Life was shit. everybody was horrible. but wasn't he wonderful!

Jacques Brel sang of sex, death and bruised romance with the kind of mordant humour that’s to die for. ‘It is the intensity of life,’ the Belgian chanson decided, ‘not the duration.’
En route to his final recital in Paris before calling time on his career.

The YouTube clip is a bit grainy, and the sound quality a little fuzzy, but it leaves an indelible impression. Jacques Brel takes to the stage of Flanders’ Casino de Knokke, in 1963, to perform his breakthrough hit Quand on N’a Que l’Amour (‘If We Only Have Love’). He starts by strumming a guitar, looking rapt as he sings of love’s exhilaration (“Pour qu’eclatent de joie/ Chaque heure et chaque jour”), but the fervour builds over two and a half minutes to a defiant and explosive climax in which Brel’s gritty, breathless, anxious voice is pitching love against war in a kind of mortal combat (“Quand on n’a que l’amour/Pour parler aux canons/Et rien qu’une chanson/Pour convaincre un tambour”). As he relinquishes his instrument, a torrent of sweat is pouring down his face.


Stuart Husband


October 2022


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