Mar 24, 2009

Jacques Brel, Songs of the Street, and On Bleecker Street

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in ParisLast month, Eric Blau passed away at the age of 87. A resident of Manhattan, the multi-talented Blau, a man of several careers, was best known as the creator, along with composer Mort Shuman, of the musical review, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. (obit from the NYT here). The review opened on January 22, 1968 in the Village Gate and played for over four years. When I was younger, I didn't think there was anything better than the songs of Jacques Brel. For the review, Blau translated Brel's lyrics into English without losing any of their sensitivity and power. I can still remember most of the lyrics from "Jacques Brel," hearing "Amsterdam" and "Fanette" even as I write this.

I pass by the former Village Gate most every day while strolling along Bleecker Street. The sign for Art D'Lugoff's famous spot, notable for its legendary jazz performers, is still there. The new venue, Le Poisson Rouge, now occupies the space, and its programming has demonstrated a thoughtful willingness to pay homage to the Gate's history but also to celebrate the innovations of contemporary art and performance.

But I want to talk about Jacques Brel for a minute. Born in Belgium, the country that served as a source for many of his lyrics, Brel moved to Paris in the 1950s, singing his songs and playing guitar. His early career in many ways parallels Bob Dylan's. As Brel gained popularity through his performances in cabarets and concert halls, his songs grew in complexity, darkness, and lyricism. He wasn't scared to sing songs about the rougher parts of town and the less idealistic aspects of love.

Many of Brel's songs show an acute sense of observation, especially about everyday life, and I think of him as a flâneur. His songs paint images of large cities and small towns as people go about their business, enjoying small things or encountering disappointments. While his songs are often full of people, we find, as one song goes, we're alone.

In 1968, while the nation and world experienced life-changing revolutions in culture and society, many people adopted the songs of Brel as their own personal standards. The Zipper Theater in the Garment District, sadly closed this January, staged a well-received revival in the spring of 2006, anticipating that we would again need some of these songs in our lives.

Image above by Walking Off the Big Apple, March 23, 2009. By the way, that corner of Bleecker and Thompson has some powerful songwriting vibrations. Bob Dylan wrote "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" in a basement apartment there.

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