Almost twenty-seven years have passed since Serge Gainsbourg died of a heart attack just a month shy of his sixty-third birthday, breaking the heart of his hometown of Paris and prompting the French president to mourn him as "Our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire... who elevated the song to the level of art”.
The gorgeous pop ballad La Javanaise, the enduring Bardot-Gainsbourg duet Bonnie and Clyde and the Sixties anthem of the Playboy, Je T’aime Moi Non Plus are always among the top choices on anybody’s Gainsbourg shortlist, and deservedly so. But his star shone brightly and in so many ways. Singer, songwriter, composer, pianist, poet and avant-garde filmmaker are the obvious epithets to throw around when writing about him. I first plunged into his work around six or seven years ago and have found myself stuck down a rabbit-hole, beyond help, every now and then ever since.
He remains a controversial and charismatic figure today – much debated, which I’m sure he’d love, all these years later – but it’s the richness and diversity of his music that he is still best remembered for, which is the way it should be.
He first found his feet as a café singer, performing perfectly crafted playlets set to music – see Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, the song about the man who spends most of his life beneath Paris, working as a Metro ticket inspector whose job –punching holes passenger’s tickets all day long – becomes so monotonous that he eventually puts an end to it by punching a hole in his head with a bullet from a gun – before being buried in a hole in the ground.
I am the ticket puncher at Lilas / The guy you pass but don’t quite ever see / There is no sun underneath the ground, strange way to get around / To kill the boredom, in my vest / I keep the new Reader's Digest / And inside a writer’s telling me / That men can lead a sweet life in Miami / While I work here just like an idiot/ in this covered pit / They say there are no worthless roles / but my job is making little holes / Always holes / The little holes / The little holes
There’s something about Gainsbourg’s character – not so much his charisma that people speak of per se, but a sort of hawkish recklessness, almost bordering on despair – that I find transfixing. This is a man who spent his childhood under the Nazi occupation of France, who then spent much of his career being mocked by the critics in French newspapers – inherently and
casually anti-semitic – for his appearance, in particular his prominent ears and nose. Gainsbourg would raise two beautiful fingers to such sentiments – and to the France of his childhood – by releasing a concept album satirizing Nazi rock, titled Rock Around The Bunker. Hear Tata Teutonne (about a transvestite SS officer), Yellow Star (a sarcastic reference to the badge’s resonance as a much-coveted prize – “I’ve won the yellow star”) and SS In Uruguay (calling out old Nazi’s living in post-war exile in South America). It’s a piss-take of mid-Seventies rock revivalism, and a callback to Bowie’s inexplicable yearning for fascism – later retracted – and the cult of Nazi Chic found in the The Night Porter.
Gainsbourg’s sense of anarchy is legendary. Who else could get away with jetting off to Jamaica to hire a studio of legendary reggae musicians to record a new version of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem? The resulting album, Aux Armes Et Caetera, sold more than half a million copies in France and is today considered to be one of the first albums to have brought reggae into the mainstream.
His is a life viewed by many as scandalous – from writing songs laden with innuendo which went right over the heads of record label executives, to seducing the then-married Brigitte Bardot, concluding in boozy late-night appearances on live talkshows where, in one setting and on one notorious occasion, he set fire to a French banknote. That latter period – the Eighties – saw him almost digesting himself into Gainsbarre, his permanently drunk, chain-smoking, incoherent and self-proclaimed alter-ego. A shadow of his former shadow at whom even I – a devoted fan – must safely avert my eyes (two words: Whitney Houston).
Thankfully Gainsbourg is today best remembered for his immense creative output and his artistic sensibilities, though one scandal is perhaps that he’s best thought of in the United Kingdom as the singer of the aforementioned Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus – translation: I Love You... Me Neither – a duet with his lover Jane Birkin that reached No. 1 at the tail-end of the Sixties despite having been banned from the airwaves as the powers-that-be believed Birkin’s stage managed heavy breathing to be the sound of an orgasm. It also holds the distinction of the first UK. No 1 to be sung in a language other than English.
Je T'aime... has a quintessential Serge Gainsbourg sound, it’s true, but he was so much more than that. He was a Twentieth-century French revolutionary, whose yellow star blazes brighter than ever before.
Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he appeared before the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings — a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.
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