Thank you, Jacques Brel

August 20, 2014

My Dear Jacques,

Did you ever think that when you started to write songs in far away Belgium in the 1940’s that an ageing Baby Boomer would adopt your songs as his shtick and hawk his version around a west coast city in America.

BrelIt must happen to a lot of writers. I mean, who sits down to write and says to themselves, “I don’t care if no-one ever reads this or uses it while I am alive; this is for that person who has perhaps not even been born”? No, most of us work for the time in which we live and act. And yet by far the bulk of any writer’s fans will be those who find his or her material long after their remains have rotted away to dust. In his lifetime Bill Shakespeare could probably count on a few hundred, maybe a thousand folk of his acquaintance who would dare to say they liked his work and would defend it against whoever reigned. And now Bill has a fan club of possibly billions.

And so, Jacques, I wonder if it ever occurred to you that your work had more staying power than you thought at first?

I have to say that when I first listened to the “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris’ album I was not immediately bowled over. I did not go, aha, this is the kind of music that I can get into and through which I can reveal my own true character and musical aspirations. Well, I was only 28. But over the years as I listened again and again something happened and when I was in my fifties I suddenly found that your songs had gotten into my psyche and would not go away.

It did occur to me that I was only affected by the English version that Blau and Shuman had produced in New York in the 1970’s. So I bought CD’s of you actually singing your own work, and found yet more depth and interest in the music; and the discovery that the NYC review had sampled only 22 examples and there were so many more.

So how is it that your music is the vehicle for my musical aspiration? You are not the only other writer I admire. Somewhere in your work there must be the connection with my mind that pushed me. Something that said, Bob, you can do this, it is you. Whereas I feel somewhat out of place and uncomfortable singing Leonard Cohen or John Lennon, I feel absolutely at ease when I sing your work, and feel thoroughly connected to it.

I do sing others songs, and with pleasure, but it has been your work that gave the platform from which to begin. And so I thank you, Jacques, from my heart, from the stage where I am and hopefully from the stage where I want to be…

Your late, very late fan,

Bob Sterry

This week someone close to me sent me a joke about Mexican immigrants. I did not find it amusing. Here is my response.

“Dear X,

 know you are only trying to amuse me, but I find these kinds of jokes just a little hard to swallow. So please forgive me if I sound a little upset in this response. I send it with love knowing you will read and accept that you and I cannot always think alike. But you knew that anyway!

Every time I ride my bike past a field of beans or berries or corn, in my leisure, I can see groups of twenty or more Mexicans working producing food that will appear later in my local Thriftway. It was 90 Deg. F. today and will be the same for the rest of the week. They work for minimum wage or less and live in conditions that neither you nor I would tolerate for a day. Most of them go to local Catholic churches, and they bring their children too. They encourage those kids to go to school so they won’t have to work in the fields when they become adults.

Neither you nor I can imagine the conditions in Mexico and Central American countries from where so many try to escape. You would have to go back to the late nineteenth century in Italy, Sicily and Poland and Russia to find an equivalent. It is not just poverty from which they are fleeing. It is extreme violence. Violence; much of which is caused by drug trafficking. Drugs that many white Americans seem to be happy to buy. Parents have no hope for their children in their own country and so they send them to the one place they desperately hope might help them. Would you or I do that? Under what terrifying conditions would one say goodbye to a ten year old daughter knowing you might never see her again? Under what terrifying conditions would an adult leave his family behind knowing that he or she might never see them again and that their lives remained in danger.

The recent crisis of children crossing into the US pales in comparison to other refugee issues around the world. Jordan, (a country the size of Massachusetts) has absorbed 600,000 Syrian refugees. Lebanon (the size of Connecticut) has absorbed as many. A new wave of Iraqi refugees is about to hit neighboring countries. In North Africa there are millions of displaced people moving from one country to another to escape religious violence or famine, often both.

Fifty thousand Hispanic children is a drop in the bucket. Double it and it would still be a small number. America can absorb these children so easily. And would it be different if they were Chinese, or Korean, or Indian, or Vietnamese, or any other race? Not in my eyes. The idea that any race other than white Europeans has any merit is utterly unacceptable. I think, I know, it might even be a Christian ethic.

The idea that Mexico and Central America is full of freeloaders looking for a handout, a free ride, is unacceptable. Of course, not every one of them is as upstanding, moral and hardworking as the next man or woman. But then neither were many that had their names changed as they passed through Ellis Island a century ago. And neither are so many whose antecedents arrived long before that. No race is born lazy; none.

A better solution to the problem is for the richer countries of the world to help those countries change. America has a great record of trying to do that, although political meddling has tarnished it often (Chile is an example). Sure millions of dollars have been spent to little effect and yet our standard of living is affected less than that than by the trillions we spend on our defense budget; to little or no effect. Iraq remains a total disaster, Afghanistan the same. Do not misunderstand me. We do need defending, seriously, but not against a few children.

When I decided to stay in America it was in very large part thanks to the generosity of my future in-laws, their family and their friends, and the feeling that I was welcome. My contribution to the common good of America in the last forty years will be no larger than some of the men I see working in those hot fields. It is no larger than the dedication of the Mexican mothers I see shepherding their children to school before they go to work in cleaning, retail, food prep., and all the dirty jobs no-one else wants. Who exactly is lazy now?

I hope you can see why I don’t care for the joke you sent me. As I said, I know you were trying to amuse me, but it can’t. It’s not that I am entirely guiltless myself. I have my own learnt reflexes to people who seem different. It is more that as I get older I find it harder to accept that I am any better or worse than any other human on the planet.

And so I hope you will understand if I ask you not to send me these kind of jokes.

Sent with love and respect.


Here is the ‘joke’ they had sent me.

Tough shit, Amigo

A beautiful fairy appeared one day to a destitute Mexican refugee outside an

Arizona immigration office.

“Good man,” the fairy said, “I’ve been sent here by President Obama and told

to grant you three wishes, since you just arrived in the United States with your

wife and eight children.”

The man told the fairy, “Well, where I come from we don’t have good teeth, so

I want new teeth, maybe a lot of gold in them.”

The fairy looked at the man’s almost toothless grin and — PING !– he had a

brand new shining set of gold teeth in his mouth!

“What else?” asked the fairy, “Two more to go.”

The refugee claimant now got bolder. “I need a big house with big three-car

garage in Annapolis on the water with eight bedrooms for my family and the rest

of my relatives who still live in my country.. I want to bring them all over here” —

and PING– in the distance there could be seen a beautiful mansion with a three-car garage, a long driveway, and a walkout patio with a BBQ in an upscale neighborhood overlooking the bay.

“One more wish,” said the fairy, waving her wand.

“Yes, one more wish. I want to be like an American with American clothes instead

of these torn clothes, and a baseball cap instead of this sombrero. And I want to

have white skin like Americans” —and — PING — The man was instantly transformed – wearing worn-out jeans, a Baltimore Orioles T-shirt, and a baseball cap. He had

his bad teeth back and the mansion had disappeared from the horizon.

“What happened to my new teeth?” he wailed. “Where is my new house?”


 The fairy said: “Tough shit, Amigo, now that you are a white American, you have to fend for yourself.”