The Crooner and the Physicist

Jacques Brel and The New Yorker profile that never reached critical mass


From 1957 to 1959 I was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where I was doing theoretical physics. I had written nothing professionally but physics papers, and it hadn’t occurred to me to write anything else. If someone had told me that four years after I left Princeton I would be a staff writer for The New Yorker, I wouldn’t have believed it. But that is what happened. In 1959, I won a two-year National Science Foundation Fellowship, which enabled me to do physics anywhere I wanted. I chose Paris. While at the Institute, I had worked with a French physicist who was a professor at the Ecole Polytechnique, then located in the Latin Quarter. He said he would be glad to continue our collaboration. And there was another inducement. At the time, Murray Gell-Mann was the most interesting theorist working in my field—elementary particles. He would win the Nobel Prize in 1969. With a colleague at the Institute, I had written a paper using some of Gell-Mann’s ideas, and he had sent us a nice note. Soon he appeared in Princeton, and when I told him that I was going to Paris, it turned out that he was too. “Stick with me, kid, and I’ll put you on Broadway,” he remarked. Even though he is only a couple of months older than I am, it was an offer too good to refuse.

In the fall of 1959, I found myself in Paris, speaking hardly a word of French. The previous summer I had tried a crash course in Southern California, where I was then working, from an attractive young French woman using the Berlitz method. This consisted of her flashing cards with photographs of objects for which I was supposed to supply the French. The only word that stuck was coquelicot—“red poppy”—which was difficult to work into a conversation. Of grammar and pronunciation I knew nothing. My idea was to learn the language by osmosis now that I was in Paris. I thought that listening to children would be especially useful, since their vocabulary would be limited. After a month, I realized I would never learn the language this way. I asked my French colleague for advice. On this he was quite categorical: I should enroll at once at the Alliance Française on the Boulevard Raspail, also in the Latin Quarter. This turned out to be a marvelous suggestion. The Alliance was very serious, the mirror image of Berlitz. We attended class for three hours a night, five nights a week. There were exams—often the dread dictée in which the teacher would read some labyrinthine nightmare that we were supposed to copy in our notebooks to be graded for accuracy. My fellow students were largely people who wanted to work in, or immigrate to, France. For them this course was not an option. They were very determined, and since our only common language was French, we all learned quickly.

I was able to measure my progress by listening to the radio in my Morris Minor convertible while tootling around Paris. Within a couple of months I found that I was no longer translating consciously and could even distinguish accents—the Parisian accent from the accents of Provence, for example. I also listened to the recordings of singers like Juliette Greco,

Edith Piaf, George Brassens, and Léo Ferré. But there was another singer whose accent I could not identify. There was no trilling of the Parisian rr’s— which we had so carefully cultivated in class—“J’ai rencontré trois grenouilles sur la rue Royale.” This singer’s rr’s had a hard edge. They caught your attention. Then there was both the music and the poetry of the words. I had never heard anything quite like it. And neither had anyone else. This was Jacques Brel.

The reason for the accent soon became clear. Brel was not French but Belgian. Although his mother tongue was French, his accent was tinted by Flemish—the form of Dutch spoken in Belgium. His accent might explain why he did not become well known until he was thirty, in 1959. That fall, two of his songs were being played again and again on the radio. They were both love songs, but they were antipodes apart. The first, Ne me quitte pas— “Don’t Leave Me”—is about the desperate attempt of a man to hold on to a woman. He offers her gifts—Des perles de pluie / Venues de pays / Où il ne pleut pas—“Pearls of rain, from a country where it doesn’t rain”—followed by Ne me quitte pas, Ne me quitte pas, Ne me quitte pas. This terribly sad song is hard to get out of your head once you’ve heard it. The second song, by contrast, is full of joy, about a young man falling in love and measuring his emotions by the rhythms of a waltz. But it is not an ordinary waltz, which would be in three-quarter time—trois temps in French. The rhythm of this waltz keeps accelerating; it becomes une valse à quatre temps . . . beaucoups moins dansant / Mais tout aussi charmant—“much less danceable but just as charming.” Then it becomes une valse à mille temps—the title of the song—an impossible dervish that takes your breath away. Une valse à mille temps / Offre seule aux amants / Trois cent trente- trois fois le temps / De bâtir un roman—“a waltz offered only to lovers at three hundred and thirty three, the time it takes to build a romance.” When I first heard this lyric, I had just found a French girlfriend, and like the man in the song, it was Paris qui bat la mesure—“Paris was keeping time.”

Since I heard these songs on the radio, I had no idea what Brel looked like. But soon posters appeared advertising an engagement at the Bobino, a small theater then in Montmarte. I got tickets at once. Seeing Brel in person revealed an entirely new dimension: one of the most plastic faces I have ever encountered. He sometimes looked like a Christian martyr—he played the title role in the French version of Man of La Mancha in 1968—and sometimes he looked like a country bumpkin. He was thin and bucktoothed, but in some poses he was extremely handsome. How he looked on stage depended on what he was singing. He transformed himself into the characters in the songs. The most remarkable example of this is in his 1966 song “Ces gens-là,” in which he manages to become an entire family, and a dreadful family at that. The singer is in a bar late at night describing the family to someone he keeps addressing as “Monsieur.” He begins with the head of the family—an alcoholic who drinks all night and the next morning finds himself in church Raide comme une saillie / Blanc comme un cierge de Pâques—“Stiff as a stone / White like an Easter candle.” And he mumbles. For “mumble” Brel uses the word balbutie, which he slobbers over like a drunk. We have his mother qui ne dit rien / Ou bien n’importe quoi—“who says nothing or anything at all.” She watches her troupe drinking cold soup. Brel then makes the sounds of animals feeding at a trough. They all are waiting for her to die so they can inherit her money. Faut vous dire Monsieur / Que chez ces gens-là / On ne cause pas Monsieur / On ne cause pas on compte.—“I have to tell you mister, that with those people, one doesn’t converse—one counts.”

But in the middle of all of this there appears Frida, belle comme un soleil—“beautiful as a sun.” At this point the music rises as the narrator tells how much he loves her and how much she loves him and what their plans would be if only she could escape from her family. He becomes a sympa- thetic character until the very end of the song when something unex- pected happens. The narrator sings,

Les autres ils disent comme ça
Qu’elle est trop belle pour moi
Que je suis tout juste bon
A égorger les chats
J’ai jamais tué de chats
Ou alors y a longtemps
Ou bien j’ai oublié
Ou ils sentaient pas bon.

The others say just like that
That she is too beautiful for me
That I am only good enough
or cutting the throats of cats
I never killed cats
Or it was a long time ago
Or I forgot
Or they smelled bad.

Just who is this man and what is this family? But Brel leaves the story unfinished, forcing us to use our imagination. The last lines of the song are Mais il est tard Monsieur / Il faut que je rentre chez moi.—“But it is late Mister and I have to return home.”

Something unexpected always happens with Brel’s lyrics. You can’t take them for granted. Having listened to all of his records and having seen him on stage several times, I can never get much pleasure hearing other people, however gifted, sing his songs. Still less if the songs are translated. In 1966, an attractive small group of Americans created a show that they called Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The original version, which got very good reviews, ran Off-Broadway. I saw it and was troubled by the translations and by how the songs were sung by an ensemble involving both men and women. It was fine, but it was not Brel. Probably they worked hard on the translations, but the songs don’t really translate. They mutate into something else. An example is Brel’s sad and beautiful song “Marieke,” which he wrote in 1961, in collaboration with his pianist, Gérard Jouannest. “Marieke” is in both Flemish and French. Brel had studied Flemish in school but had never been very good at it, so he needed help with the vocabulary and the pronunciation.

Because “Marieke” is in two languages, translation is even more diffi- cult. A standard translation that English-speaking singers use can be found on the Web. When one reads it, the problems become evident. The song is a lament of a love now lost. One assumes, because of the name, that Marieke must be Flemish, which is why the language shifts. The song proceeds first in French, followed by the Flemish in a more somber hue. Brel sings: Zonder liefde, warme liefde / Waait die wind, de stomme wind / Zonder liefde, warme liefde / Weent de zee, de grijze zee. The phrase Zonder liefde, warme liefde is repeated several times. The English translation renders this as “Cold and loveless, cold and loveless.” One does not have to be much of a linguist to know that Zonder liefde, warme liefde does not mean “Cold and loveless, cold and loveless.” The correct translation is “Without love, warm love.” The rest translates to “The wind blows; the stupid wind / Without love, warm love / the sea weeps, the gray sea.” The standard translation for the rest is, “Blows the wind, the wordless wind / Cold and loveless, cold and loveless / weeps the sea, the old gray sea.” The differences might seem small. But poetry is the expression of small differences, and poetry, as they say, is what gets lost in the translation.

Sometime during my first year in France I got a job offer—a real job, not the sort of fellowships I had been living on since getting my degree. It was at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Brookhaven was then an important center for the kind of work I was doing. I had just turned thirty, and it was time to start settling down, at least a little. The place had real scientific merits, but socially—that was another matter. The facility, which had been an army base in both world wars, was set in the isolated scrub pines of eastern Long Island. I lived at the lab in very modest officers’ quarters. It was pretty bleak. After my workday I had a good deal of time on my hands, and I began to write. What I wrote at first were long letters to people. One letter, written to no one in particular, described the experience I had had the previous summer teaching physics in a summer school on the island of Corsica.

The school was very new. We lived in a hotel on the beach, and our students lived in tents. The Corsicans looked on this activity with benign amusement. The whole thing was both serious and very funny. That is what I described in my letter. When I showed it to a few people at the laboratory, someone suggested that I send it to The New Yorker. Because I didn’t know anyone at the magazine, I put the letter in a laboratory envelope and sent it with a brief cover note addressed simply to The New Yorker. This was in late October or early November. No response. I was used to the kind of coddling we got from our physics journals, where there was always an acknowledgment of the receipt of an article and usually several follow-ups indicating its progress through the system. From The New Yorker there was nothing. It was now getting on to spring, and I decided to call the magazine. After some confusion, a woman with a sophisticated voice got on the phone. I gave my name and she said, much to my astonishment, “You must be back from Corsica.” I explained that I had been back for more than six months, and she said that I would be hearing from them shortly.

A few days later the phone rang and the man on the line identified himself as William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker. Until that moment I had no idea who the magazine’s editor was. He told me he had read my letter from Corsica. Then he asked, “Do you mind if we publish it?” That is exactly what he said. I replied that I didn’t mind. He then asked if I could come in and see him. When we met a few days later, we spent about an hour talking—just talking. I told him about how I had become a physicist and about some of the people I had worked with. I am sure we talked about Oppenheimer and the Institute at Princeton. At the end he said to me, “Mr. Bernstein, you see things. I think that you could write for us about science as a form of experience—yours and others’.” Much later I found out what had led to this. After my unsolicited manuscript had been read by a first reader, it had gone up the chain until it arrived at the desk of Edith Oliver. Miss Oliver was then a theater critic for the magazine and one of Shawn’s advisers. Not long before my manuscript arrived at her desk, Shawn had been in to see her. He was complaining that there seemed to be exciting new science that no one was able to write about in a way that he wanted to publish. After reading my manuscript Miss Oliver went into Shawn’s office and said, “I think I may have found the solution to your problem.” That is how I became a staff writer for The New Yorker.

I wrote about science, but I also wrote about unrelated subjects. This was possible because of the “Talk of the Town” section of the magazine, whose brief essays on almost anything were in those days never signed. Shawn once told me that he wanted the section to read as if it had been written by one person. The anonymity had an advantage for me. I could stray as far away as I wanted from science without, I thought, acquiring a reputation among my fellow physicists of having gone soft. I wrote about tennis, for example, and the theater—a lot about the theater. My sister, who is an actress, would tip me off to good stories. She told me about a bowling league in which the casts of theatrical shows had teams that bowled against each other late at night after the performances. I wrote about a match between the Luther team that had Albert Finney and the Barefoot in the Park team that had Elizabeth Ashley and the very young Robert Redford. I kept up on what was happening, or about to happen, in the general entertainment area.

In this way I learned that Brel was going to give a concert in New York City on December 4, 1965, his first performance in the United States. He was starting at the top—Carnegie Hall. The concert was being promoted by a man named Harold Leventhal, who was famous in the business for spotting talented people when they were not well known—Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie being two examples. He was just the person to introduce Brel to America. I wrote to him and he arranged for Brel to see me when he came to New York. I suppose he had told Brel that appearing in The New Yorker would be a good thing. I spent parts of two days showing Brel the sights, and he seemed glad to come across a New Yorker who spoke French. We had a very pleasant time, but I did not have enough material for a profile. I did have more than enough for a “Talk of The Town” piece, though, especially when I added in the concert, which was a huge success. French-speaking people came from all over the East Coast. The reviewers thought they were in the presence of a discovery. I wrote my little essay, but for reasons never explained, Shawn did not use it. Perhaps he thought that Brel was not yet well enough known here. Over the next few months—especially with the success of the Off-Broadway show—Brel became much better known. So I approached Shawn with the idea of doing a full-scale profile. He approved. The question became how to find a way to interview Brel.

To explain what happened next I must describe how my own career evolved. After being at Brookhaven for a couple of years, I decided that I could not take living in that isolation any more. At this very time a close physics colleague of mine who had been at New York University got a job offer from Columbia, his alma mater. He told me about it and said that, if I wanted, he would let the NYU people know that I might be available. This came to pass. By 1965, I was both a junior faculty member in the physics department at NYU and a staff writer for The New Yorker. It was a pretty busy life. I was spending the summers in Geneva, Switzerland, at the CERN laboratory, which was a giant international scientific institution devoted to my kind of physics. I thought that I could combine my summer visit to Geneva with a visit with Brel. This turned out to be even easier than I had imagined. A French law requires casinos to present cultural activities such as concerts. Within easy driving distance of Geneva, on the lake in France, there were two casinos, one in Divonne and the other in Evian. Brel had been engaged to give a concert in each that summer, starting in Divonne.

On my visit with him in Divonne, I did not advance my project very far. I met the members of the small group of musicians who traveled with him. I have an ineluctable memory of Brel in the back of a chauffeured limousine smoking a large Cuban cigar. It was the image of a happy man, a far cry from the tortured individual in many of his songs. At Evian, some weeks later, I made some progress. Brel, piloting his own plane, arrived there with one of his daughters, named France. She and I spent time in his dressing room while he prepared for his performance. Brel played a tape recorder he had brought along. On it was a nascent song—humming, a few words, and the guitar. I have often wondered if that song was ever written, and if so, which one it is. I watched his recital from backstage. When it ended he came behind the curtain so wrung out he could hardly walk. Brel never gave encores. Now I understood why. There was nothing left.

When I returned to Geneva, I made an accounting of what I knew and what I didn’t know. I certainly knew what Brel was like in performance. I knew him better than most people who wrote about him. But I really didn’t know much about his origins. Who were his parents? I gathered that his father ran a packaging factory. What was Brel’s childhood in Brussels like? What about his wife? I knew he had been in the army and then had married young. His other children? One question that puzzled me was the war. In some of his songs there are intimations that life in occupied Belgium was very hard. I had never heard him discuss this, so I would try to find out. I had a long list of questions and a tentative understanding that I would meet him again in Paris. But soon after I made my list, I abandoned the project. I simply stopped. Now, nearly forty years later, the reasons for this are not easy for me to write about. I still feel anger, embarrassment, and even some shame. I haven’t told many people and haven’t written about it, but I am now at an age when it seems appropriate.

I have already explained that, at the time, I was a junior professor at NYU. I did not have tenure—that guarantee of a lifetime job—and I didn’t give it much thought. By the summer of 1966, I had published three books. The first one, The Analytical Engine, originally a long New Yorker article on the history of computing machines, had won a science-writing prize. I was working on a technical monograph in my field of physics and had published several scientific papers. I had a couple of doctoral students and was teaching my courses in what I hoped was a conscientious way. I was also doing a good deal of writing for The New Yorker. I didn’t have a lot of time for academic politics, so I was very surprised when the chairman of the NYU physics department came into my office at CERN, where he was also visiting, to discuss my future at NYU.

He said it looked bleak; some important members of the department didn’t like me and wanted me gone. One of the objections raised was that I was writing for The New Yorker. No one could have known how much I was really writing for the magazine, which would have made it still worse. That I was writing anything not related to science was, in the minds of these people, proof that I lacked the gravitas needed to be a professor at NYU. I could not believe my ears. It seemed completely unfair—crazy, in fact. The issue was not financial. I was earning a great deal more money writing part-time for The New Yorker than I was as a professor. The problem was that writing for me had come too easily. It didn’t seem real. Physics, which came very hard, was real. I was a physicist who wrote, not a writer who did physics. Writing is something one can do in isolation. Physics needs a context. Einstein from time to time used to say that the ideal occupation for a physicist was as a lighthouse keeper. No one would bother you; you could think in peace. Needless to say, I was no Einstein. Moreover he went from one superb academic job to another; no lighthouses for him. I understood myself well enough to know that I had managed with great effort to achieve a professional balance in my life and that it was about to evaporate. This produced a kind of panic. That is the part I am ashamed of. In that panic I decided that if I wrote a profile of Brel, something that had no connection at all to science, it would constitute proof positive that I was not a serious academic. So I stopped. I put away my notes and only brought them out again twelve years later, in 1978, when I wrote Brel’s obituary for The New Yorker.

After a bitter fight in the physics department over my tenure, I lost. I did find another academic job in the New York area and made it clear that I was going to continue writing for The New Yorker. Once that was agreed upon, I wrote to Brel to pick up where I had left off. He never answered. At the time I thought he must have concluded that I was not very reliable and he shouldn’t waste any more time on me. But in the next few years I realized that it had nothing to do with me. There had been a clue the night I watched him backstage in Evian. As I said, after his performance he came offstage totally wrung out. It was several minutes before he could talk. When he did, the first thing he said was, “One of these days it’s going to stop right there.” I was not sure what he meant and thought it was probably a reflection of the moment. It wasn’t. In August 1966 he told the members of his traveling band that he was going to stop performing. He felt he had said everything he had to say musically and was going to try something else. During the next year he fulfilled his final contracts, including a second concert at Carnegie Hall. While in New York, he saw Man of La Mancha and decided to become involved with a French version. For the next few years, he made films. He bought a large yacht and, after 1974, devoted himself almost exclusively to sailing. He continued this even after an operation in November of that year revealed that he had an advanced form of lung cancer. Despite the doctor’s warnings, Brel decided to live his remaining days in French Polynesia. He installed himself on the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas.

No one imagined that there would be another new Brel recording. But, in 1977, despite his growing illness, he returned to France to make his final record. It is remarkable. His voice is as strong as ever, and the emotions run even deeper. There were new songs. One of them, “Orly,” is among my favorites. It is clearly inspired by a song that Gilbert Bécaud wrote in 1963, which he called “Dimanche à Orly.” Bécaud, who died in 2001, was an immensely popular entertainer. Although he was known as “Monsieur 100,000 volts,” I always thought his emotional depth could be measured in millimeters. His song is of a young man who likes to spend his spare time at the Orly airport watching flights come and go and imagining all the romantic places they were visiting. The cheer is relentless. This must have gotten on Brel’s nerves. In Brel’s song an onlooker, Brel, sees a young couple leaving each other—probably forever. He sees in their parting a tragic ballet.

Et brusquement ils pleurent
Ils pleurent à gros bouillons
Tout entourés qu’il sont
D’adipeux en sueur
Et de bouffeurs d’espoir

Suddenly he cries
He cries in torrents
They are surrounded by fat sweaty people
And swallowers of hope.

Then comes the chorus. Knowing that Brel himself was mortally ill, there is more to it than a departure at an airport. His voice is powerful and angry. He sings:

La vie ne fait pas de cadeau!
Et nom de dieu!
C’est triste Orly le dimanche
Avec ou sans Bécaud

Life doesn’t give any presents
In the name of God
Orly on Sunday is sad
With, or without Bécaud.

After making this record, Brel returned to Hiva Oa, but in July of 1978, he had to go back to France for urgent medical treatment. After a brief recovery he was once again hospitalized and died on October 9. His body was flown back to Hiva Oa and buried near the grave of Gaugin.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jeremy Bernstein is the author of a number of books, including Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know and a collection of essays titled Physicists on Wall Street. His most recent book is A Palette of Particles.


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