THE SONG was called, "Surtout, Ne Pleurons Pas" - "Let Us Not Mourn."
I want you to laugh, I want you to dance, I want you to have the greatest time, When they put me in the hole.
Jacques Brel talked a lot about death. Next week, they will bury him in the tiny cemetery of Atuana in the South Pacific, only a few yards from the grave of the great French painter Paul Gauguin.
Nothing could be more appropriate. Both men were masters of what they did. Gauguin's command of the brush made him one of the great artists of the 20th century. Jacques Brel's command of music and the French language brought him to the forefront of Gallic singers and writers. Both were tortured men who finally found a kind of refuge and tranquility in the South Pacific. Both were romantics. Both shunned the personnal trapping of adulation that come with fame.
Jacques Brel's death was a special event in France. That in itself is not unusual in this country that reserves a special place for artists and people with talent. The death of Elvis Presley had produced war-size headlines in the French press, and hours of retrospectives on French radio and television. Then there was a singer named Claude Francois. It is perhaps cruel to note that he wan't much of a singer, but he had forged his career from the inspiration of Presley, and he had a special link with the young generation in France. Tens of thousands cried at his funeral several months ago, after he electrocuted himself trying to screw a lightbulb into a socket while standing in his half-full bathtub.
But Jacques Brel was different. His last words to his friends around his bedside were: "If you really love me, shut up. Don't talk about me anymore." And by asking to be buried in the South Pacific, his death-bed wish, he ensured that there will not be the tens of thousands who tramp around the Memphis mansion of Evis Presley or crush the flowers around the grave of Claude Francois. Jacques Brel will be alone. That's the way he wanted it. He was the kind of man who ended his music hall career in 1967, at the height of his popularity and creative abilities.
His stunned fans refused to believe that it was not all just another publicity stunt and that his retirement was real. But it was. He never made another record until last year, and then only because he knew he was dying and had a few things on his mind that he wanted to say and sing before he left this world. Unlike many of the stars today, he was sincerely uninterested in money. The sums he asked for singing around the French provinces were lower than any comparable performer of his time.
But one should not get the impression that Jacques Brel was a saint, or that he was loved by everyone. Some of his songs, his seeming association with the Communist pary, he was not a Communist brought him the outright hate of some right-wing French groups. Only in death did he achieve the universality he had preached during his short span of 49 years of life.
Jacques Brel was not even French. He was born in the Flemish section of Belgium in 1929, the son of a wealthy, Catholic cardboard manufactuer. Belgium is a small country that is sharply divided on linguistic, religious and social lines. The solid, some would say dull, wealthy class is dominated by the Flemish Protestants, while the Catholic, French-speaking Waloons are the minority. The skill of centuries of compromise has prevented Belgium from becoming another Northern Ireland. Jacques Brel grew up speaking Flemish and French and acquiring a hatred for the bourgeosie from which he sprang. "The bourgeois," he once said, "are like pigs. The older they get, the stupider they get."
His professional singing career was pure accident. He could easily have become entrapped in his father's cardboard factory, where, at 20, he had taken a job, married one of the secrtaries and had three children. But to amuse himself, he wrote songs and sometimes recorded them, and a friend, unbeknowst to Brel, sent one of them to French music promoter Jacques Canetti, who then ran a small cabaret in Paris called Les Trois Bandets. "Jacques Brel came into my life on a record, totally anonymously," said Canetti. "I listened to the record one night in May 1953 at Les Trois Baudets. I was so taken by the record that I telephoned that very night to the person who sent me the record to tell Brel to come to Paris as soon as possible." Brel came, but did not want to live in Paris. Canetti finally finished by convincing him and in September of 1953, he started his singing career in the French capital. His father reacted to his son's new career by cutting off all his funds. It was a tough time for Brel, living with his wife and children in Paris, on the 30 francs a night he was paid to sing at Les Trois Baudets, particularly since at first he was not much of a success. One unkind critic suggested that the young Belgian "go home to his cardboard boxes." But little by little, he caught on. In 1954 he wrote one of his great, all-tine sings "Le Diable" ("The Devil").
All over the earth they're lighting fires
Just like they've done before, okay
And men still get a tremendous kick
From the dangerous game of war, okay
People have seen such terrible things
That their eyes have begun to fade, okay
And nobody sings in Paris streets.
And good men are labeled mad, okay
But in all newspaper pix you see
Everys . . .'s a celebrity.
Adaptation by Barbara Scott
After that, Brel was carrid from triumph to triumph with his hit songs like "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (Don't Leave-Me"), "On N'Oublie Rien" ("We Never Forget Anything"), Rosa" and "Les Paumes Du Petit Matin" ("The Lost Souls of the Early Morning").
And people started talking of him, not just as a singer, but as a poet. Brel was more modest: He talked about writing songs in a "poetic climate. Poetry and song are two very different things. A poem is written to be read and reread. A poem doesn't need music. It suffices in itself. A song is made made to be sung. It must be clear and perfectly comprehensible the first time it is heard. I can't write poems. I don't know how to find the poetic sonority. I need a note of music to make my words ring." Still today in many French schools, the words of Jacques Brel are studied for their perfection of composition.
But then, as I have said, at the height of his popularity, he quit. "I don't want to become an old singer," he explained. In the succeeding five years, he tried two other careers, the stage musical and movies. He produced "The Man of La Mancha" in Brussels and in Paris, singing the lead role of Don Quixote, a triumph. He acted in seven movies, marked more by his personality than by their artistic or financial success. And finally, he directed two movies. Disasters. That was the end of his career.
The first thing he did with his newfound liberty was to learn to be an airplane pilot. It was the personality and the spirit of the French aviator-writer Saint Exupery that moved him to seek solace and peace in the clouds. Then, he chose the sea. He bought an 18-meter ketch, the Ascoy, and set off with a group of male friends to sail around the world. When they reached the Canary Islands, Brel became desperately ill and was flown back to Brussels. There, his sickness was diagnosed as cancer of the lungs. The doctors had to remove half of one of his lungs.
After a short convalescene, he set off again, this time with his girl friend, Madly (her name) and another couple. Brel and Madly abandoned the other couple at Panama, and kept sailing west into the Pacific until they reached the Marquesas Islands, where he was to live for three years, making a few, secret trips back to Paris and Brussels to see doctors.
Brel knew he was dying, but even before, in many of his songs, he talked a lot of death. "If I talk about it, it is to underline the absurdity of all our sadnesses. Everything will stop, it is not important to live, it isn't worth anything not to anyone, even oneself. That's justice, the real justice. If I utilize it [death] in my songs, it's because it's the most absurd idea that's accessible to everyone. Death, I don't give a s. . . about it, I don't give a double s. . ." The notion of God also ran through Brel's work. "I use God as an exterior notion, because I am a symbolist, like all the Flemish. Man never stops hoping for miracles, but the miracles never come. God never arrives. So I quote God, even though he never wrote anything."
In mid 1977, Eddie Barclay, the king of the French record industry, with whom Brel had an open contract, received a letter from Pacific from the singer. "Reserve a studio for September and October. I'll be there." It was in a way Brel's final legacy, an LP record of 15 new songs. Those who witnessed the recording session (they were held in the highest secrecy and without any press) said that it was almost an inhuman effort for Brel to get through each day's work. His condition had so deterioated that death was around the corner. The songs on the record was very different. From the "Hs on Tue Jaures" ("They have killed Jaures") about an old-time French Socialist leader who founded the French newspaper L.'Humanite (now the organ of the French Communist Party) and was later assassinated; to "Les Marquesas" that lovingly tale of the island and the people he had adopted in his final years.
His final months were spent in and out of hospitals, mostly discreetly. But about two weeks before his death, Brel made the press again a spectacular way. The French weekly Paris Match had managed to get photos of Brel, totally swathed in bandages, being taken into a French hospital. Through his lawyer, Brel sued the magazine for invasion of privacy. A French judge sided with Brel and allowed the seizure of Paris Match off the newstands.
Last Monday, Brel died in the early hours of the morning.
Guy Beart, who after Brel, is probably the greatest "troubadour" today in the French language, said of the late singer: "Jacques Brel was not at peace with himself. He had a permanent thirst for justice. When he was on the stage, he developed 200 volts. He had the temperament of Muhammad Ali. For me, he is always living, by his works. He has won against death."