Serge Gainsbourg was the dirty old man of popular music; a French singer/songwriter and provocateur notorious for his voracious appetite for alcohol, cigarettes, and
women, his scandalous, taboo-shattering output made him a legend in Europe but only a cult figure in America, where his lone hit "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" stalled on the pop charts -- fittingly enough -- at number 69.
Born Lucien Ginzberg in Paris on April 2, 1928, his parents were Russian Jews who fled to France following the events of the 1917 Bolshevik uprising. After studying art and teaching, he turned to painting before working as a bar pianist on the local cabaret circuit. Soon he was tapped to join the cast of the musical Milord L'Arsoille, where he reluctantly assumed a singing role; self-conscious about his rather homely appearance, Gainsbourg initially wanted only to carve out a niche as a composer and producer, not as a performer.
Still, he made his recording debut in 1958 with the album Du Chant a la Une; while strong efforts like 1961's L'Etonnant Serge Gainsbourg and 1964's Gainsbourg Confidentiel followed, his jazz-inflected solo work performed poorly on the charts, although compositions for vocalists ranging from Petula Clark to Juliette Greco to Dionne Warwick proved much more successful. In the late '60s, he befriended the actress Brigitte Bardot, and later became her lover; with Bardot as his muse, Gainsbourg's lushly arranged music suddenly became erotic and delirious, and together, they performed a series of duets -- including "Bonnie and Clyde," "Harley Davidson," and "Comic Strip" -- celebrating pop culture icons.
Gainsbourg's affair with Bardot was brief, but its effects were irrevocable: after he became involved with constant companion Jane Birkin, they recorded the 1969 duet "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus," a song he originally penned for Bardot complete with steamy lyrics and explicit heavy breathing. Although banned in many corners of the globe, it reached the top of the charts throughout Europe, and grew in stature to become an underground classic later covered by performers ranging from Donna Summer to Ray Conniff.
Gainsbourg returned in 1971 with Histoire de Melody Nelson, a dark, complex song cycle which signalled his increasing alienation from modern culture: drugs, disease, suicide and misanthropy became thematic fixtures of his work, which grew more esoteric, inflammatory, and outrageous with each passing release. Although Gainsbourg never again reached the commercial success of his late-'60s peak, he remained an imposing and controversial figure throughout Europe, where he was both vilified and celebrated for his shocking behavior, which included burning 500 francs on a live television broadcast and recording a reggae version of the sacred "La Marseillaise."
Gainsbourg also created a furor with the single "Lemon Incest," a duet with his daughter, the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. In addition, he posed in drag for the cover of 1984's Love on the Beat, a collection of songs about male hustlers, and made sexual advances towards Whitney Houston on a live TV broadcast. Along with his pop music oeuvre, Gainsbourg scored a number of films, and also directed and appeared in a handful of features, most notably 1976's Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus, which starred Birkin and Andy Warhol mainstay Joe Dallesandro. He died on March 2, 1991. ~ Jason Ankeny, All Music Guide
Whatever you might say about Serge Gainsbourg, it has probably been said before and probably by Gainsbourg himself. Was there ever a man or woman more intent on self-promotion?
Gainsbourg circa 1973 Whether burning a 500 franc note on television, writing a reggae take-off on «La Marseillaise» or appearing half naked with his 14-year-old daughter in the video for «Lemon incest», Gainsbourg always kept his name in print and his face on the covers of magazines and newspapers.
It would be a mistake to think of Gainsbourg as just a scandalous figure, a creature of the popular press. His impact on French music is inestimable, and his admirers include many who found his lifestyle objectionable. With over 200 songs recorded by everyone from Juliette Gréco and Yves Montand to Alain Chamfort and Vanessa Paradis, Serge Gainsbourg reached an audience that spanned generations and musical eras.
Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris in 1928. (For a complete astrological interpretation of his chart click here). His father was a musician who had come to France from Russia just after the 1917 revolution. With false papers, quick wits and constant vigilance, the Ginsburg family managed to survive the German occupation. Coming of age during such a time of fear and repression, it's not surprising that Gainsbourg would develop a cynical and fatalistic approach to life, best summed up by this line from his 1979 album Aux armes et caetera, "Moralité: eau et gaz à tous les étages."
Lucien Ginsburg was trained as an artist, but devoted much of his time to the piano and guitar. During the early 50s he earned his living as both a musician and by painting advertising signs for movie theaters. Rapidly approaching thirty, Ginsburg took his father's advice and took a steady job as a pianist at the Milord l'Arsouille, a cabaret located near the Palais Royal. It was there Gainsbourg encountered Boris Vian.
Gainsbourg was more than just a pianist, he was a character. Full of cynical charm and dark humour, Boris Vian recognized Gainsbourg as someone with great talent, and encouraged him to write songs.
Performed by Michèle Arnaud, house singer for Milord l'Arsouille, Gainsbourg's early songs attracted the attention of other singers and soon he was writing for many of the major figures of that school of chanson called St. Germain-des-près.
Deciding that no one could sing his songs as well as he could himself, Lucien Ginsburg changed his name to something he felt to be a bit more French, and as Serge Gainsbourg he signed with Philips Records. His first album, released in 1958, was not a great commercial success, but the critics and his peers adored it. Here's how Boris Vian announced it to the worls: "Allez, lecteurs ou auditeurs toujours prêts à brailler contre, contre les fausses chansons et les faux de la chanson, tirez deux sacs de vos fouilles et raquez au disquaire en lui demandant le Philips B 76447 B...C'est le premier 25 cm 33 tours d'un drôle d'individu nommé Gainsbourg Serge."
Many of Gainsbourg's songs had already been recorded by les Frères Jacques, Michèle Arnaud and Jean-Claude Pascal. Soon Juliette Gréco would turn songs like «Le poinçonneur des lilas» and «La chanson de Prévert» into classics. Gainsbourg had an ear for fine melodies, and his lyrics, full of worldly cynicism, struck a cord with the fashionable Left Bank crowd.
At one time Gainsbourg's early recording were true collectors items, 25cm monophonic disks pressed in the late 50's. But with the advent of the compact disc and Gainsbourg's huge following, all his earliest recordings have been digitally re-mastered and included in a series comprising his entire recording career.
The first CD in the series, Le poinçonneur des Lilas, contains 24 songs recorded between 1958 and 1960. They run the gamut from 50's cabaret tunes to early 60s pop. The title track is a lament on the work-a-day world. What better way to depict the "horror of the mundane" than to show us the world through the eyes of a subway ticket puncher. " J'suis le poinçonneur des Lilas / Le gars qu'on croise et qu'on n'regarde pas / Y'a pas de soleil sous la terre / Drôl'de croisière / Pour tuer l'ennui j'ai dans ma veste / Les extraits du Reader Digest / Et dans ce bouquin y a écrit / Que des gars s'la coulent douce á Miami / Pendant c'temps que je fais l' zouave / Au fond d'la cave / Paraît qu'y a pas d'sot métier / Moi j'fais des trous dans des billets (131k)." The poinçonneurs have been gone from Paris's subways for many years now, but when Gainsbourg's character describes his days punching "des petits trous toujours des petit trous (92k)" we have no trouble relating.
Gainsbourg has often been cited as a misogynist, and these tendencies are evident in even his earliest recordings. Songs like «Sois belle et tais-toi», «La femme des uns sous le corps des autres» and «Indifférent» reflect an attitude towards women that is far from being enlightened. "Comme le chien de monsieur Jean de Nivelle / Tu ne viens jamais à moi quand je t'appelle / Qu'importe le temps / Qu'emporte le vent / Mieux vaut ton absense / que ton inconséquence (107k)," he sings in «Indifférent». And then he goes on to mourn her lack of interest!
One may well wonder how Gainsbourg got away with his excesses, both in his life and in his music. Where his songs are concerned, one can point to his musicianship and to his humor - many times he is making fun of his attitudes as well as those of the so-called prudes he was deliberately trying to offend.
Gainsbourg's wicked sense of humor is evident throughout his work, but no more so that in the song «Judith», written in 1960 for the film L'Eau à la bouche. The song sounds like something Paul Anka or Franky Avalon would have recorded - like rock beat, fuzzy saxophone and female chorus. Even the lyrics sounds like something for the Bobbie-soxers: "Judith que veux-tu de moi / Que veux-tu / Judith je n'aime que toi / Le sais-tu (88k)." But after six stanzas of declairing his undying devotion, we get the Gainsbourg twist: "Mais si de guerre lasse / Un jour je me lasse / Judith ce jour-là vois-tu / Je te tue (85k)."
Throughout the 1960s, Gainsbourg divided his time between his own records and writing songs for others. It was a career, but he remained a somewhat minor player in the music scene of les années yéyé. All this changed forever when he tied up with the 18 year old France Gall.
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Her first hit had been «Sacré Charlemagne», released the previous year. But when she appeared on television, lollipop in hand, singing Gainsbourg's «Les sucettes», both of their careers went through the roof. Ostensibly the song of a young girl who loves anis flavored lollipops, «Les sucettes», in realitiy it was a vulgar joke made fully evident when Gainsbourg recorded the song himself. «Annie aime les sucettes / Les sucette's à l'anis / Les sucett's à l'anis / D'Annie / Donn'nt à ses baisers / Un goût ani / Sé quand ell'n'a sur sa lange / Que le petit bâton / Elle prend ses jambes à son corps / Et retourne au drugstore (132k).» Once the joke was explained to Ms. Gall, she never worked or spoke with Gainsbourg again!
Suddenly Gainsbourg was in hot demand. After years of being the darling of the left bank, he was now main stream, a crafter of hits. By 1968, Serge Gainsbourg was known throughout France. He had appeared on television in his musical comedy, Anna, with Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy and his liaison with Brigitte Bardot provided a media field day.
In her autobiography, Initiales B.B. (éditions Grasset 1996), Brigitte Bardot writes of her affair with Gainsbourg: "Ce fut un amour fou - un amour comme on en rêve - un amour qui restera dans nos mémoires et dans les mémoires." Together they performed such Gainsbourg classics as «Bonnie and Clyde», «Harley Davidson» and «Contact». But after recording «Je t'aime...moi, non plus» (which sat on the shelves at Philips unreleased for 17 years!), the two split permanently.
Bardot felt that «Je t'aime... moi non plus» was too daring and prevented it from being released. Gainsbourg, of course, found someone else.
British actress Jane Birkin was not at all put off by «Je t'aime...moi non plus». She made her mark in world cinema three years earlier in Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blow-Up. Her part in film was small, but featured nudity that was extremely daring by Anglo-American standards.
«Je t'aime... moi non plus», version Gainsbourg-Birkin was released in 1968. Canal+ journalist Marc Toesca described the reaction to the song as follows: "Surprise et succè en France. Mais les soupires et halètements provoquent un scandale... chez nos prudes voisines anglais." The outcry was such that the original label in England, Fontana, dropped the record despite its being number 2 on the charts. A small company, Major Minor, immediately bought the rights and saw the song climb to Number 1, the only French song to ever do so.
Here in the States, there was never a question of putting the song on the radio. It may have been the era of free speech and free love, but not on the American air waves. It wasn't the lyrics to the song that caused the trouble - after all it was sung in French, but one listen to even a breif passage and you'll understand: «Je vais, Je vais et je viens / Entre tes reins / Je vais et je viens / Entre tes reins / Et je / Me re- / Teins… (153k)» Across the country, copies of the 45 kept popping up at colleges and Universities. A sophomore at the time, I recall it as the most played song on the juke box in our student center. At least until faculty pressure forced its removal. Despite the lack of air play and no coordinated marketing effort, Serge Gainsbourg became the most successful French singer in America since the Singing Nun!
Gainsbourg closed the 60s with his album 69, année érotique and opened the 70s with his first concept album, Melody Nelson. These albums are combined in the disk Gainsbourg Vol. 5, Je t'aime… moi non plus. The success of these two albums recorded with Jane Birkin was such that Ms. Birkin, despite possessing a singing voice with no redeeming qualities what-so-ever, has enjoyed a lasting career as a singer in France!
The seventies saw Gainsbourg experiment outside music, releasing a feature film of Je t'aime... moi non plus, and directing television commercials for such products as Lux and Woolite. He continued to write songs for others, but his best work was for himself on albums such as Vu de l'exterieur, Rock around the bunker, L'homme à tête de chou and Aux armes et caetera.
This last album was recorded with musicians from Bob Marley's Wailers, and introduced reggae to France. It also introduced Gainsbourg to the wrath of the Legion d'Honeur, who took as a serious insult Gainsbourg's reworking of the National Anthem. «Allons enfants de la patrie / Le jour de gloire est arrivée / etc. (178k)»
Gainsbourg's career is full of remarkable ironies. Despite his reputation, he was tapped to write the lyrics for the French version of "You're a good man, Charlie Brown", and in 1987 was asked to write an anti-drug song. After a life of such excess, it's pretty hard to imagine what people were thinking of, but Gainsbourg managed to produce a very power and uniquely Gainsbourgian song: «Aux enfants de la chance / Qui n'ont jamais connu les transes / Je direai en substance / Ceci / Touchez pas à la poussière d'ange / Angel dust / Zéro héro à l'infini / Je dis dites-leur et dis-leur / De casser la gueule aux dealers / Qui dans l'hombre attende l'heure/ L'horreur / de minuit (170k).» Gainsbourg's own thoughts on the subject are illuminating: "Tout le monde pense que je suis un junkie, parce que j'ai un regard...comme ça... étoilé. Je ne le suis pas. J'en ai connu, des petites junkies, mais moi, j'touche pas à ça et j'veux pas qu'on y touche. Le leitmotiv, c'est «casser la gueule aux dealers», c'est normal, ce sont eux les assassins, ils vont à la sortie des écoles communales et des lycées."
Whether you listen to Gainsbourg from the fifties, sixties, seventies or eighties, you hear the music of a man totally connected to his time. One of his last albums, You're under arrest is solid 80's dance-beat rock, his music from the late 60s rings of fuzz-box guitar and blues riffs not unlike Buffalo Springfield. And when you listen to the full range of his music, both the songs written for himself and those for others, there is no denying the man's talent.
"Inculpation: Détournement de mineures," reads the rap sheet on the cover of You're under arrest. To Gainsbourg's detractors, that could be a fitting epitaph. Others might prefer Gainsbourg's favorite quote from Oscar Wilde: "J'ai mis mon génie dans ma vie et mon talent dans mon oeuvre."