The Life & Times Of M. Serge Gainsbourg
From 'Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus' to a fear of breasts, Jeremy Allen sits down with Gitane and citron pressé to look at the music and thirsty life of Serge Gainsbourg.
He was a poet, a genius, an egotist, and I suppose in today's terms extremely arrogant. Humble wasn't in Serge's book. None of that nonsense. He knew exactly who and what he was." - Marianne Faithfull
It's 20 years since Serge Gainsbourg died, an event that went practically unnoticed in Britain both on the day it happened and on the anniversary, though across La Manche , March 2nd 1991 was a day of mourning unparalleled. The language used then by François Mitterrand – "He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire... he elevated the song to the level of art" - was not dissimilar to the gushing "people's Princess" rhetoric deployed by Tony Blair when Diana Wales also died unexpectedly in Paris one night in the 1990s. Though politicians are adept at wringing the auspices of a good tragedy to help boost their own popularity, the high praise afforded Gainsbourg by the president was seemingly genuine towards a man who was often boorish, drunk, a philanderer, agent provocateur and general pain in the arse who got a hard-on pushing the buttons of the establishment whenever he could. The people of France loved him in spite of his bad boy behaviour, and somehow always found a way to forgive.
When I interviewed Johann Sfar, the director of recent biopic Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) , I put it to him that Gainsbourg was as big in France when he died as Elvis was in the United States. Sfar, a celebrated Belgian comic illustrator, noted that as someone who recorded a Freggae national anthem, burned a 500fr bank note on TV to rail against the "whore of socialism" and told the world in front of Whitney Houston that he wanted to fuck her, he also had the notoriety of a Johnny Rotten figure at home. If Elvis' indulgences were carried out behind closed doors under the watchful eye of Colonel Parker, Gainsbourg was impossible to control and lived his life very publicly, and all the baggage that came with that was for wider consumption, something he thrived on. Given that the media was very different then, it could be argued that Gainsbourg was the Charlie Sheen of his day, though it shouldn't be forgotten that he also had the comparable talent of a Marlon Brando.
Gainsbourg The attention seeker
"For me, provocation is oxygen," said Gainsbourg. Bret Easton Ellis recently wrote a blog piece for the Daily Beast in which he said Charlie Sheen was, what he called, "post-Empire", aware of his own celebrity and its limitations whilst not giving a fuck, compared with, say, Tiger Woods, whose mea culpa only confirmed what he'd already suspected, that Woods was very much part of the old order. Gainsbourg was contradictory in nature. While he outwardly didn't give a fuck, it was also important to him deep down that everybody loved him. He was a rebel, and yet shockingly conservative in many ways. Without the aid of the internet or 24-hour rolling news, Gainsbourg knew how to keep himself in the limelight, and even used adversity to his advantage, calling journalists to his bed side after his first heart attack in 1973 at the age of 45.
"Serge loved being in newspapers," Jane Birkin told The Daily Telegraph recently. "Even when he had a heart attack and we were in the hospital, he managed to give an interview to France Soir . 'I'm dying here and France didn't know about it,' he explained when I asked him why he'd done it."
He pledged to drink and smoke more excessively. He was true to his word.
Gainsbourg: Le désagréable
Serge may have been an "all-round scallywag", as JG Ballard put it, but he was also deeply unpleasant at times. Asked to judge a week-long film festival in France alongside Julian Temple and a bunch of French video directors, Nick Kent discovered he was sharing the panel with head judge Gainsbourg, "the louche, turtle-eyed genius of la chanson Française". Two years prior to the musician's death, Kent was confronted by a death-fixated, chronic alcoholic.
"I wish I could tell you I enjoyed at least one meaningful conversation with him during that week, but I'd be lying if I did. A couple of times communication was attempted but I could never understand one slurred syllable of what was coming out of his mouth. He preferred the company of his many French admirers anyway. They'd buy him drinks at the hotel bar and listen enraptured to his drunken reminiscences. Their adulation seemed to provide him with a comfort zone he could temporarily lose himself in, somewhere to escape from the looming darkness of oncoming death. He knew he was going to die soon - there was absolutely no doubt about this. One of the other judges had a hotel room directly adjacent to his suite and told us that every night he'd be awoken at around 3am by the sound of Gainsbourg screaming 'I'm going blind' over and over again.
"Still - to his credit - he always maintained a solid work ethic whatever his personal condition and seemed to take his duties as a judge seriously."
Gainsbourg and Gainsbarre: the alter ego
Like many alcoholics, Gainsbourg would blame anyone but himself for his wayward behaviour. Eventually, presumably having run out of excuses, a character known as Gainsbarre began to creep into his lyrics, a Mr Hyde to Gainsbourg's Jekyll, a depressive dipsomaniac and bully to blame all of his transgressions upon. The alter ego became more prominent as Serge's drinking progressed, and, assuming the shades and slicked-back hair, he and Gainsbarre finally became indistinguishable.
"He was two people," said then A&R man Gérard Davoust, who worked for the chanteur's label. "One was the nicest person in the world: he was polite, he looked after everybody, he was always on time. When he was drunk, he was a difficult guy. I remember I took him to a festival in Brazil, Jane was there, and he was not that nice. He got violent. The next morning, he could not remember, and just said, 'Oh my God...' That was Serge: when he was drunk he could not control himself, and didn't know what he was doing."
Gainsbourg the obsessive compulsive
Gainsbourg decked out his home at 5 Rue de Verneuil in Saint Germain all in black, inspired by a time when he was younger when he'd somehow got the keys to Salvador Dali's house and made love to his first wife in every room while Dali was away. He even stole a small token souvenir in the form of a picture from Dali's porn collection. (Serge was obsessed with Dali and the pair later became friends. The title of 'Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus' - roughly translated as 'I love you, me neither' - was inspired by something Dali was once supposed to have said: "Picasso is Spanish - so am I; Picasso is a genius - so am I; Picasso is a communist - me neither.")
"He noticed that the walls had been done in astrakhan," Jane Birkin told Sylvie Simmons for the latter's Serge biography A Fistful of Gitanes , "so he had the walls done in black, but black felt - the material they used to make army trousers. He was rather fond of uniforms.
"He saw that Dali's bath had a silk sheet draped over it in a very artistic and lovely way... so Serge got a very low bath, inspired by Dali's, and a loo that came from Venice that was hundreds of years old. But he never had a bath, because he hated being submerged in water - absolutely terrified of it. He used to wash every particle of his body, little by little - a cleaner man you couldn't wish to find; perfumed feet and everything.'"
Gainsbourg was punctilious in and around his surroundings and would lose his temper with his children if they dared move anything within the house from what he regarded as its rightful place. Birkin described it as being like living in a museum, and it was one of the contributing factors in her decision to leave him in 1980. Serge collected beautiful things and beautiful people, though the people he couldn't always keep. The interior of the house to this day remains as it was when he died, priapic-pop's very own Pompeii, though outside the exterior has been daubed extensively with graffiti written and painted on by adoring fans paying homage to him. Given his freakish fastidiousness, he may well be turning in his grave at this.
Cabbage Head Man (and other concepts)
1977 is remembered by many in England as the year punk broke out. Across the pond Serge was releasing his most progressive-influenced concept album L'homme à Tête de Chou , or Cabbage Head Man, about a man who lives in a hotel a la Alan Partridge, and becomes obsessed with a girl called Marilou who he eventually beats to death with a fire extinguisher. Waking up in a secure psychiatric unit he is convinced his head is a cabbage. It's a synth-strewn oddity and certainly a product of its time; unlike most of Serge's canon it sounds rather dated, and while not his finest hour, it definitely has its moments. Visitors to his graveside at Montparnasse Cemetery are likely to be greeted with an array of grand chous decorating the monument, left as marks of respect.
Serge was no stranger to the concept album. He recorded an entire reggae long player with Sly and Robbie Aux Armes et Cætera and boasted that it was he who in fact introduced the French public to reggae and not Bob Marley, a claim that stands up. Most famously of course, he wrote L'Histoire de Melody Nelson about a lascivious middle-aged Frenchman who knocks an underage girl (from Sunderland, believe it or not – Serge thought it sounded exotic) off her bicycle in his Rolls[-]Royce Silver Ghost before taking her home and seducing her. Gainsbourg caused controversy like Nabokov before him, though it must be remembered that this was the 1970s, a time when avuncular men who wanted to have sex with young girls applied for work on national radio stations as disc jockeys. Asked whether or not he was a paedophile, Gainsbourg questioned how a man could be attracted to a person who smells of piss on one side and shit on the other.
Gainsbourg, afflicted by Mastrophobia
When Serge first met Jane Birkin on the set of the film Slogan he apparently took her to a nightclub, then a transvestite club and then back to the Hilton where he drunkenly passed out. During that time, when asked what it was like to sleep with Brigitte Bardot, he said: "I was scared of her breasts." Birkin was 19 at the time and Serge 36.
"He was scared stiff of all breasts," says Birkin. "Which was why, when he met me, he said: 'Wow – you have a body just like the ones I drew in art school.' He didn't like bosoms to be high and pert; he liked them lower down, which was just as well, as I'd had a baby. 'I've always dreamt of a girl who had the top of a boy and the bottom of a girl,' he once told me – Serge did like a bottom."
Gainsbourg, the prude: "He was the most modest of men"
Though Serge was obsessed with sex and enjoyed photographing nudes, and spent much of his time at art school painting them, he didn't like to be seen in the raw himself, even by his partners. Birkin described him as 'pudique', a word that doesn't perfectly translate from the French though it essentially means modest.
"It makes me mad that I can't translate the word," said Jane. "The children never, ever saw him naked in his life. No-one ever saw him naked. I never saw him naked. Bambou [his last wife] didn't. He was the most modest of men." Serge confessed in an interview that he didn't even like to see his own penis in the mirror and would hide it with his hand.
The 40-year-old pop star
Serge slavered after mainstream success but it eluded him for a long time. As a jazz musician who'd made a name for himself playing the piano in bars and writing a whistle-able tune, he was maybe too esoteric, and not classically handsome enough, for superstardom. He scored successes with the odd catchy waltz like 'La Javanaise' as well as 'Le Poinçonneur Des Lilas', a hit in 1958 about a the day in the lifetime of a Métro ticket conductor who stamps holes in passengers' tickets all day, and who eventually thinks about putting a hole into his own head and being buried in another due to the sheer mundanity of his existence. The 60s saw him write songs for others with huge success, though the French were more captivated by The Beatles or teen idols like his good friend Jacque Dutronc (who wrote for and later married Françoise Hardy) than with Serge himself.
His profile was raised considerably when he wrote the winning song for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965 with 'Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son', performed by France Gall, an 18-year-old at the time. Seemingly unable to help himself, Gainsbourg wrote Gall's next song 'Les Sucettes' , or Lollipops. Unbeknown to Gall, the song was full of sexual innuendo, with lines that translate: "Annie likes suckers, the anise flavoured suckers... with the creamy sugar flavoured with anise, sinks in Annie's throat, she's in heaven".
The fact he was seen to have duped a teenage girl into singing a song with such a tawdry double-meaning caused predictable outrage in France. He also wrote 'Comment Te Dire Adieu' for Françoise Hardy .
It wasn't until 1969 though that he became an international pop star in his own right. While on a date with Bardot he was asked by her to pen the most beautiful song he could imagine. Rising to the challenge, he went away and wrote 'Bonnie and Clyde' and 'Je T'aime, Mon Nom Plus'. The pair recorded both, though Bardot insisted the latter was notremain unreleased to spare the feelings of her husband, German playboy Gunter Sachs. Emotionally crushed though artistically promiscuous, Serge apparently asked Marianne Faithfull, Valérie Lagrange and Mireille Darc to re-record it with him before meeting Jane Birkin. It went on to chart all over the world, and, most pleasingly for Serge, it went to no.1 in the UK. He was in love with London though perturbed that it didn't love him back in the same way that Paris did.
Gainsbourg: Good right up to the end
It's something of a myth that Gainsbourg lost his way musically, though albums like Love On The Beat and his final 1987 long player You're Under Arrest do have a certain 80s sheen that might deter traditional rock fans. The glossy funk may not have the same cachet as Jean Claude Vannier's string arrangements but it should never be said that Gainsbourg didn't take his art seriously. For Love On The Beat he posed on the cover as a woman, smoke ring billowing from lipsticked pout; determined to look beautiful for the part, he even gave up drinking for two weeks to lessen the bags under his eyes. As for You're Under Arrest , it recently turned up in the NME 's 100 Greatest Lost Albums, nominated by Lightspeed Champion, otherwise known as Dev Hynes, who said: "This was Gainsbourg's last studio album before he died, so it's been lost to history a bit. Gainsbourg always adapted to the times; here he went deeper into dance and tight 80s funk type grooves with his songs. It features his most articulate songwriting."
At the age of 62, Gainsbourg left a mighty legacy, but most importantly he left a galaxy of great songs. Jack Lang, the culture minister who presented Gainsbourg with the Grand Prix National Des Lettres Et Des Arts in 1984 called him "one of the greats of French poetry and music," with a "Rimbaudian sense of liberty". The British are beginning to look beyond the strange and frightening world and embrace his multifaceted approach to life and creativity as well