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Jacques Brel was born into a bourgeois Belgian family in 1929, but as he grew up he came to loathe what he called the “mediocrity of the spirit” that infected his comfortable world. The songs that he went on to write when he moved to Paris and became one of the world’s foremost French-language singers and songwriters were the work of a man of many passions.
One of his most torrid songs was “Amsterdam”, and the song’s birth testified to its emotional power. His publicist and mistress Sylvie Rivet later recalled that she and Brel were in the south of France in 1964. “One morning at six o’clock Brel read the words of ‘Amsterdam’ to Fernand, a restaurateur who was about to set off fishing for ingredients for a bouillabaisse. Overcome, Fernand broke out in sobs and cut open some sea urchins to help control his emotion.”
Brel’s “Amsterdam” vividly portrays the lives of the sailors, drunks and whores of the port of Amsterdam, its 3/4 time signature evoking their dance steps; when he first sang it on stage at Paris’s Olympia in 1964, the crowd gave him a three-minute ovation. Footage of Brel’s performances of “Amsterdam” shows him twitching, jerking and pouring sweat as the song’s feverish crescendo reaches its peak: then, blackout. Three minutes of pure drama.
Inevitably, “Amsterdam” was translated into English, and here Brel had two champions: Rod McKuen and Mort Shuman. McKuen was a singer, songwriter and poet whose translations of two Brel songs became pop hits: “Ne Me Quitte Pas” became the widely covered “If You Go Away”; “Le Moribund” became the schmaltzy “Seasons in the Sun”, a hit for Terry Jacks in 1974. McKuen’s “Amsterdam” took many poetic liberties with Brel’s lyric but was not widely adopted.
Meanwhile Shuman, American singer and songwriter, also took up the Brel banner. His translated lyrics to many Brel songs, including “Amsterdam”, have become the “standard” versions, retaining Brel’s spirit, although with perhaps less of his poetic abstraction. Shuman also paid tribute to Brel by co-writing a 1968 off-Broadway show, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which became a 1975 film. (In the film Shuman sings “Amsterdam” in a bar while Brel himself sits silently in a corner, nursing a Stella Artois.)
One singer who was drawn to Brel via Shuman was Scott Walker. As one half of The Walker Brothers, Walker had had hits with pop tunes such as “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More” but by 1967 he was showing an appetite for the fringes of popular music (an appetite that would culminate in his 2006 album The Drift, on which a percussionist was required to slap a piece of raw pork). Walker covered a string of Brel songs in the 1960s, among them “Amsterdam” (they would eventually be collected on the fabulous 1981 album, Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel). Walker’s “Amsterdam” follows the Brel-Shuman template, its big arrangement and potent lyrics summoning up a scene of tragic debauchery.
Then there was David Bowie. As early as 1969, Bowie was covering Brel songs (again, in Shuman’s translations): he sang “My Death” at the Beckenham Arts Lab that year, and again at his “farewell Ziggy” concerts in London in 1973. Later in 1973 when he released the single “Sorrow”, “Amsterdam” was the B-side. Bowie’s version is stripped down, with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, but no less dramatic for that: “And he pisses like I cry” is delivered with spine-tingling intensity. A new generation had been brought to Brel.
Subsequent versions by Irish singer Camille O’Sullivan (who gives the song a cabaret vibe) and folk band Bellowhead (ramshackle and rowdy) have brought the song to a wider audience. And in 2003 it was performed in the unlikely environment of the French TV talent show À la Recherche de la Nouvelle Star when a young singer, Thierry Amiel, sang it to a studio of swaying, banner-waving supporters. The show may have been cheesy, but Amiel nailed the song (although he came second in the contest).
Over the years, the song has attracted a particular kind of singer, drawn to its swirling maelstrom of emotions — artists for whom, like Brel, mediocrity is anathema.
For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photographs: Getty Images