Photo: Francis Vernhet
For a singer regarding whom, confronted with his name, even the most francophile Brit might well retort, “Who?”, Serge Gainsbourg may surprise us with the fact that, upon the release of the final 9 CD collection of his work in 1991, one year before he died, the publicity read, “Gainsbourg n’attend pas d’etre mort pour etre immortel” (Gainsbourg doesn’t need to die to be immortal). Like many a star of chanson, he was a prophet greatly honoured in his own country, if little elsewhere.
Lucien Ginzburg (b.1928) was the child of Russian/Jewish immigrants who had fled the Revolution of 1917. He grew up in Paris’s 20th arrondissement, in the Rue Chaptal, where his father Joseph, a pianist, played the bars and cabarets of Pigalle for a living, but during the day reverted to his true love: Scarlatti, Liszt, Bach, Rachmaninov, Schumann, Chopin, and occasionally Gershwin and Cole Porter. Determined that his son should follow in his footsteps, he forced the boy to learn piano; but Lucien was more attracted to painting. He started listening to the radio (‘le TSF’), where he heard Frehel, the great ‘realist’ singer of the day, singing Vieille Canaille (‘You rascal, you!), and said, “I love that song, I’m going to sing it!” His horrified father screamed, “You will stop singing that rubbish!” Fifty years later, Gainsbourg recorded the song. Similarly, at one of his father’s engagements in Trouville, he heard Charles Trenet’s J’ai ta main dans ma main (I have your hand in mine) over the loudspeakers. He never forgot it.
With the onset of war, and, in 1941, the Occupation, like all Jews fourteen-year-old Lucien was forced to sport the Yellow Star on his lapel. At the same time, driven by his father’s original passion, he signed up for painting lessons in Montmartre, before his parents finally fled occupied Paris for Limoges. When, following the Liberation, they returned, Lucien dropped out of lycee to attend art school (Ecole Nationale Superieure de Beaux-Arts), where he soon excelled under Andre Lhote and Fernand Leger, two major painters of the time. Obsessed by the need for recognition, he slaved feverishly at what he regarded as one of the six major art forms. “Il faut que ce soit parfait. J’ai suivi toutes les tendances: impressionnisme, cubisme, surrealisme, abstrait, pour revenir au figurative vers 28-29 ans. Je m’etais donne jusqu’a trente ans pour reussir dans la peinture”. (It had to be perfect. I followed every style: impressionism, cubism, surrealism, abstraction, and returned to figurative art aged 28/29. I’d given myself until 30 to succeed as a painter). But success eluded him. He was forced to rely on odd jobs to survive. Including his father’s breadwinner, that of bar-pianist.
Dressed in an evening jacket, under the name Franck Coda, he ground out popular songs at the rate of 80 or 90 a night, and was spotted by the owner of Milord L’Arsouille, a fashionable cabaret whose star, Michele Arnaud, recognised his ability to compose and write songs, and persuaded him to perform. Which he did, paralysed with le trac (stage-fright). After the show, he would sneak off to St Germain-des-Pres, where he made a discovery that would change his life.
‘J’ai eu le bol de voir Boris Vian se pointer, monter sur scene. Une gueule blafarde, un spot blanc: il balance des chansons etonnantes devant un public sidere. Il avait une presence extraordinairement inquietante, terrible, et c’est la que je me suis dit dans ma petite tete d’oiseau qu’il n’y avait pas que de la merde dans la chanson’. (I had the luck to see Boris Vian turn up and go on stage. Pale face, white spotlight: he hurled unbelievable songs at a stunned audience. His stage presence was disturbing, even frightening. It was then that I got it into my silly little head that ‘chanson’ was not just sh-t). Mesmerised by the ‘sacred monster’ of St German-des-Pres, Lucien thought he spotted a chink, and, consumed by the need to succeed, adopted chanson as a last resort.
In fact, it was Boris Vian who conferred the first accolade on the newly-named Serge Gainsbourg when, following his being spotted by Philips and awarded a contract by its legendary artistic director Jacques Canetti, he heaped praise on Serge’s first album, Du Chant a la Une (1958). Apart from winning the French record industry’s most coveted award, the Prix de l’Academie Charles Cros, it contained a track which would nail the Gainsbourgian universe forever.
When Les Freres Jacques recorded it it ‘went viral’ (to coin a phrase), and the singer’s career was launched. With his less-than-handsome looks, aggressive melancholy and protruding ears, Serge cut through received notions of a successful artist, which relied on cosily bonding with the audience. “Je me suis dit, avec ma gueule, je ne vais pas faire le crooner et attaquer bille en tete mais provoquer”. (I said to myself, with my looks, I’m not going to try and be a crooner and go for it head-on, but to provoke). The more upset people were, the better he liked it. “Je ne delivre pas de mensonge, je me delivre moi-meme. . .et je me delivre en m’amusant’. (I am not selling lies, I am selling myself. And enjoying it).
From 1959 to 1963, Gainsbourg hit the jackpot with a series of albums infused with the somewhat rarefied taste for modern jazz of pianist Alain Goraguer (1931-), the arranger and composer responsible for Du Chant a la Une. These placed him in a category far removed from the mightiest wave to break over French popular music in decades: ye-ye. Not only did he differ from it, he deliberately distanced himself from it. “Je ne fais pas de la chanson americaine sous-titree” (I don’t do American songs with sub-titles). “Moi, c’est la chanson francaise. Elle ne doit pas etre a la remorque de L’Amerique et traiter des themes modernes. Il faut chanter le beton, le telephone, l’ascenseur. Il y a tout un langage musical et de mots a creer. La chanson francaise est a faire.” (‘I am la chanson francaise. You don’t have to be in tow with America to produce modern songs. We’ve got to sing about concrete, telephones and lifts. There’s a whole musical and poetic language out there. ‘La chanson francaise’ is waiting to be created’.
The policy paid off. Not only did sales rocket; his songs began to be in demand with performers like Michele Arnaud, Philippe Clay, Catherine Sauvage, Brigitte Bardot and Petula Clark. Most spectacularly of all, Juliet Greco (1927- ), the legendary ‘Muse of Saint Germain-des-Pres’, solicited him. Gainsbourg offered her a painting, which she still has, and 4 songs. One of these, La Javanaise, would become a classic.
For a while, Gainsbourg’s focus upon the Left Bank audience continued, with two albums, Gainsbourg Confidentiel (1963) and Gainsbourg Percussions (1964); the latter, a characteristically laconic confection of syncopated African and Brazilian rhythms.
Eventually however, the bubble burst. It began to be rumoured that he was dated; that his albums went ‘over the public’s head’ – a public with whom, moreover, he had never really connected. In February 1964, his appearance ‘en premiere partie’ (supporting act) to Barbara was a flop. After five performances he threw in the towel, declaring that the audience both misunderstood and detested him. It was time for a re-think.
And re-think he did. Having already written and composed for a young debutante called France Gall he decided to broaden his repertoire, and, between 1965 and 1969, produced over one hundred pieces designed specifically to appeal to a young market. In 1967 Denise Glaser, the television journalist who had previously witnessed Gainsbourg’s rejection of ye-ye and all it stood for, asked why he had changed his tune? “Je suis a un age ou il faut reussir ou abandoner. J’ai retourne ma veste parce que je me suis apercu que la doublure etait en vison. Il est plus acceptable de faire du rock sans pretention litteraire que de faire de la mauvaise chanson.” (I’ve reached an age where you must succeed or pack it in. I decided to turn my jacket inside out because I noticed that it was lined with mink. Frankly, it’s better to write rock with no literary pretensions than to write naff chanson). Why was he now courting the generation he had once despised? “C’est tres simple, tres mathemathique. Quand je fais douze titres sur un 33 tours de prestige avec une belle pochette, deux passent a l’antenne. Si j’ecris douze titres pour douze interpretes, ce sont douze succes”. (It’s simple maths. When I record twelve titles on a prestigious 33 rpm with a snazzy sleeve, I’m lucky if two get played. If I write twelve songs for twelve different performers, all twelve get noticed).
But, in 1965, when France Gall won the Eurovision Song Contest with Poupee de cire, poupee de son (Wax doll, singing doll), his reputation as a chanteur maudit (accursed singer) was finally shrugged off, and his career entered a new and gilded phase. Asked what success meant to him, Serge replied in the then French currency: “Quarante-cinq millions” (Forty-five million centimes).
It was while writing for films that his next huge step was taken. On the set of crime drama Voulez-vous danser avec moi? (1959) Gainsbourg fell for Brigitte Bardot and started to write and compose songs for her. The story goes that one day she asked him to write la plus belle chanson d’amour (the most beautiful love-song imaginable). Accordingly, in one night he turned out three: Bonnie and Clyde; Harley Davidson; and Je t’aime . . .moi non plus (I love you . . . me neither): an explicit rendition of lovemaking. When, in January 1968, she begged him to suppress its release by Philips for fear of scandal, he gave in; graciously agreeing never to let it see the light of day. In 1968, however, on the set of a film called Slogan, Serge ran into a young British actress for whom he had little but contempt as she was completely inexperienced and, what’s more, could hardly speak French. Fearing the bad effect of all this on the filming, the director promptly despatched the couple to Maxim’s, but did not accompany them. He knew the film was saved when, hours later, Serge and Jane Birkin emerged hand-in-hand.
Shortly afterwards, the album Jane Birkin-Serge Gainsbourg appeared, with Je t’aime, moi non plus as the opening track. The rest, as they say . . . It was banned in several European countries including the UK, and before 11pm in France; and was denounced by the Vatican. But sales beat all records: relieving Gainsbourg forever of the need to churn out hits.
With a new self-assurance born of personal happiness and, at last, the success he had so craved, Gainsbourg pushed the boundaries yet again with one of the first-ever French ‘concept albums’. Built around Jane, and conceived as a continuous sound-track rather than a series of separate songs, L’Histoire de Melodie Nelson (1971) was seized upon by Jean-Christophe Averty, one of the cult television producers of the time.
In 1973 he suffered his first heart attack. Two subsequent albums made little impression, but one, Vu de l’Exterieur, contains a Gainsbourg classic.
In 1976 he noticed a painting in an art gallery window called L’Homme a la Tete de Chou (The Man With a Cabbage for a Head). Something about it spoke to him, and he bought it and named his next album after it. It was an exercise in self-derision, possibly with reference to his unusual appearance, which many of his admirers consider to be his masterpiece. It was also oddly prophetic.
In 1979, seduced by the African rhythm and sunny overtones of reggae, he left for Jamaica and recorded an album with local musicians, including some who had worked with Bob Marley. Ever the provocateur, he included in Aux armes et caetera a reggae version of La Marseillaise. Uproar. In Le Figaro of 1.6.79, a prominent academic accused him of inciting to anti-semitism. “La vomir ainsi par bribes eparses, jamais nous n’avions entendu cela” (Spat out like that in short bursts, we’ve never heard it sung like that before). At one performance in Strasbourg, rioting broke out between his fans and ex-members of the Parachute Regiment, determined to stop him singing. Unabashed, Gainsbourg stood up. “Je suis un insoumis qui a redonne a “la Marseillaise” son sens initial et je vous demande de la chanter avec moi” (I am a rebel who has restored its original meaning to the “Marseillaise” and I demand that you sing it with me). Which he did, unaccompanied, whilst the two opposing factions, dumbstruck, haltingly joined in. The album earned a gold disc (100,000 copies sold in the first month).
In December that year, flanked by his rastas (supporting group), Gainsbourg appeared at Le Palace, one of Paris’s iconic music-halls. But his audience had changed. Mingled with the younger set was an older, more discerning audience. This led, in 1985, to a booking at the legendary Casino de Paris (Maurice Chevalier, Mistinguett) followed in1988 by the Zenith, one of France’s largest stadia. That was followed by a tour of France, Belgium, Switzerland and Japan.
This being Serge Gainsbourg, however, life could not continue long without a nose-dive. In the early 1980’s, Jane Birkin, his chief muse and the inspiration behind all his songs, (she would continue to be so for the rest of his life) left him.
Cue the birth of yet another incarnation: Gainsbarre. Portraying himself as having a “barbe de trois nuits, cigare et coups de cafard” (three days’ growth of beard, a cigarette, and bouts of depression), he worked hard at producing a much darker image, becoming known for his over-sexualised performances in the media and, most famously, for burning a 500 franc note.
Slowly, but surely, life was sliding downhill. According to his biographer, Gilles Verlant, Gainsbourg had had it with music. “Si je fais un nouvel album c’est pour prouver a moi que je suis le meilleur, tout en inscrivant en lettres de feu que c’est un art mineur…Je suis fragile parce que disabuse. J’ai tout, je n’ai donc rien. J’ai tout eu, je n’ai plus rien. L’idee du bonheur m’est etrangere. Je ne la concois donc pas, je ne la cherche pas’. (If I record a new album it is to prove to myself that I am the best; at the same time inscribing in letters of fire that it (chanson) is a minor art … I am fragile because I no longer suffer from illusions. I possess everything, but have nothing. I’ve had everything, and no longer have anything. The idea of happiness is a complete stranger to me, therefore I no longer imagine it or seek after it).
In January and April 1989 he was hospitalised for liver surgery. In the same year the live recording of his performance at the Zenith appeared; followed by De Gainsbourg a Gainsbarre, the first ever complete set of his work, numbering 207 songs on 9 CDs. “Ce coffret c’est pas ma compilation”, said Gainsbourg, “ c’est mon sarcophage” (This album is not a collection of my work; it’s my coffin). The publicity put it slightly differently: “Gainsbourg n’attend pas d’etre mort pour etre immortel” (“Gainsbourg does not have to die to be immortal”). A few days after its release a heart tremor forced him to go under observation, while he turned out two last albums: one for Vanessa Paradis, and one for his long-lost love, Jane. On March 2, 1991, he died at home at 5 Rue de Verneuil, in the 6th arrondissement. He was 63.