French Language Blog

Dans le Port d’Amsterdam (Brel vs. Bowie) Posted by on Jun 5, 2010 in Culture, Music

Today we discover a song by a special *Belgian* artist. Most people, till today, tend to mistake him for a French. That, if anything, reflects how profound of an impact he left on la chanson française.

His name is Jacques Brel, and contrary to many other singers and musicians, he is one whose artistic life “se passe de tout de commentaire” (does not need any comment), for he is famous to have said once: “In our lives, there are two important dates : Our birth and our death. Everything we do in between is not very important…

* * *

Écoutons la chanson (let’s listen to the song)

* DANS LE PONT D’AMSTERDAM (les paroles):

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui chantent
Les rêves qui les hantent
Au large d’Amsterdam
Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui dorment
Comme des oriflammes
Le long des berges mornes
Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui meurent
Pleins de bière et de drames
Aux premières lueurs
Mais dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui naissent
Dans la chaleur épaisse
Des langueurs océanes

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui mangent
Sur des nappes trop blanches
Des poissons ruisselants
Ils vous montrent des dents
A croquer la fortune
A décroisser la lune
A bouffer des haubans
Et ça sent la morue
Jusque dans le coeur des frites
Que leurs grosses mains invitent
A revenir en plus
Puis se lèvent en riant
Dans un bruit de tempête
Referment leur braguette
Et sortent en rotant

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui dansent
En se frottant la panse
Sur la panse des femmes
Et ils tournent et ils dansent
Comme des soleils crachés
Dans le son déchiré
D’un accordéon rance
Ils se tordent le cou
Pour mieux s’entendre rire
Jusqu’à ce que tout à coup
L’accordéon expire
Alors le geste grave
Alors le regard fier
Ils ramènent leur batave
Jusqu’en pleine lumière

Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui boivent
Et qui boivent et reboivent
Et qui reboivent encore
Ils boivent à la santé
Des putains d’Amsterdam
De Hambourg ou d’ailleurs
Enfin ils boivent aux dames
Qui leur donnent leur joli corps
Qui leur donnent leur vertu
Pour une pièce en or
Et quand ils ont bien bu
Se plantent le nez au ciel
Se mouchent dans les étoiles
Et ils pissent comme je pleure
Sur les femmes infidèles
Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Dans le port d’Amsterdam.

Now compare it to David Bowie’s cover, of the same song of course, simply translated as “In the Port of Amsterdam“:

* * *


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

In the port of Amsterdam there’s a sailor who dies
Full of beer, full of cries in a drunken town fight
In the port of Amsterdam there’s a sailor who’s born
On a hot muggy morn by the dawn’s early light

In the port of Amsterdam where the sailors all meet
There’s a sailor who eats only fish heads and tails
And he’ll show you his teeth that have rotted too soon
That can haul up the sails that can swallow the moon

And he yells to the cook with his arms open wide
“Hey, bring me more fish, throw it down by my side”
And he wants so to belch but he’s too full to try
So he stands up and laughs and he zips up his fly

In the port of Amsterdam you can see sailors dance
Paunches bursting their pants grinding women to porch
They’ve forgotten the tune that their whiskey voice croaked
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 lamps

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 of 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, well, he just can’t go on
Throws his nose to the sky and he aims it up above
And he pisses like I cry on the unfaithful love

In the port of Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam

* * *

Maybe it’s somewhat of a rhetorical question to some, but laquelle des deux preferez-vous ? (which one of the two do you prefer?)

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  1. Charles Laster:

    I prefer the Brel version.

  2. Micky Gwilliam:

    A better English comparison might be John Denver

    Still not up to Jacques Brel, but at least there is passion, and his voice raises to a great ending . The CD version is better.

  3. yuchungfink:

  4. Danielle Van Eeckaute:

    With all due respect to David Bowie, who I love and respect, the song was written and composed by Brel, so the passion he puts in it can not be compared. Brel was an exceptional artist. His voice and passion was one of a kind. So covering him is near to impossible.

  5. Antony:

    Here is another english version of it from “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”. Much closer to the original in my opinion

  6. H Iwadib:

    Which one appeared first?
    I highly prefer Brel’s version!!

  7. Brian:

    Bowie used the Schumann/Stone translation from “Jacques brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”. NO translation will ever be able to capture all of the subtlties of the original lyrics, but for what it’s worth, this one comes much closer to being a “literal” translation of the original than most of the other songs from the show.

  8. Eberhard Herold:

    David Bowie is very cool, but Jacque Brel is much more authentic and passionate. I would prefer Jacque Brel…!