It’s always a good time to talk about Jacques Brel. The years have not diminished my admiration for him. What is so great is that he doesn’t just sing. He acts the songs. He is, above all, a storyteller. And the stories that he tells are so filled with keen observations of the way the world is.
I understand that there are other artists who do this. Bruce Springsteen’s best work is like this, but usually he falls into cliche. Bobbie Gentry certainly managed this on a few songs. But American songwriters tend to disappoint. As much as I love the work of Warren Zevon and Randy Newman, they rarely succeeded in any given song. I think the problem is that American popular music, regardless of the form, is too dependent upon “slice of life” stories, with little payoff. It is extremely rare that a songwriter even tries to convey what we get from the best American short story writers like Irwin Shaw.
But Brel doesn’t just try—he succeeds. And he does it consistently. It doesn’t matter if he’s being serious or silly, he always has something to say. A good example of this comes from a song I really like, “Les Bourgeois”—a song that is both serious and silly. It tells the story of three friends: Jojo, Pierre, and the narrator. The first two verses tell of how they are drinking away their youth at the Three Pheasants Hotel bar. And when the older bourgeois pass by, the young men ridicule them in the chorus, “The bourgeois are like pigs!” And so on.
In the third verse, things are different. The three friends are now the bourgeois. They still have the same interests. They are still the same people. But they are old. And now there is a new generation of young people who ridicule them just as they ridiculed the generation before them. This is not exactly a startling denouement, although I think any reasonable person would admit that it has far more to say that most American pop songs. And that’s especially true coming from a man only 32 years old. (Brel wrote the lyrics; the music was written by Jean Corti.)
What’s more notable about the song is the way that Brel performs it. The entire tone of the third verse is different. It is a bit more stiff—the performance of man who knows he has to be dignified but still feels the same inside. And then, he doesn’t even sing the final chorus. This is the same chorus that was sung with such gusto the first two times, “The bourgeois are like pigs!” It is spoken with sense of disbelief, “Can you believe what these kids say to us?” It’s poignant and beautiful.
Here is the song. There are no subtitles, but I hardly think they are necessary: