Amsterdam - David Bowie
While we're on the seven Belgians, let us pay homage to one of them, the songwriter, actor and film director Jacques Brel. This version of Brel's "Amsterdam" was the B-side of Bowie's 1973 hit single "Sorrow" and shows how much he was influenced by Brel. Coming up through the avant-garde meets music hall traditions of Paris in the fifties, Brel's songs are an intense expression of romanticism meets realism, with words and tunes that are written to be performed theatrically as much as musically. His songs wreak of darkness, and yet you can tell he also sees beauty in the sordid and seedy worlds he describes. I used to put this on over and over again on the jukebox of the Owen's Union bar in Manchester. No-one else had heard of it, I thought, no-one but me appreciated its poetry, but that's what Brel does to you, he makes you think you've discovered a secret:
"In the port of Amsterdam there's a sailor who sings of the dreams that he brings from the wide open sea in the port of Amsterdam there's a sailor who sleeps while the river bank weeps to the old willow tree....."
the song starts with a brace of beautiful metaphors, showing the hope and innocence that lies deep in the heart of us, as the sailor's embark on their shore, and charts their descent into the morass of their depravation.
"....splitting the night with the roar of their jokes and they turn and they dance and they laugh and they lust till the rancid sound of the accordion bursts and then out of the night with their pride in their pants and the sluts that they tow underneath the street lamp
in the port of Amsterdam there's a sailor who drinks and he drinks and he drinks and he drinks once again he'll drink to the health if the whores of Amsterdam
who've given their bodies to a thousand other men yeah, they've bargained their virtue their goodness all gone
for a few dirty coins when he just can't go on throws his nose to the sky aims it up above and he pisses like I cry on the unfaithful love
in the port of Amsterdam......"
Where tragedy is endemic, all you can do is paint a picture.