As I lay in a mess of empty cold medicine boxes and body-warmed blankets, I turned on my third movie of the day. I couldn’t do much else than watch Netflix. After crying through Toy Story 3 and being stunned by the performances in August: Osage County, I turned on the Princess of Wales biopic starring Naomi Watts. Diana was ok. It wasn’t a great film by any means, but something broke through my Nyquil-tinged haze and left its mark on me. During a scene while Diana and her lover are out of town furthering their relationship, there is a romantic montage heralded by the chansonnier Jacques Brel and his beautifully haunting song Ne Me Quitte Pas. I replayed over and over the scene of Diana and her lover driving through the English countryside, laughing on pebble strewn beaches with overcast skies, watching them fall in love.
Their on-screen love story was a vehicle for me to discover the beauty of Jacques Brel’s music.
Brel’s song in the film, which was originally recorded in 1959, is a tragic melancholic melody, yet the story behind it is just as somber. Brel had refused to acknowledge the pregnancy of one of his mistresses, and in doing so she left him and terminated the pregnancy. Before learning this story, I had built in my head a story of possible alcoholism, or of wartime tragedy tearing his love life apart. Something with a more anti-hero quality. It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Brel, but I suppose it’s easier to eat your own heart than to let somebody else. At least then you know who to blame.
Even with knowing the story behind the song, I still turn to it in times of unrest. Months after first being entranced by his foreign words, I was watching the season finale of the HBO show The Leftovers. To my surprise, the opening sequence had Ne Me Quitte Pas playing over the tumultuous actions of the characters, but was performed by Nina Simone. Simone’s cover is a beauty to listen to, and I became enamored with her rendition.
Journalist Alastair Campbell excellently explains his own passion for the works of Brel. In an article in TheGuardian, Campbell says of Brel’s lyrics “When you read them, they're like poems, in the clarity of their ideas, the way they're expressed, the wit and cynicism, the plays on words. They can move you even without the music, although the music adds layer upon layer of emotion.” Although it was Ne Me Quitte Pas that pulled me in, it has been Brel’s impressive catalog that keeps me coming back.
Selected lyrics from Ne Me Quitte Pas and one of several English translations that have been performed over the years:
Moi je t'offrirai / Des perles de pluie / Venues de pays / Où il ne pleut pas / Je creuserai la terre / Jusqu'après ma mort / Pour couvrir ton corps / D'or et de lumière / Je ferai un domaine / Où l'amour sera roi / Où l'amour sera loi / Où tu seras reine / Ne me quitte pas / Ne me quitte pas / Ne me quitte pas / Ne me quitte pas
I offer you / Pearls of rain / Coming from the lands / Where it never rains / I will cross the world / Till after my death / To cover your bosom / With gold and light / I will make a kingdom / where love will be king / Where love will be the law / Where you will be queen / Do not leave me now / Do not leave me now / Do not leave me now / Do not leave me now