it, why make the mockery explicit by including any of the original content?

A trickier case is "Ne Me Quitte Pas." Here an honest effort is being made to convey the point of the original song, but the syllables for "don't leave me" don't match up to the melody. So what is supposed to be an emphatic imperative now becomes a wistful if-then statement, "If You Go Away." Look at this final stanza of Brel's...
    Ne me quitte pas Je ne vais plus pleurer Je ne vais plus parler Je me cacherai là A te regarder Danser et sourire Et à t'écouter Chanter et puis rire Laisse-moi devenir L'ombre de ton ombre L'ombre de ta main L'ombre de ton chien Ne me quitte pas Ne me quitte pas Ne me quitte pas Ne me quitte pas (Don't leave me / I won't cry anymore / I won't speak anymore / I'll hide there / to watch you / dancing and smiling / and to listen to you / singing and laughing / Let me become / the shadow of your shadow / the shadow of your hand / the shadow of your dog / Don't leave me / Don't leave me / Don't leave me / Don't leave me)
God, that's devestating. The unspoken, bitterly ironic message is that it's exactly this fantastical desperation that's driving his lover away - the heartbroken repetition of "don't leave me" is just the thing that will ensure she does - expressing one of the most painful and eloquent truths about the pitfalls of loving someone. Now, though, let's see how Rod handles this. After a lyric filled with idiotic cliches of sun, birds, trees, rain etc. that are nowhere in the original, we come to that last stanza

If you go away as I know you must
There'll be nothing left in the world to trust
Just an empty room full of empty space
Like the empty look I see on your face
I'd have been the shadow of your dog
If I thought you might have kept me by your side
If you go away, if you go away, if you go away

Not only does "the shadow of your dog" now become ridiculous and nonsensical (rather than the culmination of an escalating series of humiliating promises), but the last lines of the song are now a simple-minded repeat of the refrain; they have no meaning on their own ("if/then" statements are meaningless without the "then").

OK, I know there are always problems inherent in translating songs and poems. Got it. But by what bizarre machinations of the gods did these classics of one of the 20th century's greatest pop songwriters get handed over to our hemisphere in the hands of one of its biggest... ahem... in the hands of Rod McKuen?

Sorry, this is just always something that's bugged me. Reeeeeeally bugged me.
posted by soyjoy at 10:02 AM on October 9, 2003

It pisses me off when writers change their minds about their earlier work

? i suppose i once felt this way but really, those changes are rarely definitive once the post mortem revaluations begin. to take your example of auden, he disavowed those poems which made his name. i think his reasons were good, from his perspective. they are the poems of his i most enjoy, but i can see how he wanted to be remembered differently. disavowal is an artistic act, to my mind; as is correction, and even burning manuscripts.

it's much more humorous in the music world, with the dodgy cd masters, recompiling, overdubbing new rhythm sections, etc.

soyjoy: so much to say to this. first, mckuen was not interested in transliteration, he was interested in expressing himself as well. call them rewrites. the success of both versions in english bears him out [rather than brel, i would argue]; and his idiosyncratic choices, while abhorrent to a purist, are exemplars of rod's thematic concerns. his interest in nostalgia drew him to brel, and with "seasons" he's overlaid his own conception of nostalgia on a death-monolog song. of course, mckuen is a hack; but what makes him compelling to me is that he happens to be a hack imitating beatnik sensibility. he probably intended that "shadow of your dog" should be inscrutable; his shoddy poetry abounds in the non sequitur.

second, there is a strong tradition in pop versions of foreign hits to joyously mangle lyrics. after all, "brel" is pretty close to "brecht". it's crass but so is pop. it reminds me of the 60s technique of taking bach and mozart melodies and giving them teenybopper lyrics.

third, the black box recorder version of "seasons" is superb, primarily because it fails to buy into the lyric, and goes the karaoke route, yet still exults in that wonderful couplet, "we had joy, we had fun / we had seasons in the sun", what a great pop lyric.

fourth, didn't nina simone sing ne me quitte pas in french? guess she felt the same way you do.

jfuller: adding to ruelle, i would mention that "le plat pays" emphasizes the dullness of belgium, compared with "le pays plat", though in poetry the figurative-before/literal-after rule is not as strongly felt as in prose and speech.
posted by mitchel at 10:35 AM on October 9, 2003

I fully agree with mitchel: the best English versions are often those that bear no relation to the original lyric. A supreme example of this is Sinatra's beautiful collaboration with António Carlos Jobim. Specially noteworthy (to someone who also loves the original Portuguese lyric) is "How Insensitive". Although the lyrics are probably not as "good" as the originals, they work perfectly. Lyrics are words to be sung, not read. Brel may be a special case - he wraps his "tunes" around his words - but I think he was, essentially, a musician.

I'm with Ezra Pound on this - translating shouldn't be transliterating. It's enough to convey the general emotion of a piece. It's preferable if the version in another language just sounds as if were written in language in which it is sung.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:33 AM on October 9, 2003

Miguel - with all due deference to the fact that you speak and understand our language better than I understand Portugese or, probably, French, "translating shouldn't be transliterating," and indeed it isn't. Transliterating is rendering the words of one language into the characters of another. It has next to nothing to do with translation (pace mitchel ... hmmm... mitchel, a "transliterated" Miguel?).

What we're talking about here are simply different decisions made in translating song lyrics, how to handle rhythmic elements while either remaining true to the sense of the original or throwing it overboard in favor of a whole different song. What I'm advocating is: Do one or the other, but don't offer these half-assed translations that pass themselves off as true translations but are basically new, very-loosely-related lyrics on the same melody.

There are plenty of Brel translations that take liberties with the actual words (i.e. don't "transliterate") and succeed in conveying his visions and the feel of the songs (and sound good in the language they're being sung in). The ones done for "JBIAAWALIP" almost all fit this bill. It bothers me not a whit that there's no one named "Frieda" in the original song "Les Timides," because the lyrics still stick very closely to the feeling and sense of the original. Conversely, the change from "Les Flamandes" to "Marathon" wisely throws overboard all the Belgian cultural references that are central to the original and crafts an entirely new lyric (I think they overlap on the word "dance" and the basic concept of the passage of time and that's it).

So it's not as if I want all song translations to be exact - they can't, obviously, and so a certain poetic license is required. It's that McKuen, especially, seems to take such muddy liberties in providing an "English version" of a song and gets away with it, setting that as the version of record, because he's Mister Famous Poet.

Someday I'll do a translation-not-transliteration of "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and you'll see what I mean. If I could only work out what those five syllables would be...

And mitchel, as to "the success of both versions in english bears him out," I would attribute that success to the melodies, not to McKuen's genius in "expressing himself." I think we can agree that it doesn't take great, or even comprehensible lyrics to make a pop song an enduring success here.

Great thread anyway, Miguel (till I showed up...)
posted by soyjoy at 1:04 PM on October 9, 2003

i've been meaning to listen to jacques brel as I've recently (the first time I heard him was on the day he died, sadly enough) been listening to Jake Thackray who was influenced by brel and brassens.
The only reason I haven't listen to brel is that I don't speak French very well... oh well, that never stopped me from listening to serge gainsbourgh...

has some of jake thackrays lyrics on it
posted by klik99 at 3:34 PM on October 9, 2003

um, do any of these links go to music one could listen to?
posted by rushmc at 7:46 PM on October 9, 2003

Thanks for the correction, soyjoy. I just wish the many people who've heard me make the same mistake had told me earlier, rather than snigger into their shirt collars, the mangy bastards. I use that word a lot, so you've saved me from a lot of ignorant babble. I owe you.

Not much of an exchange, but Portuguese is written with a "U", some say because of the "U" in Portugal; others so that the "G" is hard and not soft. Gese, soyjoy! :)

Rush: Greetings! I couldn't find any music on the Web, but then I didn't really look. I'm sure Kazaa Lite will turn up the more popular songs. I'd suggest buying the old, single-CD "Best of Brel" or the new double-CD which came out with the 16-CD "intégral". It's the sort of record one is glad to have at home, over the years.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:17 PM on October 9, 2003

here's a song--Quand on n'a que l’amour
posted by amberglow at 9:34 PM on October 9, 2003

Scott Walker, imo, did the best cover.

Bah! You have a tin ear, Miguel. Particularly odious was his version of "Next" ("Au Suivant"), where's he's doing that faux-artsy sing-several-beats-behind-the-music crap.

Nothing compares to Mort Schuman belting out "Amsterdam", "Funeral Tango" (Le Tango Funèbre) or "The Bachelor's Dance" (La Bourrée du Célibataire).

Alas, my favorite Brel site appears to have been taken down. It was really nice -- had dual translation of all the "Living in Paris" songs. Luckily, the "Wayback Machine" archived it! ;)
posted by RavinDave at 11:29 PM on October 9, 2003

Okay, Miguel, normally I'm suspicious of a musical pig in a poke, but you earned a lot of cred by introducing me to fado, so I'll check it out.

Thanks for the link, amberglow.
posted by rushmc at 5:29 AM on October 10, 2003

Portuguese is written with a "U", some say because of the "U" in Portugal; others so that the "G" is hard and not soft. Gese, soyjoy!

See, that just proves my point: Not only do you know how to speak the language, you know how to spell it!

"gese," indeed.
posted by soyjoy at 7:36 AM on October 10, 2003

Here's a 58 minute broadcast (real media) of a show in The Netherlands in 1964. Starts out with an introduction in Dutch.
posted by prolific at 12:13 PM on October 12, 2003

« Older Incredible Web Design   |   Better living through toys Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments