[Brel] was a Belgian singer, songwriter, poet, actor and director who composed and performed literate, thoughtful, and theatrical songs that generated a large, devoted following—initially in Belgium and France, later throughout the world. He is considered a master of the modern chanson.
To give an example of the impact of this grand man, there are 1,400 different recorded versions in 52 different languages of his “Ne me quitte pas” song.
Here are just a few of the things that I admire about Brel:
- He emphasized that one should take full advantage of life by choosing a suitable vocation and being with people who bring the best out of us. He turned down the opportunity to inherit his dad’s factory, and headed to Paris to become a chansonnier (and later worked in other artistic capacities and even became a pilot). He left his spouse and children, but supported them financially.
- He exhorted us to pursue goals “even if they are impossible, especially if they are impossible.” (The noblest aims are impossible to achieve in one’s life time.)
- He showed in his personal life, and in various songs, that one should “live standing up”. Compare his song “Vivre debout”.
- He worked extremely hard, diligently and methodically.
- He tackled important, tough topics in his songs. He sang about death, aging, seeing friends cry, poverty, and prostitution. He called out collaboration (“Nazis during wars, Catholic between them”), pietism, hypocrisy, betrayal, war mongering, and living like sheep, sheep herders, and monkeys etc.
- He didn’t merely point fingers: he recognized and underscored our limitations while encouraging us to pursue excellence.
- He also sung about beauty, childhood, enjoying life, hope, and many other important dimensions of the human condition.
- He valued friendship, camaraderie, real virtue, and providing service.
- He managed to quit smoking, albeit too late.
- He emphathized with our heart breaks while implicitly exhorting us to handle life’s setbacks with courage and dignity. When he was told that “Ne me quitte pas” was named the best love song of the 20th century, he responded by saying something like “it is not a love song. It is the song of a man who lies prostrate before a woman.” Several of his “love songs” can be interpreted in this way.
- He wrote and performed (acted) songs more masterfully than any singer-songwriter in English or French that I know of.
Brel is one of the three great men to whom I dedicated Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. (The others are Winston Churchill and Pierre Elliot Trudeau.)
I have a “Zest of Brel” project (or dream) in the context of which I mean to create a tribute to Brel: edit a book and/or organize a concert. When this project grabbed hold of me in 2010, I expected to be able to complete it on time for the 40th anniversary of Brel’s death, and thus the 90th anniversary of his birth (next spring). I’ve failed to achieve that goal. (Brel did say we should set goals we can’t achieve!) Now I’m thinking the project will need to complete by Brel’s centenary, to do it right and at an enjoyable pace. (Here, I’m reminded of Cohen’s song, Slow, from his final, Popular Problems, album.)