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From one day to the next — artfully

If you want to get in touch with the universality of the human experience, listen to a Jacques Brel song. Listen to a bunch of them.

The guy had his finger on the pulse of his fellow humans. And he was a gifted songwriter to whom the Muses obviously made many visits.

My wife and I had a chance to step into the world according to Brel when we saw the excellent musical review at Oregon Stage Works, "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris."

Actually, Jacques Brel is dead and buried in Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia a few yards away from painter Paul Gauguin.

But Jacques Brel's spirit was very much alive on the stage last Friday night. And his spirit lives in his songs, many of which are bittersweet commentaries on the business of being alive.

Almost all of Brel's songs have the profundity of a philosopher matched by extraordinary musical phrasing.

One of his songs that gets a lot of air play these days is "If We Only Have Love," which insists that we can make the world a better place if we love one another:

If we only have loveThen tomorrow will dawnAnd the days of our yearsWill rise on that morn.

If this sounds a bit sappy, just wait. Brel can get quite melancholic or downright maudlin about the way things are. In that respect he reminds me a bit of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill when they're on a roll.

Weill died in 1950 and Brecht died in 1956, just when the young Brel was beginning to make his mark. But I can envision an imaginary scene in which the three of them are seated at a scruffy Paris cafe puffing away on their Galloises, throwing their drinks back, and furiously scribbling lyrics to song after song and play after play as they rant about life long into the night and wee hours of the morning.

Underneath it all is a genuine love for their fellow travellers on this odd journey from one day to the next. In that regard, they both remind me of a little ditty from the Broadway musical, "The Drowsy Chaperone," with book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar and music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morisson.

The show is a comic love note to the power of musicals to lift our spirits when we're feeling blue. The song is "As We Stumble Along" and the first few verses go like this:

As we stumble alongon life's funny journey.As we stumble alonginto the blue.

We look here and we look there.Seeking answers anywhere.Never sure of where to turn or what to do.

Still we bumble our waythrough life's crazy labyrinth.Barely knowing left from rightnor right from wrong.

And the best that we can dois hope a blue bird,will sing his song.

Over the weekend I joined in "An Evening in Celebration of the Human Spirit" held annually at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre. The event is another big, fat "I love You" card to life and the art that sustains it.

This year, the organizers chose the theme "Art Matters" and posed the question to various people including high school students to get their take on things. Their comments were read as a voice-over during the program. I think Brel, Brecht, Weill, Martin et al. would have appreciated those remarks:

"Of course art matters. All human expression is significant and meaningful. We're simply not human without it. The need to create is uniquely human."

"Art matters because in the expression of aesthetics the individual rises to the level of the sublime and the personal rises to the heights of the spirit."

"Art matters for the soul. A society without art is a society without a soul."

"Seeing art helps people view the world in fresh ways. Art brings freedom, change and excitement."

"Art explores the edges of the future."

"Basically art doesn't matter, the creation of art does."

I wonder if Brel ever thought about writing a song called, "If We Only Have Art."

Next time I'm in Paris, I'll ask him.