A while back in his wonderful blog, the much too multi-talented Ken Levine wrote about the worst songs ever recorded. It was an impressive list (or unimpressive, depending on your perspective), in large part because of its excessive length, culled as it was from his years as a DJ on AM pop radio. These were songs that he had not only had had to play, but repeat endlessly. As he later told me, "It was musical waterboarding."
Even among that painful list, one song stood out for me. "Seasons in the Sun," recorded by Terry Jacks. In fact, not only did that the ghastly recording easily deserve to be on the list, it may be my #1 least-favorite song - but not for the reason one would expect, not that it was mindnumbingly insipid and soul crushing in its pap look at death. No, as I explained to Ken, its value in being included transcended even that. As pure songs go, there arguably are worse, but "Seasons in the Sun" has its own special, little-known reason for pure and utter disdain.
This is the tale of that reason, which I told at the time on the Huffington Post. It deserves repeating, to the point of being etched in stone.
You see, "Seasons in the Sun" is not an original song at all. It's the translation of a brilliant French song by one of the great writers of popular music and lyrics - not just for French songs, but all popular music - and it infuriates me what a horrifically wimpy, pathetic translation they did to it, cementing in the American public's ear what this gem of a song supposedly is.
"They" in this case is Rod McKuen, so the syrupy and pap-laden lyrics shouldn't surprise anyone. The original song, you see, is "Le Moribond," and the writer - for those of you who know the history of popular music, are you ready? - is the brilliant legend, Jacques Brel.
Jacques Brel is lionized in France and much of Europe, and even has a healthy presence in America, largely through the long-running off-Broadway revue of his songs, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and many recordings of his song, "Ne Me Quitte Pas," which was translated here as "If You Go Away." (He himself performs it in the movie version of ...Alive and Well. He also acted, and most notably starred in, directed and did the French adaptation of the musical, Man of La Mancha.
To Rod McKuen's credit, it was he who did the reasonable job translating "If You Go Away." But the hideous job he did with "Le Moribond" erases any bonus points he gets.
The translation of Brel's title, "Le Moribond," is "The Dying Man," and given that the song is Brel, it doesn't have a single ounce of sentiment or treacly whining in it that "Seasons in the Sun" did. It's cynical, wistful, sad, loving, angry, and hilarious, with surprising twists. And hearing Brel sing it in French, even not understanding a single word, you can get most of that from hearing his voice, at times dripping with withering sarcasm, and the pounding rhythm throughout, mostly at the end.
If you didn't block it out too much, or have never heard "Seasons in the Sun," the adaptation is a sing-songy, over-sugary sweet froth about a young kid breathlessly telling us he's going to die, but, "We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun...." And McKuen even adds yet another cloying verse at the end not in the original song.
In "Le Moribond," however, a middle-aged man, with a pounding rhythm and forceful voice is saying goodbye to those he knew in his life. Goodbye to his best friend, goodbye to the priest - to each of them, "I liked you very much. Take care of my wife when I'm gone." And almost in defiance of death, spitting in its face, "I want everyone to sing, dance and act like fools when they put me in the grave." And then in the third verse, the song takes its twist: he says goodbye to Antoine...and suddenly the tone of his voice changes. You can hear the sneer in his voice as he says, "I didn't like you very much." And then, rather than ask Antoine to take care of his wife, he sings, "Since you were her lover, when I was alive, I figure you're going to keep taking care of her when I'm gone anyway." And then the song closes with him saying goodbye to his wife, how much he loved her, even though he kept his eyes closed, like he will be doing now. And the final chorus is more aggressively pounding than ever, more defiant of death than ever, a heavy drum-beat in the background, "I want everyone to sing, dance and act like fools when they put me in the grave!!!!!!!!!" And then suddenly, BAM, the song cuts off.
(Now, add to this that it's possible Brel's original is about a man about to commit suicide. In fact, from several articles on the song, and knowing the sardonic quality of Brel's work, there are many for whom there's no "possible" about it, but that he is very much writing about a man who is so despondent over the loss of his wife to a lover that he is killing himself. I'm not completely convinced of that though -- it answers the question how he knows specifically when he's going to die, but not that he sings to his wife so affectionately -- but I like that Brel seems to leave it open to question.)
Compare that to Terry Jacks and Rod McKuen. It makes my blood curdle, since it's through them how most people know this brilliant song of Brel's. As bad as "Seasons in the Sun" is if you don't know the original, it is infinitely gut-wrenchingly worse (and that's saying a lot) if you do.
And now comes the treat you get for sticking around. After all that explanation, here's the proof. While I don't have it in me to post "Season in the Sun" for comparison's sake -- you can find it on YouTube -- here's a video of Jacques Brel himself singing the original version of his song, "Le Moribond," and happily with English translation subtitles.
May it wipe out any memory of "Seasons in the Sun" that might exist in even a corner of a cobweb of you mind. You're welcome.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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