SONG: Ne me quitte pas
ARTIST: Jacques Brel
Listen to it here:
“Ne me quitte pas” (“Don’t Leave Me”) was written and performed first by Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel and is considered by some as “Brel’s ultimate classic.” He wrote it after his mistress threw him out of her life. The whole affair was somewhat torrid as the mistress was pregnant with Brel’s baby, but he refused to acknowledge the child as his own. This led to the mistress having an abortion and throwing Brel out of her life.
The song was first recorded in September of 1959 for Brel’s fourth studio album. This song gained a lot of popularity, which spurred Brel on to record a Dutch version in 1961, and re-record it in French for his 1972 album. Brel says that the song is not a love song, but rather “a hymn to the cowardice of men” and the degree to which they were willing to humiliate themselves. Small bits of the melody are borrowed from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6.
Jacques Romain Georges Brel was born in 1929 in Brussels, Belgium, to an austere Catholic family. The young Brel sounds like a very vanilla small child who was fascinated that his mother had a sense of humour. Brel’s love of the arts became apparent during secondary school where he took immediately to writing and drama class. At the age of 15 he also began playing guitar. Though Brel excelled in writing and had many published poems and short stories during his high school years, he did terribly at school and failed many of his exams.
Due to his lackluster showing in highschool, Brel knew an academic career was not in the cards, so he went to work at his father’s cardboard factory, which was apparently just as boring and uninspiring as it sounds. To try to counteract the extreme boredom of his day job, Brel volunteered with a local Catholic youth group, and also enlisted for military service, where he met his future wife, Miche. The two were married in 1950.
In the years that followed his marriage, Brel began writing songs and performing them at local cabaret circuits, and eventually performed on a local radio station for the first time. His family was not supportive. After an early 1953 cabaret performance, Brel was signed to a contract with Philips Records, and recorded his first 78. This got him an invitation to move to Paris to get his career off the ground. Despite objections from his family, they moved, and Brel worked tirelessly to get his career going. It wasn’t easy work though, Brel got 27th out of 28 participants in a local music contest. He was able to sell some of his original songs at the same contest, though, so it wasn’t all bad.
Slowly but surely, Brel’s exposure grew, and he played at the prestigious Olympia Theatre in Paris in 1954. Tours followed, and by the end of the next year, Brel had released his debut album “Jacques Brel et ses Chansons”. More tours followed and Brel gained a manager, and classical pianist Francois Rauber as his accompanist. Rauber also provided Brel with much of the musical training that he was previously lacking.
By 1959, Brel had signed a new recording contract with Philips Records, and had been touring regularly for 5 years. Somehow he also saw his wife from time to time, and at this point they had three daughters. His popularity had grown hugely across France, and had performed numerous successful high profile shows. This touring schedule and rampant success continued through until 1966, when Brel announced to his musicians that he would retire from touring. Brel was exhausted at this time and stated to the public that he had nothing more to give to the music world. In true superstar fashion, the only way to celebrate this is with a large, over-the-top farewell tour, which lasted almost another full year.
Once he had played his last series of shows, Brel purchased a yacht, with vague plans of sailing around the world. At this point, Brel turned his attention to film. He recorded four more studio albums in his “retirement” from music, but the last decade of his life was mostly focussed on movies.
By 1973, Brel knew he was ill and decided to devote the final years of his life to his passion for sailing. He bought a 62 ft yacht and planned a 3 year voyage to circumnavigate the world. Brel spent all of 1973-1976 touring the world on his yacht, with brief pauses for family visits and doctors appointments. Brel died of a pulmonary embolism in October, 1978, at age 49.
- Brel never ever performed a song he didn’t write. No exceptions. Not even when friends wrote songs for him.
I’ve always felt like Jacques Brel was Belgium’s answer to Serge Gainsbourg, but I made that opinion without really listening to Brel, so I was looking forward to actually listening to one of his songs. We start off with ondes martenot that now haunts my dreams! It’s so eerie and icy sounding. I also clocked the Liszt piano reference right away because it’s my favourite Liszt piece. But the piano is a beautiful mix of that and lush, almost impressionist-sounding chords. Brel is SO melodramatic while singing this, and learning about the history of the song you can see why. He writes such beautiful, sumptuous poetry (translated) “I offer you pearls of rain…I will cross the world/til after my death/To cover your bosom/With gold and light”. Then after all of his bluster he quiets to an almost pathetic, whimpering “ne me quitte pas…..ne me quitte pas…” (don’t leave me). He doesn’t have the same cocky, Parisien smoky salon attitude that I find Serge has, but I find this song very beautiful and melancholic. I’m definitely going to listen to more Brel.
There’s always something cinematic about Jacques Brel, and this song is no different. It starts with otherworldly ondes martenot, and for a brief split second, you think Brel is about to do a whole speech before he starts really singing. This song has a very melancholy, nostalgic turn to it, which really makes me think of the huge stadium performances with full orchestra that Brel loved to do. Brel keeps his singing fairly understated and I think this is key to this song not becoming overly cheesy. He definitely was a talented songwriter, and his voice is pretty vanilla, but he surrounded himself with great musicians and this made a huge difference. On this recording, the pianist is a concert pianist, the violinist has a lot of skill, and the oboe is very present for how high in its range it seems to be playing. Definitely feels like a rainy day on cobblestone streets in black and white, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if that’s what the music video looked like. All in all, I like it.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Nina Simone nails it:
Edith Piaf, another lovely version:
And finally, Sting:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:
Link to the Best of the Best 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: