If you wish to investigate this record you may first need to accept some facts that might seem disquieting.
First of all the album has been called a covers album, it’s not, it’s stirring interpretations, and this in essence, is the difference between an artist and a copyist. Although it would be impossible to inject these songs with the passion and fury that Brel did in French, Walker booms them out with his powerful tenor and makes them his own. So please, do not let anyone tell you this is a covers album.
Secondly with the original lyrics being in French, how well do they translate into English? Surely the meaning is lost? The subtleties, the words that won’t translate between the languages, the expressions and worst of all how do you make it rhyme? Well my French isn’t anywhere near what I would need it to be to grasp the profundity of Jacques Brel’s original lyrics. But I do know that the translations for all these songs (except If You Go Away by Rod McKuen) were made by Mort Shuman, a Brill Building songwriter who along with Eric Blau translated Brel’s songs for a stage musical (Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris), in English as faithfully as they could to retain the spirit of the original lyrics. It’s true that the Americanisation of these songs may suit an American singer best. What hasn’t ever really been addressed is the issue of popular versions being translated and sung in English with a European sensibility. The minor alterations in The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s version of Next are case in point, as they are in Bowie’s Amsterdam. It is important to remember that although all Scott Walker’s success was in Europe, he is actually American from Hamilton, Ohio. Still, the songs soar with their over the top sixties productions, arranged by Wally Stott, Reg Guest and Peter Knight. There is no doubt that Brel’s brilliant observation of joyous, decadent, lovelorn and cynical characters that inhabit the French lyrics are brought to life through these American-English versions. Lastly on the subject of authentic versions of songs translated from another language, it would seem a shame not to read Baudelaire because you couldn’t learn the French language fluently.
Last but not least there is the awkward fact that Walker never did put these Jacques Brel songs out as an album dedicated to the Belgian – that was the record company’s idea. The songs here initially appeared on his first three solo alums featuring three songs on each, and sharing those albums with other ‘interpretations ‘ of other people’s songs, mixed together with original songs written by Walker. Mathilde, My Death and Amsterdam were on Scott 1967. Jackie, Next and The Girls And The Dogs were on Scott 2 1968. Son’s Of, Funeral Tango and If You Go Away were on Scott 3 1969. So you could argue that hearing the songs surrounded by other songs as Walker meant you to hear them, may be the real experience? Whether or not that is true, to collect them altogether like this and to listen to them from beginning to end without interruption, is perhaps the most stimulating musical half an hour you will spend for a while.
Mathilde knocks you off your feet as it stampedes into the speakers with an unbridled joy. Mariachi trumpets blaze through a Wally Stott arrangement, timpani, organs and trombones. The return of “Wretched Mathilde” brilliantly conveys the joy and pain of her reappearance for the central character of the song. For whatever reason, this dysfunctional relationship filled with violence, pain and desire is going to end in tears:
My hands, you’ll start to shake again
When you remember all the pain
Mathilde’s come back to me
Mama, can you hear me yell
Your baby boy’s gone back to hell
Mathilde’s come back to me
Amsterdam, is perhaps better known to David Bowie fans as the B-side of Sorrow from Pin-Ups, released in 1973 (it also appeared on the compilation album, Rare). The song about sailors on shore leave in Amsterdam and their exploits leaves little to the imagination. Alcohol, whores, gluttony, murder, pretty much covers it, but vile acts with absolute abandon are the creed of Brel’s characters, so no surprises here. In Walker’s version the song that begins with poignant accordion, soon finds itself crashing towards the finale in an eruption of voracious indulgence.
Jackie with its rolling snare drum and timpani is one of Brel’s most classic characters. In the pursuit of fame and fortune a young dreaming unashamed ego maniac, narcissist and villain, voices his desires for a world he cares little about, unless it be for his own vain and self-obsessed advantage. The self-loving, drug addicted God’s gift to women scenario is brilliantly painted. I think the “Cute Cute in a stupid ass way” line is probably him trying accelerate his goals by attracting a line of shallow women and decadent encounters through a fake smile, good looks and his own success. This cynical portrayal doesn’t fit well for me into some critics idea that this was partly autobiographical. From what I have read of Brel he was a generous and caring man with ambition yes, but a wife and children that he loved dearly. Ultimately his marriage did break down but I can’t imagine that these extreme characters are a reflection of him, more his ability to present their reality.
Brel was massively popular and received standing ovations wherever he played but by 1967 as Scott Walker released this song, Brel was retiring from live performance. The song was written with piano accompanist Gérard Jouannest. (He also accompanied the legendary Juliette Greco). Scott Walker released it as his first solo single after his solo album Scott in 1967 but the song was added to Scott 2 for a 1968 release. It seemed to upset everyone, fans and authorities alike – this might have done it:
“And I’d sell boats of opium
Whiskey that came from Twickenham
And phony virgins
If I had banks on every finger
A finger in every country
And every country ruled by me
I’d still know where I’d want to be
Locked up inside my opium den
Surrounded by some China men
I’d sing the song that I sang then
About the time they called me “Jackie”
It was banned by the BBC and although it was never heard on mainstream radio, it still managed to reach Number 22 in the British charts.
My Death, from Scott 2, is also better known through Bowie fans and the Ziggy Stardust concert film. Interestingly, Bowie sings different lyrics in the first verse to Scott Walker in his version.
My death waits like an old roué
So confident I’ll go his way
Whistle to him and the passing time…
My death is like a swinging door
A patient girl who knows the score
Whistle for her and the passing time
La mort m´attend comme une vieille fille
Au rendez-vous de la faucille
Pour mieux cueillir le temps qui passe
Whether you are bilingual or not, just the English interpretations are quite different to each other in this short section. One wonders how different another translation might be?
(The dictionary definition of Roué below):
A lecherous dissipated man
French, from past participle of rouer, to break on a wheel (from the feeling that such a person deserves that punishment), from Old French, from Latin rotre, to rotate; see rotate
Scott Walker’s version has an archetypal sixties arrangement with some rather incongruous guitar lines and plectrum bass, but his commanding voice always stands out. What is the song about? Is it just about death or about love in the face of death perhaps? Any opinions on this?
The first version of Next that I became familiar with was The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s excellent version on the 1973 album of the same name, so when I heard Scott Walker’s version on Scott 2 I immediately noticed some word changes – small but still there. The credit is the same so I presume that Alex Harvey felt that some of the words needed to be changed, (kid to child/blush to weep) – I’ll let you spot any others.There is a Mexican feel through these songs and I’m not sure where that comes from because it is not in the original versions – but again it is an interpretation. When I read Brel’s text, some of his lyrical ideas are in this version but not all of them, plus there are added words that Brel never wrote – I guess that’s what an interpretation is. So as I analyse this I realise that we really must take theses versions as the success of an impossible task, musically as well as lyrically. Walker’s voice is so distinctive that even a version that isn’t true to Brel can still communicate the gritty poetry of the songs. In that sense it’s a true collaboration – I wonder what Brel thought of these versions or how good Brel’s English was?
Next tells the story of the lines of brutalised conscripts and or the general experience of joining the army. The un PC word usage that Mort Shuman and Eric Blau chose in the translation is a dramatic stretch of the original lyric:
Oh, it wasn’t so tragic
The high heavens did not fall
But how much of that time
I hated being there at all
Now I always will recall
The brothel truck,the flying flags
The queer lieutenant who slapped
Our asses as if we were fags
I swear on the wet head
Of my first case of gonorrhoea
It is his ugly voice
That I forever hear
From the point of view of Scott Walker this was like putting Baudelaire into English pop and it’s groundbreaking for its day – Scott Walker was a pop star and no one sang songs like this. Walker was sometimes associated with other crooners although he came from sixties pop and not their tradition at all. He was breaking down the walls of acceptability, no one dared croon about brothels, whores and gonorrhoea. I wonder what Jack Jones, Matt Monro, Frank Sinatra or Engelbert Humperdink thought of him? It’s no wonder that his commercial star began to fade when he began to take this more artier and more challenging approach. It all makes sense when you hear how he has attempted to evolve with his last four albums, all released with an approximate ten year gap except the last one Bisch Bosch 2012, a mere six years – The Drift 2006, Tilt 1995, Climate Of Hunter 1984. There is no one in the world like him – there wasn’t then and there isn’t now.
The Girls And The Dogs, the last Brel song from Scott 2 is another Brel/ Jouannest composition completely un PC again as the comparison between the pain and intrigue that women bestow on men verses the simple dumb friendly dog who “just licks your face” and loves you whatever happens.
Are as cold as the sphinx
Always dreaming of minks
And they’ll drive you to drink
Are as soft as a sigh
That whispers good-bye
And leaves you to cry
But the dogs
Well, they’re only dogs
Just wagging their tails
As they watch it end
Oh, the dogs
Well, they’re only dogs
And maybe that’s why
They’re man’s best friend
It’s playful cabaret sung like a humorous tune from a musical with an edge, (arranged by Reg Guest). In the end Walker explains how the men take it out on the poor dog when they have been wronged by the women. It’s just funny.
If You Go Away from Scott 3 is probably the best known of all Brel’s songs with lyrics translated by the American poet Rod McKuen. Mckuen is the most successful American poet ever in terms of sales and according to the web sites he sold a million copies of his books in 1968 alone. The critics historically and universally savage him whatever he does and that tells you something about what the public want and the damage that bad reviews don’t have. They say that this overly sentimental translation is just that, but I haven’t been able to find a Shuman or Shuman/Blau translation and obviously neither could Scott Walker. This is the only song on the record that isn’t translated by Shuman and or Blau. The French title is Ne Me Quitte Pas, Don’t leave Me. The song is much softer and sad in this English version whereas if you look at the Jacques Brel video I posted, the song and performance wreak of desperation. Walker succeed in performing this version from the crooner stable with Frank, Matt and Jack as equals and with nothing controversial in the lyric, nothing more than a beautiful sad song.
Funeral Tango arranged by Peter Knight is a hilarious lyric from the point of view of a dead man commenting on the shallow money grabbing relations and fake friends that attend his funeral.
Oh I can see them now
Clutching a handkerchief
And blowing me a kiss
Discreetly asking how
How come he died so young
Or was he very old
Is the body still warm
Or is it already cold
All doors are open wide
They grope around inside
My desk my drawers my trunk
There’s nothing left to hide
Some love letters are there
And an old photograph
They’ve laid my poor soul bare
And now all they do is laugh
Scott Walker delivers it like an actor and that is of course what Brel became after he retired from performance in 1967. Only returning to the live stage for his own production of the musical L’Homme de La Mancha (Man of La Mancha) between 1968 and 1969.
Last but not least, Son’s Of comes from Scott 3 with an arrangement by Wally Stott that is as visionary as it is dynamic. Strings rise and fall in strange sweeps – it sounds like a song from a macabre musical. All the sons that come from all the different walks of life, whatever they became and wherever they came from, they were all once just someone’s children. It’s a fitting end and feels like the epilogue.
So to sum up, the cynical views that Brel related in his character assassinations and his observations of what he saw around him must have had some basis in his own intolerance of hypocrisy, but was he a player in his own experience of life? He really must have had people squirming in their seats as he called them out on their foibles and pretences. It’s hard to imagine where he found such vitriol for people or how he managed to store up such passion to express it – unless he truly felt it. Or was he just an observer with a craving for the truth, a man who hated insincerity? A man who had empathy for those that had it tough, the forgotten people of the streets whose every day presented challenges, risks and life threatening situations that the average person did not have to deal with. And as he could not write about the boring lives of the well-off, he wrote about their insincerities. Perhaps he lived somewhere in the middle of all this, looking for balance in a world of extremes. A world of rich and poor, liars and samaritans, hypocrites and saints. Brel died in 1978 of lung cancer at the age 0f 49.
Scott Walker took on a mammoth task in attempting to do justice to the work of a man so passionate, a man whose performances drove audiences into a frenzy when he sang the songs in his native tongue. Walker had the vision and the guts to take it on but he also had the voice – and what a voice it is.