Sunday, August 16, 2009
Thursday, August 13, 2009
I was writing for an Australian magazine a couple of years ago, ostensibly producing potted bios of slightly off beat and / or scandalous celebs. The piece below was re-written to make it more tabloid friendly (and it's already pretty simplistic), but a suitably entertaining celebration of the great musician and composer.
Serge Gainsbourg once described the elements that gave meaning to his life as “an equilateral triangle of Gitanes, alcoholism and girls.” His music, writings, films; indeed his very existence was fuelled by and dedicated to these essential passions. The son of Russian emigrant Jews, Lucien Ginsburg, was born in Paris1928. he had a natural interest in music even before his musician father started his piano lessons when he was 4.
With the outbreak of the Second World War the Ginsburg family, who maintained a broadly secular lifestyle, found themselves at risk. Lucien’s father moved to the South of France, sending for his family shortly after. While they were able to survive the war, it was not before the young Ginsburg was forced to wear the yellow star demarking him as a Jew.
Returning to the French capital after the war, Ginsburg, a natural artist, left school without passing his exams, intending to study art. Loosing his virginity to a Parisian prostitute in 1945, the young artist then commenced a relationship with Elisabeth Levitsky, secretary to George Hugnet, a close friend of surrealist artist Salvador Dali.
The young couple borrowed the keys to Dali’s apartment and had sex amongst the works of surrealist art. Ginsburg was impressed by the surrealist’s interior décor, which consisted of black rooms with careful lighting illuminating various works. When he became famous Gainsbourg would decorate his house in a similar fashion.
Already dedicated to smoking 60 unfiltered Gitanes per day, and, following a year in the army, an enthusiastic drinker, Ginsburg began playing piano at various Left Bank clubs, performing in order to support his unsuccessful career as an artist.
In 1954 Lucien Ginsburg registered his first authored songs, and in the process changed his name to Serge Gainsbourg. He also announced he would give up painting – something he was merely only good at – and dedicate himself to music, something in which his genus could flourish. He began to write and record numerous songs that mixed cool jazz, pop, and even traces of exotica.
In 1959 Gainsbourg also began performing in films, commonly being typecast as the villain or outcast. By the end of his life he would appear in more than 40 movies.
In 1965 Gainsbourg penned the winning Eurovision Song Contest entry for Luxemburg, writing a classic pop song – Poupee De Cire, Poupee De Son - performed by16-year old France Gall. The teen pop star was more than happy to sing Serge’s songs, until somebody told the slightly too innocent girl that her Serge penned hit song Les Sucettes (Lollipops), nominally about sucking on lollipops until the anis flows down her throat, was a metaphor for sucking on something else. She was horrified. Gainsbourg’s reputation as song writer, composer, and poetic libertine was assured, and his songs would be known for their inventive lyrical prowess that would combine the interests of classical decedent French poetry, surrealism, popular culture, metaphor, and, most obviously sex.
Considered by some to be unattractive, Gainsbourg declared that “Ugliness is superior to beauty because it lasts longer”, and vowed only to bed the most beautiful women in the world. No casual boast, Gainsbourg began a relationship with the legendary actress Brigitte Bardot in 1967.
The two recorded numerous songs together including a homage to the outlaw couple Bonnie and Clyde, as well as the songs Initials B.B and Intoxicated Man. But their most infamous recording was Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus, a song deemed to be so steamy by Bardot that it went unreleased for two decades. Their relationship didn’t last.
Then, in 1968, Serge appeared in the film Slogan opposite young British actress Jane Birkin, twenty years his junior. After initially disliking each other the couple soon fell in love, and remained together for the next 12 years.
1969 The Erotic Year.
Their relationship in full swing, the couple recorded an album of classic Gainsbourg songs that combined his unique mixture of jazz and slightly twisted pop, all wrapped around lyrics that merged French and English into a poetic affirmation of love, sex and lust. The songs included classics such as ‘69 Annee Erotique and Manon. The couple also recorded a new version of Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus, which was promptly released to international acclaim and scandal.
For those who haven’t heard the song, it mixes a hymn like organ sound with throbbing bass, and Serge’s deep whispered lyrics that – even to non-French speakers – sound clearly sexual and possibly crude. In case this wasn’t enough, Jane Birkin sings her part of the song sounding like a young girl, at least, until she starts having an orgasm, all moans and little gasps. So convincing were these noises (at least to the general public in the ‘70s) the song was long rumoured to feature a real orgasm on it.
The uptight BBC banned the song, the Vatican had it banned in Italy and the head of the record label was excommunicated, it was banned in Spain and even liberal Sweden. Such an outcry guaranteed its success, and the song has subsequently entered the realms of a musical and erotic classic. The mystique of the song was added to by its lyrics that at least hint at anal sex.
From Sex to Swastikas.
As the seventies began Serge produced his first concept album Historie De Melody Nelson. Focusing on a man who, while driving his Rolls Royce, knocks the 15-year old Melody Nelson off her bike and is immediately seduced by the vision of her white underwear. The album tells the story of the relationship between the older man and teenage girl. In the beautifully twisted pop of Melody Nelson Gainsbourg created an entirely new pop mythology.
With his career progressing well Serge was floored by a heart attack in 1973, but this didn’t top him from smoking his beloved cigarettes. Instead, he continued to record, producing the scatology themed album Vu De L’ Exterieur (1973), which featured songs such as Des Vents Des Pets Des Poums (Wind, Farts, Booms) and numerous other shit themed songs. Seven years later he wrote a novella Evguenie Sokolov about a man who could not stop farting and made his fortune from his bowels.
He also began making plans to write and direct his first film Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus.
Released in 1976 the film featured Jane Birkin as Johnny, an androgynous woman who begins a relationship with a gay dustman played by Warhol movie star Joe Dellesandro. Driven by rampant desire the couple keep attempting anal sex, but are forced to break it off when Jane starts screaming, eventually the couple are able to reach their climax while making love in the back of his garbage truck, naturally the scene is accompanied by the strands of the hit song that gave the film it’s title.
Now regarded is a cult classic, on its release the film was condemned by typically outraged critics. This failed to halt Serge’s directing career, and he directed numerous TV commercials and three more films.
Coming to terms with his own experience growing-up in occupied France Gainsbourg recorded a concept album Rock Around The Bunker in 1975. The album features songs such as Nazi Rock, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Yellow Star.
Always on the look out for new music, and already a fan of exotica and world music, in 1978 Gainsbourg travelled to Jamaica to record a reggae album with Sly and Robbie and vocalists The I Three. The all star reggae musicians weren’t too sure about the eccentric Frenchman, until they found out he had been behind the song Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus, which they all knew and loved. The ensuing album Aux Armes Et Caetera was a massive hit, and its use of La Marseillaise – the French national anthem - outraged the French extreme right and death threats followed. In response to the extreme right, and always one to enjoy his wealth, Gainsbourg brought the original manuscript of La Marseillaise.
In 1980 Jane Birkin and Gainsbourg split up, while he was heartbroken the couple maintained a close friendship for the rest of his life. Gainsbourg’s increasing alcoholism led to his developing a new persona Gainsbarre, as he named his drunken alter ego. Appearing on a television talk show in 1984 he set fire to a 500-franc note to moan about excessive taxation, the appearance caused outrage in socialist France. That same year he appeared on TV alongside Whitney Houston, drunkenly slurring his desire “to fuck you”, to which Houston looked first puzzled, then screamed in outrage.
Also in 1984 Gainsbourg wrote a song for his 13-year old daughter Charlotte, on which the two performed together. Entitled with typical aplomb Lemon Incest, the song was a typical Gainsbourg statement of shock, outrage, and humour, but some in the media believed he had gone too far. This probably wasn’t helped by father and daughter appearing in a video together singing the song in a gigantic bed.
As the eighties wore on, Gainsbourg continued to write albums and songs, and produced work for Vanessa Paradis and his new lover Bambou. By the end of the decade, however, a lifetime of non-stop drinking was showing serious effects, and in 1989 he had two-thirds of his liver removed. Unbelievably this did not slow him down, and he went on to direct his final film, Stan The Flasher in 1990, before finally succumbing to a heart attack in 1991, while alone at home.
He was 62 years old, he had changed popular music, re-invigorated European culture, and periodically scandalised a nation. He was a genius and legend. As was befitting he was buried at Paris’s famous Montparnasse cemetery, where his grave is still surrounded by flowers placed by legions of fans.