Serge Gainsbourg: The Obscurity of Fame

"Man created god. The inverse remains to be proven."

bart plantenga
zeilstraat 23 / II
Amsterdam 1013AE Netherlands
In January of 1969 (after DeSade but before Prince) a song exploded in the face of an unsuspecting pop universe -- "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus." The singer-provocateur: Serge Gainsbourg. Partner in crime: English actress (Blow Up ) and hearthrob, Jane Birkin. The effect: mayhem and scandal. The magnitude: somewhere between Elvis' censored pelvis and the tragedy at Altamont. Journalists, world politicians, even the Pope condemned the song as immoral. There were calls for stricter censorship, the review of pop lyrics. The single was banned in Sweden, Spain, Brazil, and Britain. The Vatican implores the Italian government to banish it. Philips is forced to stop pressing the disc. The slack is however, instantly taken up by various black market firms. It appears in 8 languages including Japanese. And with every shrill denunciation comes increased sales, exceeding 2 million by winter's end. Gainsbourg is one of Europe's biggest pop acts.

But Gainsbourg, with typical blasé bohemian elan, just grins, insists it is just an enjoyable sex spoof. And all this downside sure looks like up to him. In familiar mythic terms he's 1 part rat pack, 1 part beatnik, Chet Baker, Sinatra, a dash of Dylan, Leonard Cohen's pungent growl, Tom Waits' irrepressible inventiveness, Johnny Rotten's naughtiness, the look of an absinthe abuser. Actor, pianist, singer, raconteur, poet, filmmaker, soundtrack composer, photographer, painter, novelist but always the rascal voice of the desire dispossessed.

"Je T'aime" has been covered by many, including Donna Summer and Barry Adamson (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). In 1975 he directed his first film, "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" with Warhol star of Trash, Joe Dellesandro, Jane Birkin and a young, unknown Gerard Depardieu.

Gainsbourg mastered the art of scandal better than anyone, including Malcolm Mclaren, because it was written into his DNA -- Born To Raise Hell; he just couldn't help it. "For me provocation is oxygen." He once said. He enjoyed his notoriety but still managed to seduce people with his humanity. With his cig-dangling-from-lips, lecherous persona, his poignant lyrics, and nihilism he was able to speak the unspeakable, once even proclaiming, "I wanna fuck you," to Whitney Houston on live TV. He walked that jittery tightrope between outcast and pop star -- marginal yet marketable; every indie rocker's dream -- or scheme.

Gainsbourg was the kind of culture hero that seldom exists in America. His death of a heart attack on March 2, 1991, for instance, warranted something of a national day of mourning in France. But Gainsbourg remains almost totally invisible in America, a misunderstood rumor at best despite the recent efforts by Luna, Luscious Jackson, and Mick Harvey (also of Bad Seeds fame) whose English versions of Gainsbourg songs on his Intoxicated Man reminds us how little we know about him.

"The idea to make this record began from a combination of personal curiosity about Gainsbourg's material (particularly his lyrics) and a growing bewilderment that his work is virtually unknown outside French speaking countries."
Mick Harvey explains in his liner notes.

Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginzburg in 1928 to Russian immigrants in Paris. His father Frenchified their Jewish name and Lucien became Serge Gainsbourg. His father played piano in Pigalle night clubs and Gainsbourg grew up with him playing Bach, Chopin, Stravinski, and Gershwin at home. Gainsbourg took up piano at a young age. And his father, bubbling with enthusiasm, insisted that young Serge accompany him at the piano in Deauville's casinos and grand hotels. He was all of 8 and painfully shy. Excited by his son's interest in the arts, he enrolled Serge in art school near Montmartre, where Gainsbourg found himself roaming the exotic and tacky streets; dreaming and peeking into the clubs and bordellos. During World War II his family, as Jews, were forced to wear the yellow star. In 1941, his father arranged for falsified papers which allowed them to escape to Limoges. Gainsbourg was marked not only by the yellow star and the horrors of Nazism, but by the ease with which neighbors became cowards -- and collaborators. This would affect him for the rest of his life. After the war, Gainsbourg, now 19, continued his ramblings through seedy Pigalle. He grew increasingly disillusioned, gloomy, aimless -- a true cafe existentialist. He landed numerous deadend jobs in the area, including hand-coloring cinema publicity photos, played classical music at snooty balls but also played jazz in various smoky Pigalle dives.

A turning point came in the late 50s when his father landed him a gig in the hottest club in Paris, the Milord Arsouille where his idol, Charles Trenet, got his start. Gainsbourg devoured Django Reinhardt, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum; sees Billy Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and even Screamin' Jay Hawkins live. Years later he pays tribute to Hawkins with his Mambo Miam Miam. Gainsbourg however, doesn't get his first break until 1958 when, upon hearing him perform live, Boris Vian (jazz critic, trumpeter, poet, novelist, and social agitator) writes a glowing review of a Gainsbourg gig. Suddenly Gainsbourg is faced with the notion that he has great potential.

This propelled him headlong into songwriting which he had always despised.

But now he can't seem to stop; his songs dealt with his dissipated surroundings: alcohol, love, poets (Rimbaud, Prévert, Baudelaire), bohemia, love lost, everyday life. Vian's praise won him his first contract. He produced the 45 Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, a Goya-like portrait of a train conductor punching tickets all day long. Early song titles reveal his other concerns: "Alcohol," "12 Gals Under My Skin," "This Mortal Boredom" -- all "Jazzistiques," or heavy-into-jazz tunes of pop existentialism. Like Bob Dylan's early ability to fuse blues, French poetry, and the scene's zeitgeist Gainsbourg absorbed the day's chaotic cultural, musical, and political currents to create art in the form of a unique "voice." Gainsbourg even reinvented Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown." Also like Dylan, Gainsbourg's early fame was due to poppier interpreters of his songs, himself claiming, "I thought I was too ugly to sing them myself." It began with Les Freres Jacques covering "Lilas" in a manner not unlike how Peter, Paul and Mary covered "Blowin' In The Wind." Other pop stars took notice and recorded his songs: Juliette Greco, Petula Clark, Claude François, France Gall, Michele Arnaud, Catherine Sauvage, Françoise Hardy, Dutronc, Brigitte Bardot, Dalida, Deneuve and even Isabelle Adjani among many others. Jacques Brel suggested he start singing more himself. He did. By 1960 Gainsbourg was heavily into rock and roll. Requiem Pour un Twisteur is his tribute to its silly liberational possibilities. In 1963 he "introduces" the electric guitar sound to France. The intrepid Gainsbourg, with his voracious appetite for sound, introduced French audiences to "new" musics -- soul, reggae, hippy guitar solos -- during his entire career. He infused his tunes with rock and roll, mambo, Afro-Cuban rhythms ("Couleur Cafe"), the Symbolist and rebellious poets he admired and interpreted: de Musset, Nerval ("Le Rock de Nerval"), Baudelaire (Le Serpent Qui Danse"). His ears devoured Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto. By which he drenched his chansons in heavy saxophone and sultry Brazilian samba and pursued the dramatic tension of feverish emotion that sizzles just beneath cool vocals. In 1964 Gainsbourg, in his own words "impregnated by American music," achieved his biggest vocal development -- the introduction of Anglo-slang (most deliriously evident in "Ford Mustang"). This enlarges his pallette, gives him new ammo, new freedom to scat and pun, poke fun, undermine expectation. All these influences, in his throat, become his own.

He emerged more and more the outrageous scoundrel, a devil-may-care idiot-savant who inspired with his ability to foment hilarious controversies, getting away with pranks we only dream of, even as he croaked his way out of the role of singer-songwriter and into that of cultural icon. "Without controversy it would all be very boring." He observed. In 1967 he began dueting with chanteuse-actresses not particularly known for their singing abilities, converting their liabilities into charming attributes. Anna Karina (famous from early Godard films) helps him discover the sing-and-respond tension of the eternal man-woman conflict. Then a bombshell -- he, the eternal dissheveled scruff, begins work with the very image of voluptuousness -- Brigitte Bardot. This only magnifies his mythic stature. Their first hit, the enduring and hilariously breathtaking "Bonnie and Clyde" continues to seep into our psyches via the recent sampling of MC Solaar and Renegade Sound Wave. In the highly inventive (pre-virtual reality) "Comic Strip" Gainsbourg invites Bardot into his comic while she ululates all the POWs and Sh-bangs one sees in comic strip balloons. Their "Harley David Son of a Bitch," a true outlaw ode to insoucianct posturing -- "Hey, what the hell you doin' on my Harley?" Gainsbourg grunts at Bardot straddling a Harley in leather hot pants, assuring us all that the coming revolution will be a sexy one. In 1968 he met love of his life, Jane Birkin, on a film set. And there you have it -- crusty old perverted rebel meets innocent gal. She takes France by storm with her heroically flawed pronunciations of French. This offers Gainsbourg another witty tool for wringing meaning from language. He added female choruses, ala Otis Redding, to inject sarcastic responses to his bravado. He eventually dispensed with singing altogether, to develop his latterday signature tobacco-alcohol-inflected gravelly talkover, sometimes employing sarcastically heavy, heaving Kostelanetz-style string sections, at other times foregoing musical accompaniment altogether. He got the lead in Cannabis, did the soundtrack and dedicated it to Jimi Hendrix and Bela Bartok. He's named "Don Juan of the Year" by various women's magazines. Then wrote several songs influenced by Nabokov, seemingly mirroring his real-life affair with Birkin -- "Jane B" is best described as Lolita + Chopin.

In 1975 his album "Rock Around the Bunker" ruffled feathers because he hurled his legendary sarcasm at political ghosts. Gainsbourg insists that Nazism does not stop at the German border, and pokes fun at I-love-a-man-in-uniform chic. He, a Jew who wore the yellow star, is denounced as anti-semitic. Gainsbourg is by now everywhere -- TV, film, scandal sheets, he publishes a novel, has a photo exhibit, does more soundtracks -- at least everywhere in France. In 1976 he became the first white guy to do major recording in Kingston, Jamaica, beginning a long stint with the great reggae rhythm duo, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. He also employs Marley's Wailers. In 1979, a feisty Gainsbourg produces "Aux Armes Etcetera," which parodies the militaristic overtones of the "sacred" "La Marseillaise," to a reggae beat, much the way Hendrix reconfigured the "Star Spangled Banner" as antiwar song. Denunciations by generals, priests, and politicians follow. Former paratroopers and crusty war vets protest at his concerts, threaten fans. In Marseilles the protests led to cancellations. In Strasbourg, a bomb threat and 400 paratroopers vowing vengence spooked the Wailers so much that they refuse to play. So Gainsbourg took the stage alone, singing "La Marseillaise" without musical accompaniment. The goons join in to sing along and afterward file meekly from the hall. Gainsbourg has charmigly blindsided them. His album sells over 500,000 copies, goes gold -- his first. He wins "best male performer" and "best album" awards at that year's music awards in Cannes. Eugenie Sokolov, his first novel, describes the turbulence of this time. "Eugenie Sokolov" is also a great nose-tweaking "song" -- a series of farting sounds, "scat flatulence" if you will, set to a reggae beat.

In 1984 "Love on the Beat" touches on homosexuality and incest. "Beat" is a homonyn for "bite" which is French slang for penis. This is not lost on his audience. In 1985 he does the notorious video "Lemon Incest" with young daughter, Charlotte -- in a bed. The delirious provocations continue. But by now he's more than a singer, he's a national treasure that refuses to stop tarnishing. His scatalogical and bufoonish sense of satire still offers youth a prime tool for resisting the stultefying aspects of a normal consumer existence. Even the dillapidation of his physical body through self-abuse became a kind of heroic dissipation, a sabot tossed into the gears of the proverbial assemblyline. "I have succeeded at everything except my life." He once wistfully said. At the time of his death, March 2, 1991, I thought of how self-depricatingly and appropriately wrong he was.

(appeared in Dec. 1996 CUPS)

An Eccentric Gainsbarre

  • Serge Gainsbourg: du jazz dans le ravin (Philips / Mercury) 1996 repackaging of Gainsbourg's jazzier stuff. Highly recommended. Especially the instrumental material.
  • Mick Harvey's (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds) Pink Elephants (Mute) and Intoxicated Man (Mute) are full of inspired yet faithful English-translations of Gainsbourg songs.
  • Great Jewish Music: Serge Gainsbourg (Tzadik/Dureco) Includes some starling covers by Jennifer Charles, Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz, and an evocative, "Sous le Soleil Exactement" by Michelle Amar & Eyvind Kang. Gallant near-misses include Sean Lennon & Cibo Matto, Fred Frith, Franz Treichler and David Shea. Some clueless clinkers by Ruins and Anthony Coleman. A mixed bag rectifiable by programming own selection on your stereo. Liner notes by executive producer John Zorn.
  • "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" Donna Summer's 1978, 16-minute version!
  • "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" by another Bad Seed, Barry Adamson, is probably the most hauntingly evanescent replication.
  • "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" by Anita Lane on her "The World's a Girl."
  • "Love at First Sight" is a version of "Je T'Aime" by Sounds Nice.
  • "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" by Judge Dread.
  • "69 Année ɲotique" by Luscious Jackson on "Aint Nuthin' But A She Thang."
  • "Harley David Son of a Bitch," written for Bardot, is a true outlaw ode-satire to insouciant posturing - "Hey, what the hell you doin' on my Harley?" Gainsbourg grunts in full Brando-esque "Wild One" hoodlum bluster while Bardot straddles a Harley in leather hot pants on a TV variety show. Is properly recooked by the Bollocks Brothers with Johnny Lydon's brother on snarly vocals.
  • "Harley David Son of a Bitch" by avant garde performer, Kazuko Hohki, is an eccentric gem.
  • "Bonnie & Clyde" by Luna with Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab is an excellent, if a little benzedrine-melancholy, version of Bardot and Gainsbourg's first hit.
  • "Rascal You" in 1986 Gainsbourg sang "Vieille Canaille" in duet with sometime French rockabilly legend Eddy Mitchell (a combination of the Big Bopper and Karl Malden).
  • "Comment A Dire Adieu" by Jimmy Somerville (post-disco!!)
  • "Versions" is a 1996 collection of Jane Birkin redoing/remixing Gainsbourg songs with among others, the great Les Negresses Verts.
Others who have covered Gainsbourg songs:

Brett Anderson of Suede with Jane Birkin
Françoise Hardy
Brigitte Bardot
Jacques Dutronc
Catherine Deneuve
Isabelle Adjani:  in 1983, Gainsbourg wrote an entire album's worth of
compositions including the bizarre homage to Bowie "Beau Oui Comme Bowie".
Many years prior, Adjani, only 19,  visited Gainsbourg's house and
declared, according to Gainsbourg that "if I ever decide to sing, it will
be Gainsbourg songs."
Petula Clark
Vanessa Paradis
Juliette Greco
Black Grape
Valerie Lagrange
Anna Karina
Marie Blanche Vergne
Etienne Dao
Lady Atomika
Philippe Dauga
Michelle Mercier
Alain Chamfort
Alan Bashung
Mirielle Darc
Martin Circus
Julien Clerc
Jo Lemaire
Gloria Lasso
Dominique Walter
Claude Fran篩s
Michelle Torr
France Gall
Les Mercenaires
Les Freres Jacques
Michelle Arnaud
Pia Colombo
Jean-Claude Pascal
Philippe Clay
Catherine Sauvage
Alain Brunet
Nana Mouskouri

Some Songs That Sample Gainsbourg:

  • "Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg" by Christian Marclay, the first avant anthropological scratch sampler goes delirious.
  • In 1967 Bardot and Gainsbourg had a hit with the irrepressibly quirky "Bonnie and Clyde" [French & English versions]. This song is handsomely sampled on "Nouveau Western" by the premier French rapper, MC Solaar and also on - is it "Bubbaluba" - (oh shoot, i've lost my notes on this one) by the adventurous English post-dub crew, Renegade Sound Wave.
  • "Behind The Sun (Deep Ambient Mix)" by Starseed contains subtle samples of "Je T'Aime"

Other Printed Matter:

  • Au Pays Des Malices, [Le Temps Singulier, 1980], a selection of his writings and aphorisms.
  • Black Out [Les Humanoïdes Associés, 1983], a comic book with text by Gainsbourg inspired by events around a power outage that occured in LA.
  • Gainsbourg by Alain Coelho, and Franck Lhomeau [Denoel, Paris, 1986], is a beautiful coffeetable book, full of photos by and of Gainsbourg, profiles and aesthetic analyses of his many artistic endeavors - if you read French.
  • Dernières Nouvelles Des Étoiles [Librairie Plon, 1994], contains almost all of Serge's lyrics.
  • Gainsbourg by Gilles Verlant, [Albin Michel, 1985], contains extensive discography and other odds and ends
  • Gainsbourg Ou La Provocation Permanente [Yves Salgues, Jean-Claude Latte, 1989.]
  • Le Mur de Gainsbourg [Samuel Tastet, EST, 1992] This photo document of the walls around Gainsbourg's home in Paris' 7th arrondisement reveals the grafittied last respects (post-modernity's bouquets) for the man, and artist as the young fans transformed this corner into a sacred precinct, reminiscent of Jim Morrison's grave in Pere Lachaise.
  • Evguénie Sokolov by Serge Gainsbourg, TamTam, Los Angeles, 1998.
    An English translation of his hilariously ass-backwards spoof of the artworld. Tells the story of a young man, a f/artist if you will, who learns to harnass his explosive and omnipresent "blasting of anal gales and a wild pealing of chromatic flatulencies" into an inspiring propellent by sitting on a special chair and with pen in hand, his arm begins to function "like a seismograph." He becomes "asstronomically" famous for his profitable post-Dada, proto-caca gasograms. Until an ill wind begins to emerge from his "caeco-colonic rectal area." His "Evguénie Sokolov" from his album Mauvaises Nouvelles Des Étoiles" is a great naughty "song" - a series of farting sounds, "scat flatulence" if you will, set to a reggae beat. It serves as an ideal soundtrack for the book.
  • For plantenga's review of the first English-language biography of Serge see "The Rascal as Cultural Provocateur: View From The Exterior: Serge Gainsbourg by Alan Clayson" at

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