Allyson Shaw has just published a mindfuckingly-great cyberpunk novel entitled The Desperate Ones. It’s an intensely poetic, darkly fantastic dash for an apocalyptic finish line in a futuristic cityscape that will be recognizable to many of you. Lemma tell ya: it’s a madcrazy ride fr sure. But as this is a music blog, I thought I’d talk a bit about a few of my favorite versions of the Jacques Brel song that cued off her entire project. I am aware of at least a half dozen versions of this song, the best of which remind me of characters and themes throughout the novel. In no particular order I give you:
NINA SIMONE – “The Desperate Ones” (from Nina Simone & Piano!, RCA Records, 1969) Nina was a master at infusing other people’s songs with an urgent passion that spoke not only to individual battles but of much larger cultural and political wars still relevant today. This isn’t the first song most will associate with Nina, and for good reason. There’s a certain unhinged quality at work here many won’t be able to relate to. The pain fueling this sounds more rooted in Nina’s struggle with bipolar disorder, rather than any attempt to comment on wider sociopolitical issues.
But lord knows, even a single howl in the void can be powerful. Such quiet isolation parallels the perpetual state of forgetfulness of Professor Clymenus Bell in Ally’s novel. It’s the kind of burden that must be shouldered privately, but it’s one that crowds both the past and future into a present in a way that’s more than a little unsettling.
GLYN SYTLER & LYDIA LUNCH – “The Desperate Ones” (from The Desperate Ones EP, Atavistic Records, 1997) Glyn and Lydia’s take is unusual as it’s not based on the Brel original, but on the maudlin American version writer Eric Blau and Brill building employee Mort Shuman came up with for their 1968 stage review known as Jacque Brel is Alive and Well and Living In Paris. It’s not unlike how your 80’s teen hardcore band might’ve covered MINOR THREAT’s reimagining of WIRE’s “12XU” – twice removed from source material and hence infused with meaning never intended in the first place. In this case, it’s a beautiful thing they’ve concocted, indeed. Brel’s sadness remains, but the camp, whispered innocence of Alive and Well becomes darkly humorous in the hands of these two doyens of The Hate Generation.
It’s a wonderful example of just how to bring dead culture back to life again, and echoes the way Ally’s character Rabine taps into lost beliefs, vision, and directed will to save her world from the edge of near extinction. Yep it’s only fiction, but dammit if this shouldn’t be the focus of your Great Work too.
MARC ALMOND – “The Desperate Ones” (from the Brel Extras EP, Sin Songs Ltd., 2008) Don’t think I’m not aware: “The Desperate Ones” is one overwrought song, that’s fr sure. But few in recent decades have tackled overwrought as frequently and effectively as Marc. As if to counter all the others who came before, Marc emphasizes not the tragedy but the singular hope shining through the lyrics. He’s recast it from damning to redemptive.
Like everything else Marc has ever done, it could easily go horribly wrong . . . but I’d reckon it’s this version that most closely matches the overall tone of Ally’s The Desperate Ones. It’s a novel that not only contemplates total destruction but actively steps into – and through! – the apocalypse. And if that ain’t a hopeful thing, I don’t know what is.