When Alastair Campbell popped up on BBC Radio 4 last month to deliver a half-hour homily to Jacques Brel - apparently his favourite singer - I was appalled. It wasn't just that the Flemish master was also a favourite of mine, and that Campbell, to put it mildly, wasn't. It just seemed utterly wrong that the man who noted in his diary "opened a flank on the BBC" should now be heading to the bank with a cheque from a post-Gilligan, post-Dyke BBC. And yet it also seemed, in a weird way, apt. The irony of the situation is just the sort of thing you find in Brel's songs, which often hinge on pungent symmetrical hypocrisies.
Examples? How about the students in "Les bourgeois" who waggle their bums contemptuously at the lawyers up at the Three Pheasants hotel bar, but by the last verse are bloated Three Pheasants clients themselves, filing a complaint with the police against the raucous rabble down the hill? Or the narrator of the epic "Ces gens-là", who sees all too clearly the failings and pretensions of the bumbling provincial drunks around him, but surveys his own prospects through rose-tinted spectacles? He'll marry Frida and live in a house "with tons of windows and almost no walls", this Belgian relative of the narrator Browning used in "My Last Duchess" tells us, just as soon as he's squelched those nasty rumours that he kills cats. The dead cats are all behind him now, he insists, though the smell lingers on.
Who knows? Perhaps fact-warping spinmeisters really are the people best placed to tell us that Brel was right about the stink of corruption, the flash of two-facedness, the slaughter by realpolitik of youthful ideals. They might also know a thing or two about the homosocial-but-not-homosexual world that Brel inhabited, a world far from the camp androgyny of the rock stars who displaced him. Brel's, after all, was still the short-haired, testosterone-charged world of Sinatra, a world where, wearing suit, shirt and tie, you stood up on the stage and belted out good old-fashioned story-songs over the din of good old-fashioned variety orchestras, and goaded the audience like a torero. His was a world where you sailed your yacht or piloted your plane to Tahiti in the company of your best friend, Jojo, described yourself as "an industrialist of song", put your career before your family, upbraided your countrymen for their lack of balls and ambition, and carried on discreet affairs with enthusiastic female singers while proclaiming yourself, with winning modesty, as ugly as a horse.
I often wonder what Brel would have made - or did make, given that the tributes began well before his death in 1978 of cigarette-induced lung cancer - of the English-speaking singers who've championed him. Besides drunks, priggish officials and small-minded provincials, it's prissy pantywaists who bear the brunt of his disdain. There's the lisping narrator of "Les bonbons", an ineffectual, effeminate ninny who brings his date sweeties "because flowers are perishable" and who can't think of anything better to do with her than go to the station to watch the trains pass. In "Les bonbons '67" this same narrator has become a wealthy hippie who lives at the George V Hotel in Paris, listens to his hair grow, and protests the Vietnam war, "because, well, I have my opinions". He has lost his Belgian accent, because "nobody has that accent any more,/Except Brel on the telly".
We can't really know, but we can guess that Brel would have found his Anglo-Saxon champions and interpreters somewhat wanting. Scott Walker was certainly too pretty, and far too good a singer to capture the requisite rasping, jaded tone. Mort Shuman, in his translations, turned Brel's social incisions into flurries of florid, vague sixth-form poetry. David Bowie added an inappropriate foppery, camp and charisma to "Amsterdam" and "My Death". The Scottish rocker Alex Harvey's reading of "Next" was probably too mannered, and Marc Almond probably made Brel too gay - "Au suivant", Brel's song about sexual experience in a military camp, is hardly the Village People's "In the Navy": "I swear," shudders its narrator, "that officer who inspected our buttocks/Risked making us all impotent for life." As for my own interpretations, released on an EP called "Nicky" in 1986, they're scrappy, insipid and narcissistic. We have all - in our own ways - failed the master, which is why he remains the master.
Then again, these supposed "weaknesses" are all, in a way, strengths - new dimensions, updatings, wings added to the Brel edifice. In fact, it was through his Anglo-Saxon curators and their brilliant deformations of his indestructible oeuvre that I discovered Brel myself. In 1975 I was a 15-year-old living in the suburbs of Montreal. My mother got permission to take me out of school early on Thursday afternoons and drive me down to a cinema in Dorval showing the American Film Theatre series. Along with filmed productions of Brecht, Pinter, Chekhov and Ionesco came Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, a film adaptation of a Brel-themed musical originally produced in New York in 1968.
A surrealistic fusion of the styles of Cabaret, Hair and Side by Side by Sondheim, the film quite frankly frightened me to death. Or, more accurately, it frightened me with death. Never has a "wacky" musical been so morbid - as hard-hitting as a hellfire scare-sermon from a bully pulpit. Brel himself hovers enigmatically throughout, smoking the cigarettes that would kill him a few years later, and singing his uncharacteristically tender masterpiece "Ne me quitte pas" directly into a camera that zooms in on his tear-misted eyes.
I found it deeply disturbing at the time, but something must have lodged in my unconscious because when, in 1983 - by then a recording artist myself - I began to tire of the postmodern palace of mirrors that was Eighties chart pop, it was to Brel I turned in my quest for literary and thematic weight. Shortly afterwards I reinvented myself as Momus and used my first flurry of press attention to publish an article about Brel in the New Musical Express. The paper published it in the world music section; in those pre-Eurotunnel days the British attitude was still very much "fog in the Channel, Continent isolated".
The Brel influence on early Momus songs such as "What Will Death Be Like?" and "Three Wars" is unmistakable and, in retrospect, a little embarrassing; English literature graduates in their mid-twenties don't tend to be that jaded and disillusioned unless they're riding the backs of colossi. In 1988, I admit, I somewhat gave up on Brel as I came to bathe increasingly in the influence of the sulphuric Serge Gainsbourg. The contrast was stark: whereas Brel had a tendency to work himself up to a fit of righteous shouting as each song progressed, Gainsbourg stayed calm and close by, whispering dirty things in your ear. Whereas Brel's literary universe was essentially grounded in postwar existentialism, Gainsbourg was inscribed in the decadent dandy tradition of Wilde and Huysmans. Whereas Brel was a jaded romantic, a self-chastising turncoat bourgeois, Gainsbourg was arty and aristocratic, a libertine. They shared a darkness, but Gainsbourg located pleasures in a world of shadows which, for Brel, seemed to contain only disillusionment and death.
By the 1990s it felt as though Brel's ghost - in Britain, anyway - didn't need much help from me. Marc Almond published an excellent covers album, while Pulp's Jarvis Cocker and the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon very capably manned the wooden horse (though in their work, too, the contradictory influences of Brel and Gainsbourg could be felt, tugging fruitfully in different directions). Groups such as Band of Holy Joy and the Pogues, and neo-cabaret artists such as Gavin Friday and the Tiger Lillies, kept the spirit of Brel alive, and the rerelease of D A Pennebaker's Ziggy Stardust film introduced new generations to Bowie's deathless reading of "My Death".
It will be strange and fascinating to see (and be among) those herded cats, Brel's interpreters, on stage at the Barbican together, taking new stabs at one of the 20th century's strongest song legacies. As I sing along to David Coulter and Mike Smith's arrangements, will I be visited by the ghost of a man who was, certainly, a father figure to me in my early years? And will Alastair Campbell be sitting there in the audience, deeply moved, as he and I discover - against all the odds and in the posthumous presence of a songwriter of genius - our common humanity?
Carousel: the Songs of Jacques Brel, featuring Momus, Marc Almond, Diamanda Galás and others, is at the Barbican Hall, London EC2, on 22 October Momus's debut novel, "The Book of Jokes", is out now (Dalkey Archive Press, £10.99)