The Agony and Ecstasy of Mathilde

Scott Walker is a fine musician, with interesting ideas and a great voice. And yet, when I listen to this great Jacques Brel song, I can’t help but think of it as I do Pat Boone performing Blueberry Hill:

As opposed to Fats Domino.

Here is Jacques Brel, debuting the original song, Mathilde:

Can it be that Walker doesn’t understand the song? The agony and the ecstasy? It certainly seems that he doesn’t. There is no doubt that Brel understands it—probably far better than we do.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “The Agony and Ecstasy of Mathilde

  1. Frank, i commonly agree with you. But I must challenge you here on Scott Walker, i think you’ve missed a few things?

    First, walker was still relatively young (though a pretty intelligent guy, wouldn’t you agree?) when he ‘covered’ this song, and personally I think he understood the meaning, but perhaps not entirely? Second, i think he can be excused for his naiveté based not only on his youth, but also on the fact that he was only beginning to crack from his ‘squeaky clean’ pop-image of the Walker Bros. and was then just starting to have a try at rearranging and reproducing Jacques Brel tunes. And Lastly, and probably most important of all, his only real translation of Brel’s work at that time (in fact I think it was almost the ONLY translations of Brel) were the one’s done by Sherman-the same source Terry Jacks and Rod McKuen used to translate "Seasons in the Sun’ (I also think you’re wrong about that song as well, but that would require an entire post in itself) anyway, I think you should re-assess Walker based on his work in Scott 4 and thereafter, when he really came into his own and began making more challenging and evocative work. Now that being said, I still love his version of "Jackie" and his absolutely bizarre song: "Plastic Palace People". . .but really, his later work is much more interesting-in my opinion anyway.

    I think comparing his ‘cover’ of Brel’s song to Pat Boone’s of "Blueberry Hill’ is really hyperbolic.

  2. @Karl – I was undoubtedly hyperbolic. Better that than boring. I really like Scott Walker. And I think it is totally cool that an Ohio boy fell in love with Brel and decided to share him with the English speaking world. Jackie works better than Mathilde, but will you allow that Brel’s Jacky works better?

    I will stand by my comparison with "Blueberry Hill," however. I don’t think that I even implied that Walker’s Mathilde is terrible in the way that Boone’s BH is. It is simply that Walker does miss the emotional core of the song.

    I didn’t intend for this to be a hit piece on Walker. I’m still having a love fest with Brel. What’s more, I think that everybody agrees that Walker was at his best doing his own work. Emotionally, I think Brel is a bad fit for Walker.

    Regardless of this, I am planning to write about Walker in some depth later, because I very much like him.

    Now what is all this about Terry Jacks? I would very much like to read a counter to what I wrote about "Seasons in the Sun." Yes, *that* article was a hit piece. However, it was primarily a celebration of Brel and a song that speaks to my life, unlike the vast majority of popular music.

    (Regarding the translations: I recall Sherman created a kind of cabaret act of Brel songs and Walker licensed them. What are you saying about the McKuen translation? I would note that Sherman’s translations seem much more accurate.)

    Thanks for commenting! I need more people to beat me up. Being opinionated doesn’t make me right.

  3. Frank,

    I understand what you mean. I think you’re right on the whole? For instance, I would definitely say the Brel originals are absolutely the ‘best’ versions of his own songs, naturally. I also think you bring up another good point: that it was beneficial that Walker brought Brel to the American public. . .I would add that to the list I used to defend Walker.

    However, I’d also like to state that I didn’t really think you were creating a ‘hit piece’ on Walker. In fact I’d be surprised if you’d actually done that; judging from your previous posts.

    I also think my problem with comparing Walker’s version of "Mathilde" to Pat Boone’s cover of "Blueberry Hill" is probably a personal irritant to me? ha, I just find nothing even remotely interesting about Boone and his music. And this kinda-sorta leads me to address your (admitted) ‘hit job’ on Terry Jacks "Seasons in the Sun". . .

    Now, I’ll start by saying this is going to be as brief as I can, I don’t want to take up too much of your time and the space here. Basically, I’ve always found certain, particular ‘pop songs’ to be almost subversive little ‘bombs’ placed in society, I don’t know exactly what your take on ‘bubble-gum’ pop music is, but I find much of the ‘off’ sickly sweet pop music of the 60s to be something, almost sublime. I’m not gonna argue with you that T. Jack’s version of "Seasons in the Sun" is of course a cheap hollow piece of bubble gum pop, but. . .but I always found something interesting in how the song casually and almost flippantly speaks of death. But more than any of that, which is admittedly my own peccadilloes and preferences per regards ‘pop music'(conversely I also enjoy extremely experimental, avante-garde [does that even exist anymore?] and dark music too), I would say that my own personal listening of "Seasons in the Sun" is precisely what made me track down, first Rod McKuen (no, I have no problem really with McKuen’s translation-but I agree with you I think Sherman did a better job-my only reason for bringing it up was to point out that Walker was already getting a ‘filtered’ version of Brel songs to begin with, so his ‘grasp’ of the material may very well have been a bit ‘off the mark’?) and from McKuen I got Walker who then got me ‘hooked on Brel’. . .so, for this young lad anyway, Terry Jacks’ "Seasons in the Sun" was part of the path which brought me to listen to Brel. . .

    Naturally Brel’s version of Jackie is better than Walker’s-I’d agree almost completely with you that Walker’s best work is his own material.

    However, I still derive a certain amount of ‘perverse'(?) pleasure and a sort of wild manic fun from "Seasons in the Sun". To me, it has provided me with much entertainment-the clashing of the ‘childish’ imagery and (as you say the child like emotional thought process) that to me make the song that much more appealing, when they then clash with the concept of facing death.

    Of course, I realize this is all a matter of taste. But when I saw what you wrote about Walker (comparing him to Pat Boone, ugh! and *yes*, I wholeheartedly agree with you that one *should* write hyperbolic text, it’s what creates this type of conversation, it’s far more enjoyable) so, I felt I had to write something in response. Additionally (and I’m not just ‘blowing smoke’ here) I find you to be an extremely articulate and intelligent guy and I was happy to see that you responded. . .I will definitely look forward to your longer piece on Scott Walker, sincerely!

  4. @Karl – There isn’t a lot to say because I think we largely agree.

    You make a good point about bubblegum music. My point with the *Le Moribond* article was more about cultural differences. When I was young, I liked *Seasons* well enough. I think I said that I thought it was about suicide and that always appeals to sensitive teens. What’s more important was that it was thought (correctly) that the song needed to be pitched at a lower level for the American audience. That’s sad.

    I try to always appreciate the values that exist in a work. Justin Bieber’s songs are all professionally performed and produced, for example. But I like to push a little against the grain and get people to consider less broad works.

    I look forward to more disagreements from you in the future.

  5. Frank,

    Ha,ha, yes you’re right. For the most part we’ve come to an agreement here (though, I have yet to find a Justin Bieber song that I find has the same ‘je ne sais quoi’ [to keep things Francophile] which I find in other ‘pop’ acts-mostly from the 60s/70s, but again this is trivial).

    So, I’ll keep on the look out to see if there’s anything I can find to argue with you on. But I think it’ll be hard? We really agree on a lot of issues. . .but, I’ll agree to ‘speak up’ if I see something.

    Cheers!

    Karl

  6. @karl – We can’t even disagree about Bieber. As I think I’ve written: he doesn’t seem to be able to sing in tune without digital help. But he surrounds himself with professionals. Still the music is mostly impossible to listen to accept in an analytical way. (It’s kind of like dissecting a frog, but less pleasant.)

    You can do something for me, though: put two carriage returns between paragraphs. The indented lines just get filled in by the parser. If I didn’t edit them, they would all run together. (You aren’t alone in this; I need to put up a sign or something.)

    Ha Cha Cha Cha!

  7. Frank,

    (Sorry about the two ‘returns’ thing, but each blog has its own formatting, so I never really know what to do-thanks for letting me know tho)

    Ha! Yeah, haha, I think we’ve come to the point where we agree on nearly everything here? I already knew we wouldn’t really have too much of a disagreement, as I agree with much of your opinions, taste and humor to think we’d actually get into a heavy argument.

    Now about Justin Bieber, are there any songs one could ‘dissect’ and come up with something interesting? Because, I love doing that-there are some ABBA songs that are absolutely fascinating to do that with. From (the admittedly very little) that I’ve heard of Bieber’s songs, I haven’t come across anything. But if you could tell me one, I might find that interesting?

    As a side not: I used look at and listen to a lot of my mother’s old record collection (most I’ve absorbed into my own collection) and used to have fun listening to a lot of ‘forgotten’ pop music from the 60s/70s. Incidentally, it’s where I first encountered "Seasons in the Sun" *and*, Rod McKuen. In that ‘collection’ there was a pop singer I never heard of before, and even wen I asked others, no one seemed to remember him either; his name was Bobby Sherman. From what I could find, he was a pretty big pop star in the 70s, but I suppose it was so short-lived most people forgot him? Anyway, the reason I bring this up, is that when I first saw Justin Bieber my thought was how much his ‘look’ seemed reminiscent of Bobby Sherman (from the photos I saw on his albums). Sherman’s singing is completely different of course (I completely agree on ‘auto tuning’ BTW-I think it the worst invention introduced to music, perhaps, ever? Steve Albini once said: "If Billy Holiday were alive and singing today, you can be sure some record producer would slap an ‘auto tune’ on her!"), Sherman actually had something of his own ‘sound’, whereas Bieber seems to be one of the vast hoards of singing ‘clones’-what I refer to as: ‘The Cult of American Idol’, and I don’t like it. Anyway, I’ve always wondered if anyone connected with Justin Bieber chose his ‘look’ based on the now forgotten Bobby Sherman? I’m sure that can’t be the case, but I really was struck by certain similarities. So, I wondered what your thought was, if you are at all familiar with Bobby Sherman?

    Ha Cha Cha Cha!

  8. @karl – I doubt I know Bieber any better than you. It is strange, this is the best time for pop music ever. And yet, the acts that are really big are almost without exception banal. When I happen to see American Idol, I’m amazed how much all the singers are alike. Any competition that wouldn’t reward Bob Dylan or Robert Johnson or Louis Armstrong is useless.

    I know the name Boby Sherman, but when I checked, none of his songs sounded familiar. A friend of mine is really into David Cassidy, so there may be a connection because the two are really similar. Bieber’s hair looks like a cut from one of those books that hair stylists have in their offices. But I wouldn’t doubt there is some relationship to Sherman. A teen idol is a teen idol is a teen idol. Although I think teen idols of the past performed music with a little character.

    The closest I’ve come–and probably will ever come–to analyzing Bieber’s music was the autotune article: Justin Bieber and the End of Western Culture. Even that was a trial. "And I was like; Baby, baby, baby no." Really. No!

  9. frank,

    ha! sorry about forcing that Bieber song in your head. . .sincerely! I know what that’s like. apologies all around.

    It’s funny (peculiar, not ‘haha’) that you bring up David Cassidy, because i had originally included him in my post, but then scrapped it-I felt I’d written enough at that point. . .but, I definitely saw him in Bieber too.

    Yes, it was really the haircut, open shirt with a choker and that ‘goofy grin’ that *really* made the connection in my mind. the Bobby Sherman pics I saw always had him with that haircut, same one Bieber sports (yes, exactly like one of the ‘demo pics’ used in barber shops, ha!) an open shirt, choker and a ‘goofy grin’. I did a little check up on Bobby Sherman too (oh, you are certainly not alone, the *only* person I know of who seems to remember Bobby Sherman is my mother) apparently he had his own TV show in the 70s, which was a ‘variety’ thing, maybe? or perhaps he performed with guests? I find his rapid rise, then the immediate public amnesia of him, a bit weird, but I’m sure one can find many?

    oh yes, I know what you mean. these are definitely the ‘days of the pop idol’, and yet-as you say-there really isn’t *any* distinction. All one needs do is look at the pop charts. when musical acts from all genres now perform duets with each other (it seems to be a popular ‘gimmick’), it kinda shows just how similar and homogenized their music really is (the only *real* distinctions I can tell are: ‘slightly heavy beats’ for ‘rap music’, a slight ‘R&B’ sound to others, and singers of Country Western merely a ‘twang’ to the vocals and guitar here and there-if that’s the only distinction between ‘pop songs’, it’s pretty sad). . .you took the words right outta my mouth! any show that would immediately ‘dump’ Bob Dylan, Satchmo, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, heck even Johnny Cash would probably be ‘eliminated’ at some point, really demonstrates a lack of actual insight into ‘talent’, that these shows seem to spotlight.

    One last thing: do you know that Bieber in German means ‘Beaver’, hmm, interesting. . .

  10. @karl – Actually, I don’t think that Cash would even make it to the try-outs. He had a really weak (but great) voice. I love country music. I haven’t heard any of it on country stations for about 40 years, but I love it. As you indicate: it is pop with an affected accent and a slide guitar. It will be a happy day when Garth Brooks dies.

    The thing about Bieber is that I can see why 13 year old girls would love him. He’s cute as a button. The problem may be that in the past, the producers didn’t allow the artists to get in the way of the music (for example, The Monkeys). But now, people like Bieber must get their way and the producers must pretend that he knows how to write a song.

    Leonard Cohen: very weak voice, but he’s grown into it as he’s gotten older. Lou Reed is hopeless, but he makes up for it in many ways. I was shocked to learn that he had married Laurie Anderson. I always thought they were both gay. (Okay: whatever Reed was. Pansexual?) And any successful man who is shorter than me is okay in my book. (Too bad *Casino Royale* is such a bad movie, but the idea was great.)

  11. Frank,

    Yeah, you’re probably right, Cash wouldn’t make it past ‘try outs’-and that’s exactly my point. In fact I think a lot of singer/songwriters who’re so revered would have a hard time making it in that competition? Personally, I think that’s one of the many ‘issues’ I have with that show? It’s trying to make ‘becoming a pop star’ into some kind of mathematical, precision based system-and that’s not what music (or really art of any kind) is about. As you can probably tell, that show irritates me on so many levels.

    Yes, I think Bieber’s ‘fame’ is due in large part to him looking like a prepubescent-pubescent boy, so the young girls can like him without being ‘threatening’ etc., You bring up a very good point, and something I hadn’t really thought about. There’s been a paradigm shift in the ‘industry’. Like you mentioned with The Monkees, the axis has now shifted to the side of the artist (not in and of itself a bad thing, but when faced with the "Pop Idol Phenomenon"; it’s a disaster) and the producers have now become a sort of mass homogenization process, they take find someone with a certain ‘look’ and ‘image’, then feed them into the ‘machine’ and out pops. . .well, Justin Bieber.

    Absolutely, no doubt, Leonard Cohen has definitely ‘grown into’ his voice (I happened to see him perform live in 2009 [?] and it was quite good). Still and all, I think it’s mostly his lyrics and the emotion he puts into them that make his best songs what they are-again, this is a performer I don’t think we’d *ever* see nowadays?

    Ha, yeah Lou Reed! To me it’s a similar situation (I’ve heard Lou Reed perform one of his songs about five or six different ways?) still, like you said, he more than makes up for it in many ways. HA! it’s uncanny that you brought up Lou Reed marrying Laurie Anderson. I thought the exact same thing when I heard about it, and I was just talking about it with my sister the other day. I had *always* assumed Laurie Anderson was gay, and Lou Reed I assumed was, well, Lou Reed-sort of went with whatever he felt like, whenever he felt like it-but I certainly couldn’t picture him in domestic partnership-much less with Laurie Anderson! So I really don’t know what to make of that? It confuses me still.

    What’s your reference to Casino Royale? I must have missed something?

  12. @karl – I saw Cohen during the "I’m Your Man" tour, I think. He was so much better than he was in the 60s with Bird on a Wire and such. I always liked Jennifer Warnes’ album of his songs, *Famous Blue Raincoat* because it was nice to hear his songs sung well. I still like that album, but I’ve gotten to like a lot of the originals more–especially the title track that really gets destroyed turning the writer into a woman.

    Lou did go through his domestic periods. The whole of *The Blue Mask* is about that. But those periods were always short. He has been together with Anderson for 15+ years.

    In *Casino Royale*, Woody Allen plays an evil scientist who has created a bomb that will kill all men who are taller than he is.

  13. Frank,

    I’ve never heard the Jennifer Warnes album of Cohen’s songs, I’ll hsve to track that down. But I know what you mean, it would be interesting to hear his songs sung ‘well’. Though, honestly, to me I was never too hung up on the poor quality of his voice-though, I agree, I think age has made his voice work much better for him.

    I was gonna ask you about something regarding Lou Reed. Didn’t he live with a transsexual at some point? Was that during the Blue Mask period? It is amazing that they’ve been together that long, eh? I remember when I first heard about it, because I read an article, I think, about how he and Laurie watched the Twin Towers collapse from their rooftop in Manhattan (2002/03?); and I thought to myself-huh? Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson are married?

    Ah, haha, yeah I remember that-at the end of Casino Royale, right? ha, okay. . .I haven’t seen the film enough to have immediately caught the reference.

  14. The album is worth getting. I’ve owned it a few times. I think I bought my most recent for a buck at a library book sale. Here is the title tune on YouTube:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPlpxHhzSp0

    Yeah. Reed was with a transvestite for many years. Her name was Rachel. That was around Coney Island Baby. He was married to a biological woman named Sylvia Morales. I gather that he is not the easiest of men to live with. But like most men, he is probably getting more bearable with age.

  15. Hm, wow. . .ha, that is certainly a different vantage of that song! And she does an absolutely beautiful rendition of it too, how come I’ve never heard of her before? I’ll have to track down this album.

    I still think the real strength of the song is in the lyrics, the core of the song, and I have to say I *love* what you wrote on the newest post, Re: Leonard Cohen. I absolutely agree, and as you know. I think we both have some penchant for ‘sadness’ and ‘bitterness’ in the ‘art’ we enjoy-why else would we like this stuff?

    Ah, shit-you’re right. It *was* during Coney Island Baby. . .I forgot about that album. I think I mixed up the ‘story’ of the "Berlin" album and mixed it with his relationship with Rachel?-I will definitely defer to you on all things Lou Reed from now on, you know your shit-I just looked up Lou Reed on Wiki- and I saw that he was with Sylvia Morales. Don’t know who she is/was, but I would imagine Reed was probably a very difficult person to deal with at that point? Hell, just listening to how he treated interviewers; could be pretty cold and sarcastic. However, you bring up a good point. He *has* mellowed in his old age, and that goes for interviews too. He’s much more patient and willing to show a more vulnerable, humorous (with less sarcasm and sardonic comments) side. I can only imagine it’s this which has helped him to continue his long standing relationship with Laurie.

  16. We are going to have to stop meeting like this; this article is about to fall off the front page of the site.

    Jennifer Warnes was a BG vocalist for Cohen in the 60s. And later she had that huge hit, the duet with Joe Cocker, "Up Where We Belong." The record company did a 20th anniversary of the album, so it must have sold pretty well. I think "First We Take Manhattan" was kind of a single. Check it out. Stevie Ray Vaughan is on guitar. Ah hell:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uy7Zb5C-XU

    I do know a lot about Reed, at least up to *Mistrial*. That sucked pretty much and I lost interest. The thing about him is that just about everyone who ever worked with him thought he was a complete dick. Robert Quine thought it was all about insecurity, and if there’s anything Quine understood it was insecurity. Reed might have been with Rachel as early as Berlin. (I just bought it again. Bob Ezrin is a god.) I don’t remember, but they were together for a while. All I know about Sylvia is that she designed two album covers: Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts. Not great work, but good enough.

    Wow! Two great dead guitarists in one comment. They are sorely missed.

  17. Ha! yeah, I know what you mean. This’ll be my last entry, okay?

    Thanks for the info on Warnes, and the "First We Take Manhattan" link. . .cheers!

    As for Lou Reed, I always phased in and out of his music. I mainly enjoyed his early work (first two Velvets records, and the it get’s patchy after that, an album here, a few songs there. . .); but then there’s later work he did that I like quite a bit (I actually like Metal Machine Music) but it’s always been patchy for me with Reed. Definitely by the late 80s/90s, I don’t think I heard anything I liked by him? then again I also didn’t hear much. . .

    As for Rachel, I was speaking on the fact that I was probably mixing up the ‘story line’ of Berlin (junkie couple & their exploits in Berlin) and confusing that with him being with Rachel; but then you’re right, I suppose he could have been with her when he wrote that?

    Okay, that’s all-until I find more to ‘criticize’. . .

    TRANSMISSION END

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