Jacques Brel's Haunting Song: "Les Marquises"

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Jacques Brel (1929–1978) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Last night, I dreamt about the title track from Jacques Brel’s final album called, “Les Marquises,” named for the Marquesas Islands, where he spent his final years away from France. He had purchased a ’62 sailboat and sailed to the islands from France. The journey took something like six months via the Panama Canal.

brel les marquises
Les Marquises (1977) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The Belgian singer-songwriter had been earlier diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his lung that was rapidly metastasizing. Already a huge star in France and throughout Europe, selling millions of albums, he wanted to get away from it all. Barclay Records had signed him to a 30-year contract. Brel was an artist who trembled with anxiety before performing, becoming nauseous and even vomiting before stepping stage. Yet onstage, he translated all this anxiety into galvanic, unforgettable performances. There is a film documentary that tells us about his artistic temperament. Click here to watch.

The French often disparage the Belgians, especially the provincial Flemish. However, the French will adopt artists they consider to be great as their own. Personally, I have always loved Brel’s Flemish accent.

Brel wrote his final songs on the 1977 album, Les Marquises, knowing that he was dying. The beauty of the Pacific Island paradise contrasts dramatically with his decline. Brel died at the age of 49 and was buried beside the famous French Post-Impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin.

The English translation once again proves the old adage that “poetry is what is lost in translation.” Whether you understand French or not, you can hear that it is a beautiful and haunting song. Below are the lyrics both in French and English.

“Les Marquises”

Ils parlent de la mort comme tu parles d’un fruit
Ils regardent la mer comme tu regardes un puits
Les femmes sont lascives au soleil redouté
Et s’il n’y a pas d’hiver cela n’est pas l’été
La pluie est traversière elle bat de grain en grain
Quelques vieux chevaux blancs qui fredonnent Gauguin
Et par manque de brise le temps s’immobilise
Aux Marquises

Du soir montent des feux et des points de silence
Qui vont s’élargissant et la lune s’avance
Et la mer se déchire infiniment brisée
Par des rochers qui prirent des prénoms affolés
Et puis plus loin des chiens des chants de repentance
Et quelques pas de deux et quelques pas de danse
Et la nuit est soumise et l’alizé se brise
Aux Marquises

Le rire est dans le coeur le mot dans le regard
Le coeur est voyageur l’avenir est au hasard
Et passent des cocotiers qui écrivent des chants d’amour
Que les soeurs d’alentour ignorent d’ignorer
Les pirogues s’en vont les pirogues s’en viennent
Et mes souvenirs deviennent ce que les vieux en font
Veux-tu que je te dise gémir n’est pas de mise
Aux Marquises.

“The Marquesas”

They talk about death as you talk about a fruit
They look at the sea as you look at a well
Women are lascivious under the dreaded sun
And if there’s no winter, then it’s not summer
The rain runs across, threshes one grain then another
A few old white horses humming Gauguin
And by lack of breeze, time comes to a standstill
At the Marquesas

Evening lights go up and silence points
Go on growing larger, and the moon draws on
And the sea tears itself apart, immeasurably broken
By rocks going now by demented names
And then, further, dogs, repentance songs
And a few pas de deux, and a few dance steps
And the night is submissive and the trade wind breaks
At the Marquesas

Laughter is in the heart, the word is in the eyes
The heart is wanderer, the future is random
And coconut palms pass by, writing love songs
That nearby sisters ignore to ignore
Pirogues go, pirogues come
And my memories become what the old people make of them
Tell you what, whining isn’t appropriate
At the Marquesas.