The late Serge Gainsbourg was Eurotrash personified — the dirty mouth (and dirty mind) of French popular culture. Expressions like louche, rou*, cavalier and joli-laid could have been coined with him expressly in mind. It’s a crime that, outside of France, Gainsbourg remains most (in)famous for the orgasmic “Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus,” his 1969 duet with then-wife, British starlet, Jane Birkin. The ultimate in camp Euro-kitsch fromage, it’s as much a novelty song as “Monster Mash” and misrepresents his vast, complex oeuvre. Gainsbourg was a punk, poet, filmmaker, soundtrack composer, actor, photographer and novelist. His lyrics, steeped in Existentialist literature and the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, are tinged with decadence, melancholy, tenderness, scathing contempt and sardonic humour. Musically, he cast a jaundiced eye over everything from finger-snapping cool jazz to Latin exotica to cocktail lounge to British Invasion guitar rock and, later, to reggae and disco. When he died, aged 62, on March 2, 1991, France was plunged into mourning. The tenth anniversary of his death is as good a time as any for English speaking Gainsbourg virgins to discover his totally idiosyncratic body of work.
First, two enduring myths to dispel: that Gainsbourg couldn’t sing and that he was ugly. His elegant mono-drone, little more than an insinuating murmur, was rooted in the French chanson tradition and sounded alternately sinister and sensual. Imagine a lecherous French Leonard Cohen huskily exhaling toxic sweet nothings in your ear.
Was Gainsbourg ugly? It’s invariably male rock critics who claim this: it smacks of jealousy and perhaps even unconscious anti-Semitism (Gainsbourg was of Russian-Jewish ethnicity and looked it). Certainly some of Europe’s most exquisite women of the period (Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Greco, Francoise Hardy, Nico, Marianne Faithfull, Catherine Deneuve and, of course, Birkin) who collaborated with him musically (and were sometimes linked with him romantically) begged to differ. Record covers from the early 60s depict a genuinely suave charmer with wolfish features (hooded eyes, patent leather hair styled in swinging executive mode, nostrils flared like Rudolf Valentino) wreathed in smoke from the cigarillo perpetually smouldering from his fingertips. Unfortunately it’s his alcohol-sodden, haggard later appearance that is better remembered. The signature dangling cigarette (he was a five-pack-of-Gitanes-a-day man) was only part of the dissolute lifestyle that led to him suffering his first heart attack at the age of forty five. It’s hard to think of another artist who could so accurately claim his life revolved around wine, women and song than consummate lounge lizard Gainsbourg. It gave a song like “Intoxicated Man” its subjective late night haze of life permanently viewed from the bottom of a whisky glass or through a screen of cigarette smoke. But while Gainsbourg lovingly cultivated his rakish bad boy image (and lived it offstage to the hilt), it shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value. He never claimed to find solace in hedonism. As early as 1958, on “Ce Mortel Ennui” (“This Deadly Boredom”), he was already singing about the emptiness behind la dolce vita in tones as world weary as a centuries old vampire.
The future Casanova was born Lucien Ginzberg in 1928 in Paris to Russian immigrant parents. His musician father played piano in the cabarets of Pigalle (Paris’s red light district) and taught his child prodigy son classical piano and guitar. As Jews, Gainsbourg’s family was forced to wear yellow stars during the Nazi Occupation of France in World War II. The experience would permanently scar his worldview, evident in the cynical sensibilities of his lyrics. Post-war, the teenaged Gainsbourg studied art but failed as a painter, torched his canvases and, like his father, embarked on a music career, playing in Left Bank jazz dives to audiences of black-turtlenecked, existentialist hipsters. Initially writing songs for others (he became an in-demand songwriter for his slinky arrangements and cutting lyrical observations about women, alcohol, poetry and regret), the shy pianist gradually edged into the spotlight as a performer himself after French-ifying his name to Serge Gainsbourg. His first album came out in 1958. The barbed image was established early on: the cover of “Romantique 60” depicts Gainsbourg armed with a bouquet of roses and a revolver, emblems of his dual nature. “To those who love my songs, I give the flowers. The others get shot,” the liner notes threaten. How punk is that?
American readers can perhaps best approach Gainsbourg as the Gallic cousin of another cult hero with a twisted pop vision: Lee Hazlewood. Both mavericks with hit-making commercial instincts, they took the most lushly produced, middle of the road lounge and outwardly innocuous pop and spiked it with knowing irony and their own dark personal preoccupations. Both also vented their Lolita complexes by collaborating with much younger, mini-skirted girl singers, contrasting their pristine voices with perverse themes. Under Hazlewood’s urging Nancy Sinatra turned Sadomasochism into a vengeful fashion statement on “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and sneaked acid trip drug references into the dreamy “Sugar Town.” Similarly, Gainsbourg tricked the naive teenaged starlet France Gall into singing about oral sex on the perky “Les Sucettes” (the title is French slang for lollipops, which is what Gall genuinely thought she was singing about). It emerges most overtly in their duets. Gainsbourg (first with Brigitte Bardot and then Jane Birkin) and Hazlewood (whether with Sinatra, Suzie Jane Hokom or Ann-Margaret) loved pitching their jaded Lothario baritones against wispy babydoll vocals on older man/younger woman ballads that throbbed with themes of threatened innocence. Think of Hazlewood and Sinatra’s “Summer Wine” and “Some Velvet Morning;” Gainsbourg’s equivalents are tracks like “Bonnie & Clyde” (with Bardot) and “69 Annee Erotique” and “Je T’Aime…” (with Birkin). (Gainsbourg, by the way, would have totally understood and approved of the schizophrenic mixed messages of pop’s current reigning nymphette, Britney Spears. Imagine the songs he might have penned for her.)
Gainsbourg was also a genuine pop artist in every sense. He was, after all, originally a painter, and his approach was that of a conceptualist. Like the French equivalent of Andy Warhol, he sponged up the popular culture around him and filtered it into his music. The bleakly erotic Bardot duet “Bonnie & Clyde” was as much a reaction to the 1967 Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway film as it was a valentine to the original 1930s gangster couple. The futuristic science fiction imagery of “Contact” (Bardot in metallic mini dress and thigh boots as a sexy space alien trying to make contact with earth) appear swiped directly from Roger Vadim’s Barbarella. “Comic Strip”(another Bardot duet) is punctuated with kitsch “Zip!” “Pow!” “Whiz!” sound effects straight out of the TV series Batman. “Ford Mustang” sees Gainsbourg intoxicated by American trash debris, gasping in fractured franglais about Superman, Marilyn Monroe, aspirin and Coca Cola over demented tango music.
Enduring worldwide infamy came in 1969 with the heavy breathing sex noise of the much-banned “Je T’Aime….” In terms of scandal, it established Gainsbourg as the equivalent of a one-man Sex Pistols. The song was originally intended for (and recorded with) Bardot in 1967 in the heat of Gainsbourg’s brief affair with her. Bardot was married at the time. When her then-husband (millionaire playboy Gunther Sachs) heard the song he freaked out and the single was quashed. (The Bardot version wouldn’t resurface for decades. You can hear it on her 1996 greatest hits CD “Best of BB”.) Casting about for a replacement chanteuse, Gainsbourg’s chicken hawk attentions settled on Chelsea girl, Jane Birkin. A swinging London waif in a lampshade-sized micro mini, Birkin had done acting and modelling but had no prior musical experience. (Birkin had great taste in men: her previous husband was John Barry, the composer of soundtracks like Beat Girl and the James Bond series.) Her tremulous, submissive, virtually tuneless little girl simper, singing in French with a cut-glass English accent, made her Gainsbourg’s ideal duet partner. She was also his wife and muse. (The most beautiful song he ever wrote for her was “Jane B,” on which she sings Gainsbourg’s words about herself.) The doomed titular character of 1971’s brooding “Histoire De Melody Nelson” (widely regarded as Gainsbourg’s masterpiece) was based on Birkin: she was also the album’s cover girl and provided Melody’s wispy voice.
After Birkin left him in 1980, Gainsbourg’s final decade was a descent into self-destruction and self-parody. Formerly a vital agent provocateur, late-period Gainsbourg — burnt out and artistically bankrupt — turned cynically to bad taste for its own sake with shock-buzzer songs about subjects like Nazis, masturbation, incest and fart jokes. (Perversely, he continued to score hits. The worse he misbehaved, the more the French loved him, as if indulging a lecherous old uncle.) 1984’s soulless “Love on the Beat,” his last studio album, makes for grim listening. His response to then-fashionable synthesizer pop, (he’s obviously trying to ape David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”) it sees Gainsbourg as a more of a ghostly presence than a singer: lead vocals are robotically dispatched by a session singer who sounds like Human League’s Phil Oakey, with (the audibly ailing) Gainsbourg only occasionally popping up to offer a tired groan. In 1991 rock’s Marquis De Sade died alone in his Left Bank Paris apartment of his vices, riddled with both lung and liver cancer. (At his grave in Montparnasse cemetery — where he’s buried alongside the likes of Charles Baudelaire and Jean-Paul Sartre — fans leave behind packs of Gitanes and bottles of whisky in tribute.) Better to remember Serge Gainsbourg as the wry Bohemian dedicated to sensuality who paid the consequences. He injected a whiff of authentic debauchery into pop music that still lingers.