THE HANGOVER HALL OF FAME
Serge Gainsbourg: The Obscurity of Fame
"Man created god. The inverse remains to be proven."
by bart plantenga
In January of 1969 (after DeSade but before Prince) a song exploded
in the face of an unsuspecting pop universe -- "Je T'Aime...Moi Non
Plus." The singer-provocateur: Serge Gainsbourg. Partner in crime:
English actress (Blow Up ) and hearthrob, Jane Birkin. The effect:
mayhem and scandal. The magnitude: somewhere between Elvis' censored
pelvis and the tragedy at Altamont. Journalists, world politicians,
even the Pope condemned the song as immoral. There were calls for
stricter censorship, the review of pop lyrics. The single was banned
in Sweden, Spain, Brazil, and Britain. The Vatican implores the
Italian government to banish it. Philips is forced to stop pressing
the disc. The slack is however, instantly taken up by various black
market firms. It appears in 8 languages including Japanese. And with
every shrill denunciation comes increased sales, exceeding 2 million
by winter's end. Gainsbourg is one of Europe's biggest pop acts.
Gainsbourg, with typical blasé bohemian elan, just grins, insists it
is just an enjoyable sex spoof. And all this downside sure looks like
up to him. In familiar mythic terms he's 1 part rat pack, 1 part
beatnik, Chet Baker, Sinatra, a dash of Dylan, Leonard Cohen's
pungent growl, Tom Waits' irrepressible inventiveness, Johnny
Rotten's naughtiness, the look of an absinthe abuser. Actor, pianist,
singer, raconteur, poet, filmmaker, soundtrack composer,
photographer, painter, novelist but always the rascal voice of the
"Je T'aime" has been covered by many, including
Donna Summer and Barry Adamson (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). In 1975
he directed his first film, "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" with Warhol
star of Trash, Joe Dellesandro, Jane Birkin and a young, unknown
Gainsbourg mastered the art of scandal better than
anyone, including Malcolm Mclaren, because it was written into his
DNA -- Born To Raise Hell; he just couldn't help it. "For me provocation
is oxygen." He once said. He enjoyed his notoriety but still managed
to seduce people with his humanity. With his cig-dangling-from-lips,
lecherous persona, his poignant lyrics, and nihilism he was able to
speak the unspeakable, once even proclaiming, "I wanna fuck you," to
Whitney Houston on live TV. He walked that jittery tightrope between
outcast and pop star -- marginal yet marketable; every indie rocker's
dream -- or scheme.
Gainsbourg was the kind of culture hero that seldom
exists in America. His death of a heart attack on March 2, 1991, for
instance, warranted something of a national day of mourning in
France. But Gainsbourg remains almost totally invisible in America, a
misunderstood rumor at best despite the recent efforts by Luna,
Luscious Jackson, and Mick Harvey (also of Bad Seeds fame) whose
English versions of Gainsbourg songs on his Intoxicated Man reminds
us how little we know about him.
"The idea to make this record began
from a combination of personal curiosity about Gainsbourg's material
(particularly his lyrics) and a growing bewilderment that his work is
virtually unknown outside French speaking countries."
explains in his liner notes.
Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginzburg in
1928 to Russian immigrants in Paris. His father Frenchified their
Jewish name and Lucien became Serge Gainsbourg. His father played
piano in Pigalle night clubs and Gainsbourg grew up with him playing
Bach, Chopin, Stravinski, and Gershwin at home. Gainsbourg took up
piano at a young age. And his father, bubbling with enthusiasm,
insisted that young Serge accompany him at the piano in Deauville's
casinos and grand hotels. He was all of 8 and painfully shy. Excited
by his son's interest in the arts, he enrolled Serge in art school
near Montmartre, where Gainsbourg found himself roaming the exotic
and tacky streets; dreaming and peeking into the clubs and bordellos.
During World War II his family, as Jews, were forced to wear the
yellow star. In 1941, his father arranged for falsified papers which
allowed them to escape to Limoges. Gainsbourg was marked not only by
the yellow star and the horrors of Nazism, but by the ease with which
neighbors became cowards -- and collaborators. This would affect him for
the rest of his life. After the war, Gainsbourg, now 19, continued
his ramblings through seedy Pigalle. He grew increasingly
disillusioned, gloomy, aimless -- a true cafe existentialist. He landed
numerous deadend jobs in the area, including hand-coloring cinema
publicity photos, played classical music at snooty balls but also
played jazz in various smoky Pigalle dives.
A turning point came in
the late 50s when his father landed him a gig in the hottest club in
Paris, the Milord Arsouille where his idol, Charles Trenet, got his
start. Gainsbourg devoured Django Reinhardt, Thelonious Monk, Art
Tatum; sees Billy Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and even Screamin' Jay
Hawkins live. Years later he pays tribute to Hawkins with his Mambo
Miam Miam. Gainsbourg however, doesn't get his first break until 1958
when, upon hearing him perform live, Boris Vian (jazz critic,
trumpeter, poet, novelist, and social agitator) writes a glowing
review of a Gainsbourg gig. Suddenly Gainsbourg is faced with the
notion that he has great potential.
This propelled him headlong into
songwriting which he had always despised.
But now he can't seem to
stop; his songs dealt with his dissipated surroundings: alcohol,
love, poets (Rimbaud, Prévert, Baudelaire), bohemia, love lost,
everyday life. Vian's praise won him his first contract. He produced
the 45 Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, a Goya-like portrait of a train
conductor punching tickets all day long. Early song titles reveal his
other concerns: "Alcohol," "12 Gals Under My Skin," "This Mortal
Boredom" -- all "Jazzistiques," or heavy-into-jazz tunes of pop
existentialism. Like Bob Dylan's early ability to fuse blues, French
poetry, and the scene's zeitgeist Gainsbourg absorbed the day's
chaotic cultural, musical, and political currents to create art in
the form of a unique "voice." Gainsbourg even reinvented Dylan's
"Ballad of Hollis Brown." Also like Dylan, Gainsbourg's early fame
was due to poppier interpreters of his songs, himself claiming, "I
thought I was too ugly to sing them myself." It began with Les Freres
Jacques covering "Lilas" in a manner not unlike how Peter, Paul and
Mary covered "Blowin' In The Wind." Other pop stars took notice and
recorded his songs: Juliette Greco, Petula Clark, Claude François,
France Gall, Michele Arnaud, Catherine Sauvage, Françoise Hardy,
Dutronc, Brigitte Bardot, Dalida, Deneuve and even Isabelle Adjani
among many others. Jacques Brel suggested he start singing more
himself. He did. By 1960 Gainsbourg was heavily into rock and roll.
Requiem Pour un Twisteur is his tribute to its silly liberational
possibilities. In 1963 he "introduces" the electric guitar sound to
France. The intrepid Gainsbourg, with his voracious appetite for
sound, introduced French audiences to "new" musics -- soul, reggae,
hippy guitar solos -- during his entire career. He infused his tunes
with rock and roll, mambo, Afro-Cuban rhythms ("Couleur Cafe"), the
Symbolist and rebellious poets he admired and interpreted: de Musset,
Nerval ("Le Rock de Nerval"), Baudelaire (Le Serpent Qui Danse"). His
ears devoured Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto. By which he drenched his
chansons in heavy saxophone and sultry Brazilian samba and pursued
the dramatic tension of feverish emotion that sizzles just beneath
cool vocals. In 1964 Gainsbourg, in his own words "impregnated by
American music," achieved his biggest vocal development -- the
introduction of Anglo-slang (most deliriously evident in "Ford
Mustang"). This enlarges his pallette, gives him new ammo, new
freedom to scat and pun, poke fun, undermine expectation. All these
influences, in his throat, become his own.
He emerged more and more
the outrageous scoundrel, a devil-may-care idiot-savant who inspired
with his ability to foment hilarious controversies, getting away with
pranks we only dream of, even as he croaked his way out of the role
of singer-songwriter and into that of cultural icon. "Without
controversy it would all be very boring." He observed. In 1967 he
began dueting with chanteuse-actresses not particularly known for
their singing abilities, converting their liabilities into charming
attributes. Anna Karina (famous from early Godard films) helps him
discover the sing-and-respond tension of the eternal man-woman
conflict. Then a bombshell -- he, the eternal dissheveled scruff, begins
work with the very image of voluptuousness -- Brigitte Bardot. This only
magnifies his mythic stature. Their first hit, the enduring and
hilariously breathtaking "Bonnie and Clyde" continues to seep into
our psyches via the recent sampling of MC Solaar and Renegade Sound
Wave. In the highly inventive (pre-virtual reality) "Comic Strip"
Gainsbourg invites Bardot into his comic while she ululates all the
POWs and Sh-bangs one sees in comic strip balloons. Their "Harley
David Son of a Bitch," a true outlaw ode to insoucianct
posturing -- "Hey, what the hell you doin' on my Harley?" Gainsbourg
grunts at Bardot straddling a Harley in leather hot pants, assuring
us all that the coming revolution will be a sexy one. In 1968 he met
love of his life, Jane Birkin, on a film set. And there you have
it -- crusty old perverted rebel meets innocent gal. She takes France by
storm with her heroically flawed pronunciations of French. This
offers Gainsbourg another witty tool for wringing meaning from
language. He added female choruses, ala Otis Redding, to inject
sarcastic responses to his bravado. He eventually dispensed with
singing altogether, to develop his latterday signature
tobacco-alcohol-inflected gravelly talkover, sometimes employing
sarcastically heavy, heaving Kostelanetz-style string sections, at
other times foregoing musical accompaniment altogether. He got the
lead in Cannabis, did the soundtrack and dedicated it to Jimi Hendrix
and Bela Bartok. He's named "Don Juan of the Year" by various women's
magazines. Then wrote several songs influenced by Nabokov, seemingly
mirroring his real-life affair with Birkin -- "Jane B" is best described
as Lolita + Chopin.
In 1975 his album "Rock Around the Bunker"
ruffled feathers because he hurled his legendary sarcasm at political
ghosts. Gainsbourg insists that Nazism does not stop at the German
border, and pokes fun at I-love-a-man-in-uniform chic. He, a Jew who
wore the yellow star, is denounced as anti-semitic. Gainsbourg is by
now everywhere -- TV, film, scandal sheets, he publishes a novel, has a
photo exhibit, does more soundtracks -- at least everywhere in France.
In 1976 he became the first white guy to do major recording in
Kingston, Jamaica, beginning a long stint with the great reggae
rhythm duo, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. He also employs
Marley's Wailers. In 1979, a feisty Gainsbourg produces "Aux Armes
Etcetera," which parodies the militaristic overtones of the "sacred"
"La Marseillaise," to a reggae beat, much the way Hendrix
reconfigured the "Star Spangled Banner" as antiwar song.
Denunciations by generals, priests, and politicians follow. Former
paratroopers and crusty war vets protest at his concerts, threaten
fans. In Marseilles the protests led to cancellations. In Strasbourg,
a bomb threat and 400 paratroopers vowing vengence spooked the
Wailers so much that they refuse to play. So Gainsbourg took the
stage alone, singing "La Marseillaise" without musical accompaniment.
The goons join in to sing along and afterward file meekly from the
hall. Gainsbourg has charmigly blindsided them. His album sells over
500,000 copies, goes gold -- his first. He wins "best male performer"
and "best album" awards at that year's music awards in Cannes.
Eugenie Sokolov, his first novel, describes the turbulence of this
time. "Eugenie Sokolov" is also a great nose-tweaking "song" -- a series
of farting sounds, "scat flatulence" if you will, set to a reggae
In 1984 "Love on the Beat" touches on homosexuality and incest.
"Beat" is a homonyn for "bite" which is French slang for penis. This
is not lost on his audience. In 1985 he does the notorious video
"Lemon Incest" with young daughter, Charlotte -- in a bed. The delirious
provocations continue. But by now he's more than a singer, he's a
national treasure that refuses to stop tarnishing. His scatalogical
and bufoonish sense of satire still offers youth a prime tool for
resisting the stultefying aspects of a normal consumer existence.
Even the dillapidation of his physical body through self-abuse became
a kind of heroic dissipation, a sabot tossed into the gears of the
proverbial assemblyline. "I have succeeded at everything except my
life." He once wistfully said. At the time of his death, March 2,
1991, I thought of how self-depricatingly and appropriately wrong he
(appeared in Dec. 1996 CUPS)
An Eccentric Gainsbarre
Others who have covered Gainsbourg songs:
- Serge Gainsbourg: du jazz dans le ravin (Philips / Mercury) 1996
repackaging of Gainsbourg's jazzier stuff. Highly recommended. Especially
the instrumental material.
- Mick Harvey's (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds) Pink Elephants (Mute) and
Intoxicated Man (Mute) are full of inspired yet faithful
English-translations of Gainsbourg songs.
- Great Jewish Music: Serge Gainsbourg (Tzadik/Dureco) Includes some
starling covers by Jennifer Charles, Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz, and
an evocative, "Sous le Soleil Exactement" by Michelle Amar & Eyvind Kang.
Gallant near-misses include Sean Lennon & Cibo Matto, Fred Frith, Franz
Treichler and David Shea. Some clueless clinkers by Ruins and Anthony
Coleman. A mixed bag rectifiable by programming own selection on your
stereo. Liner notes by executive producer John Zorn.
- "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" Donna Summer's 1978, 16-minute version!
- "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" by another Bad Seed, Barry Adamson, is
probably the most hauntingly evanescent replication.
- "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" by Anita Lane on her "The World's a Girl."
- "Love at First Sight" is a version of "Je T'Aime" by Sounds Nice.
- "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" by Judge Dread.
- "69 Année rotique" by Luscious Jackson on "Aint Nuthin' But A She Thang."
- "Harley David Son of a Bitch," written for Bardot, is a true outlaw
ode-satire to insouciant posturing - "Hey, what the hell you doin' on my
Harley?" Gainsbourg grunts in full Brando-esque "Wild One" hoodlum bluster
while Bardot straddles a Harley in leather hot pants on a TV variety show.
Is properly recooked by the Bollocks Brothers with Johnny Lydon's brother
on snarly vocals.
- "Harley David Son of a Bitch" by avant garde performer, Kazuko Hohki, is
an eccentric gem.
- "Bonnie & Clyde" by Luna with Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab is an
excellent, if a little benzedrine-melancholy, version of Bardot and
Gainsbourg's first hit.
- "Rascal You" in 1986 Gainsbourg sang "Vieille Canaille" in duet with
sometime French rockabilly legend Eddy Mitchell (a combination of the Big
Bopper and Karl Malden).
- "Comment A Dire Adieu" by Jimmy Somerville (post-disco!!)
- "Versions" is a 1996 collection of Jane Birkin redoing/remixing
Gainsbourg songs with among others, the great Les Negresses Verts.
Brett Anderson of Suede with Jane Birkin
Isabelle Adjani: in 1983, Gainsbourg wrote an entire album's worth of
compositions including the bizarre homage to Bowie "Beau Oui Comme Bowie".
Many years prior, Adjani, only 19, visited Gainsbourg's house and
declared, according to Gainsbourg that "if I ever decide to sing, it will
be Gainsbourg songs."
Petula Clark, Vanessa Paradis, Juliette Greco
Marie Blanche Vergne,
Les Freres Jacques,
Some Songs That Sample Gainsbourg:
- "Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg" by Christian Marclay, the first avant
anthropological scratch sampler goes delirious.
- In 1967 Bardot and Gainsbourg had a hit with the irrepressibly quirky
"Bonnie and Clyde" [French & English versions]. This song is handsomely
sampled on "Nouveau Western" by the premier French rapper, MC Solaar and
also on - is it "Bubbaluba" - (oh shoot, i've lost my notes on this one) by
the adventurous English post-dub crew, Renegade Sound Wave.
- "Behind The Sun (Deep Ambient Mix)" by Starseed contains subtle samples
of "Je T'Aime"
Other Printed Matter:
- Au Pays Des Malices, [Le Temps Singulier, 1980], a selection of his
writings and aphorisms.
- Black Out [Les Humanoïdes Associés, 1983], a comic book with text by
Gainsbourg inspired by events around a power outage that occured in LA.
- Gainsbourg by Alain Coelho, and Franck Lhomeau [Denoel, Paris, 1986], is
a beautiful coffeetable book, full of photos by and of Gainsbourg, profiles
and aesthetic analyses of his many artistic endeavors - if you read French.
- Dernières Nouvelles Des Étoiles [Librairie Plon, 1994], contains almost
all of Serge's lyrics.
- Gainsbourg by Gilles Verlant, [Albin Michel, 1985], contains extensive
discography and other odds and ends
- Gainsbourg Ou La Provocation Permanente [Yves Salgues, Jean-Claude Latte,
- Le Mur de Gainsbourg [Samuel Tastet, EST, 1992] This photo document of
the walls around Gainsbourg's home in Paris' 7th arrondisement reveals the
grafittied last respects (post-modernity's bouquets) for the man, and
artist as the young fans transformed this corner into a sacred precinct,
reminiscent of Jim Morrison's grave in Pere Lachaise.
- Evguénie Sokolov by Serge Gainsbourg, TamTam, Los Angeles, 1998.
English translation of his hilariously ass-backwards spoof of the artworld.
Tells the story of a young man, a f/artist if you will, who learns to
harnass his explosive and omnipresent "blasting of anal gales and a wild
pealing of chromatic flatulencies" into an inspiring propellent by sitting
on a special chair and with pen in hand, his arm begins to function "like a
seismograph." He becomes "asstronomically" famous for his profitable
post-Dada, proto-caca gasograms. Until an ill wind begins to emerge from
his "caeco-colonic rectal area." His "Evguénie Sokolov" from his album
Mauvaises Nouvelles Des Étoiles" is a great naughty "song" - a series of
farting sounds, "scat flatulence" if you will, set to a reggae beat. It
serves as an ideal soundtrack for the book.
For plantenga's review of the first English-language biography of Serge see
"The Rascal as Cultural Provocateur: View From The Exterior: Serge
Gainsbourg by Alan Clayson" at
zeilstraat 23 / II
1075 SB Amsterdam
fax: 020 427 75 37