Jacques Brel, “Amsterdam” (1966)

Jacques Brel was my first French celebrity crush. I feel absolutely certain that the easiest way to learn a foreign language is to fall in love with a native speaker. I don’t mean necessarily that you should actually, physically, be in a relationship with a native speaker, but that learning becomes much easier when you have a human being to focus on. I was pretty scattershot in my French-language learning until one of my French teachers played “Don’t Leave Me” for us one day in 2003. I don’t remember my teacher’s name, but I remember five things about that class. 1.) “Don’t Leave Me”; 2.) Donc (“Therefore”) is infinitely superior to alors (“So”); 3.) Always ceci (the formal form of “this”) and never ça (the informal form of “this”); 4.) Patrick Bruel’s “My Lover From Saint-Jean”; and 5.) Marcel Pagnol’s film “Marius”, which is basically the greatest trilogy ever made (sorry Star Wars). Now, to go back to “Don’t Leave Me.” I felt back then that it was probably the most blatantly emotionally-manipulative song that I’ve ever heard. It didn’t move me as much as it was supposed to, but I was curious enough about this singer who was not afraid to lay himself bare to the world. Since then, I’ve been slowly collecting every song that he’s ever recorded. Brel has been enormously influential in my life. Or at least he’s made enough songs that have reflected my innermost thoughts that I feel close to him, philosophically. I’ve spent my life full of fear and anxiety, and it really wasn’t until I saw an interview with him (here’s the excerpt), in which he talked about how he’s afraid all the time, that I really felt empowered to just get on with my life. To keep going, to do what you’ve got to do. In “Amsterdam”, he’s so full of energy, charisma, and passion, that it’s incredibly seductive. I find it extremely compelling to watch him singing his heart out, knowing that he probably just barfed up his dinner backstage. That’s life. You barf, and then keep going.

I guess I should mention that I heard “Amsterdam” when I was in France while I was eating moules frites with my homestay mother. We were in Brest, a very old port town in Brittany, on the west coast. The mists were heavy, men were wearing wool sweaters, and there was a dog wandering through the restaurant. The radio was playing, and suddenly I recognized Brel on the radio, singing this song. My homestay mother was a 68-year-old Bretonne, a native of the region. Bretons are known as a very proud, private, and independent people. Mostly sailors and fisherman. When I got really excited about “Amsterdam” on the radio, my homestay mother basically dismissed Brel entirely, with a single wave of her hand, saying bitterly, “He stole the song from the sailors. It was a sailor’s song first.” I’m not sure how true that is, but Wikipedia claims Brel’s song is a slight adaptation of the song Greensleeves, a traditional English folk song. I’d have to do more research to see if her bias is true or not, but I speculate the song has been around the block, if you know what I mean.

Brel’s only performace of “Amsterdam” on YouTube.

(David Bowie did a cover, which is infinitely inferior: here it is, if you really want to listen to it.)

In Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors singing
About the dreams that haunt them
On the open waters of Amsterdam
In Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors sleeping
Like drooping banners
Along the somber shores

In Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors dying
Full of beer and dramas
In the early hours
But in Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors being born
In the thick heat
Of the oceanic langour

In Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors eating
On too-white tableclothes
Shimmering fish
They show off their teeth
They use to chew fortune,
to pare down the moon,
to gobble down the shrouds.

It reeks of cod
All the way into the fries,
Which their fat hands invite
To come back again in greater number
Then they stand up, laughing,
In a storm-like racket,
Zip up their flies
And leave, belching

In Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors dancing
Rubbing their paunches
Against women’s paunches
Dans le port d’Amsterdam
And they turn and dance,
The spitting image of suns

In the torn silence
Of a rancid accordion
They twist their heads
To hear themselves laughing
Until, suddenly,
The accordion gives out
Then a grave gesture,
A proud look.
They take their women
Out into the light.

In Amsterdam’s port
There’re sailors drinking
Who drink and drink some more
And then even more
They lift a glass to the health
Of Amsterdam’s whores,
Of Hamburg’s, and other places
Finally they lift a glass to the ladies
Who gave their beautiful bodies to them,
Who gave their virtue to them

And for one gold piece
And when they’ve had enough to drink,
Point their noses to the sky
And blow their nose in the stars
And they piss as I cry
Over the treacherous women
In Amsterdam’s port


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