The death of Tom Rapp, the auteur behind the eccentric psych-folk group Pearls Before Swine, sent me back to his catalog, especially the albums he made for Warner Brothers Records when that label was taking a shot with any number of nutball musicians (that Rapp died the same day as Vic Damone, who also was a part of WB/Reprise’s roster, just highlighted how delightfully screwy their signing process was). In the middle of the 1971 album City of God was Rapp’s version of “Seasons in the Sun,” recorded years before Terry Jacks made it into a much-despised #1 single. Jacks’s hit has been roundly ridiculed for its cheesiness: he blandly skips through the first-person narrative where the singer, on the verge of death (by his own hand? by unnamed disease? Who knows?) bids adieu to significant figures in his life, old friend, father, wife. The record came out in that most depressing of pop years, 1974, twelve months that gave us “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” “(You’re) Having My Baby,” “The Way We Were,” “The Streak,” “I Honestly Love You,” “Mandy.” In the midst of all that goo, “Seasons in the Sun” fit right in.
“Seasons in the Sun” started out as a French song, “Le Moribond” by Jacques Brel, and in its original French, it’s bitter and sarcastic. In the third verse, the dying man says goodbye to Antoine, whom he admits he didn’t much like (“It’s killing me to die today, knowing that you are still so alive, and yet still as solid as boredom,” one translation goes), but since Antoine was sleeping with the singer’s wife, the disdain is understandable. When Rod McKuen wrote English lyrics for “Le Moribond,” he kept the infidelity intact, and the first batch of covers, in the ‘60s, of what was now “Seasons in the Sun” (McKuen, the Kingston Trio, the Fortunes), were pointed in calling out the wife’s indiscretions. “You cheated lots of times but then I forgave you in the end, though your lover was my friend.” I was surprised when the Pearls Before Swine version zapped the faithless wife even more curtly:
Adieu Francoise my trusted wife
When I close my eyes this time I close my life
I’ve closed them before for you without a sound
And I know your lovers all around
Will be in my bed before I’m in the ground
The chorus of “Le Moribond” has been translated as “I want them to laugh, I want them to dance/To amuse themselves like crazy when they put me in the hole,” but McKuen decided to go with “The hills that we climbed were just seasons out of time,” which means absolutely nothing (“Seasons out of time”?), and stuff about wine and song. It is a tough call whether this or Paul Anka’s transforming Claude Francois’ “Comme d’Habitude” into “My Way” is the most egregious French-to-doggerel handiwork.
Before Terry Jacks, formerly of the Canadian pop group the Poppy Family (“Which Way You Goin’ Billy?”), cut “Seasons in the Sun,” he produced a version of it by the Beach Boys, and when that hit the discard pile, Jacks decided to have a go with it himself, stripped of all its fatalistic dark humor. In his final verse, he even makes Michelle (the wife, renamed from Francoise, so as not to taint her with the reputation of Brel’s promiscuous heroine?) a devoted companion: “You gave me love and helped me find the sun.” How very McKuenesque of her, helping him tilt his head upward towards the sky.
You can imagine a scenario where this all went differently for “Le Moribond,” if Scott Walker, a frequent Brel interpreter, had done a version with English lyrics by Mort Shuman, who translated “My Death,” “Mathilde,” “Amsterdam,” “Jackie,” “Next,” and it was a track on an album like Scott 2. But it fell into the hands of Rod McKuen, and then was watered down even more in the version known by most of the world outside of the U.K. (in England, it was a big 1999 hit for the group Westlife), and found its way onto many lists of the Worst Songs Ever.
Despite that ignominious reputation, and its easy-to-mockness, I don’t think Nirvana were kidding when they started to play around with it; it doesn’t sound like hipster irony. It sounds like they, and Cobain in particular, could hear past whatever versions they’d ever encountered, even through McKuen’s sentimentality, and back to what Brel had in mind. A contributor on the Genius website translates the end of the first verse like this: “We have sung of the same women, we have sung about the same miseries.”