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Serge Gainsbourg: The Most fatal of Adjectives

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 14 February 2003—In Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes (Da Capo), her new biography of Serge Gainsbourg, Sylvie Simmons quotes fellow British journalist Robert Chalmers: "Gainsbourg has been cursed by an attribute which has proved a more powerful hindrance to rock stardom than being blind, tone-deaf or dead; that most fatal of adjectives, French."

"He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire." President Francois Mitterand said after Gainsbourg died in Paris on March 2, 1991: "He elevated the song to the level of art." This about an artist who wrote songs about passing gas, incest, cabbages and Nazi death camps. One obituary gave as cause of death: "He drank too many cigarettes." It has been said that he "made an art out of bad taste." He was considered "sick," not unlike Lenny Bruce.

This is the first biography written in English of the man who has been called "the liberator of French pop music." The new perspective is welcome. Gainsbourg did not travel well. Marcel Proust called language a "sealed fortress" and language seals France off from the Anglo-American majority pop culture. He wrote songs with such titles as "Five Easy Pisseuses," "Javanaise Remake," "Roller Girl" and "Sois Belle et Tais-toi" (Be beautiful and shut-up).

"Je T'Aime, Moi Non Plus" (I love You, Me Neither), his biggest hit, was a portrait of seduction with he and his wife, the British actress Jane Birkin, moaning and sighing accompanied by a schmaltzy organ and heart-throbbing guitars. Rumor had it that it was recorded on a tape machine under their bed. It was released in a plain jacket, on which was written: "Interdit aux moins de 21 ans." The Italian recording executive responsible for releasing it in his market was excommunicated by the Vatican. The title had been inspired by Salvador Dali, who said: "Picasso is Spanish - me too. Picasso is a genius - me too. Picasso is a Communist - me neither."

His 1971 album Histoire de Melody Nelson was a suite of songs about a middle-aged Frenchman in love with a doomed under-age English girl. The first French pop concept album, with strings and a vocal choir, it was compared to King Crimson's Court Of The Crimson King. Gainsbourg remained a cult hero for most of his career, earning enough to buy town houses and a Rolls Royce if not castles. With a voice somewhere between Leonard Cohen and Yves Montand, he was a bad boy pop star - think Jim Morrison - the French could call their very own. He famously burned French francs and made a lewd proposal to Whitney Houston on live television.

Gainsbourg was one of the world's first pop icons to wear what became known as designer stubble. One of his musicians recalls: "His arrangements were neatly copied and he carried them in a burgundy attaché case. His instructions were always clear. He did not act like he needed a shave."

When he went to Jamaica to fuse the French chanson with reggae, his band included Robbie Shakespeare, Sly Dunbar and Rita Marley. His photograph on the album cover was taken by Lord Snowden. Sales were disappointing. Gainsbourg had turned down the passing spliffs in the Kingston studio, where, according to Dunbar, he was "constantly smoking those French cigarettes in the blue pack and drinking, but he never looked drunk. He told me a cigarette was worth more than his wife. A wife would get up and leave him one day, but his cigarette will never leave him." The outcry over Gainsbourg's subsequent "freggae" version of La Marseillaise - modeled after the Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen - included calling him a traitor and "walking pollution."

Born Lucien Ginsburg of Russian-Jewish ancestry, Gainsbourg was a name inspired by the painter Gainsborough, his hero. He survived the German occupation and attended the Ecole Superieure des Beaux Arts after the war. His career as a painter was short; he explained to Rock & Folk magazine: "I wanted to have an artistic genius, and all I had was talent." After winning the Eurovision song contest, the availability of whiskey and wild wild women soon convinced him that he had the genius to become a star of stage and screen. He wore a toga in a movie called The Revolt of the Slaves.

His affair with Brigitte Bardot was well-publicized - she recorded his songs ("Harley Davidson") and he appeared on her prime-time television show. Francoise Hardy, France Gall, Catherine Deneuve, Petula Clark, Vanessa Paradis, Zizi Jeanmaire and Juliette Greco covered his songs. He had a reputation as a lover. Most of his friends were women. As his lifestyle caught up with him in the end, long after they were divorced, Jane Birkin brought him soup to make sure he'd eat at least once a day. .

And Marianne Faithfull told Sylvie Simmons: "We became very good friends. We had a philosophical affinity, a serious platonic friendship based on surrealism, poetry and Oscar Wilde. He was a poet, a genius, an egotist, and I supposed 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."

Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes

Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes
by Sylive Simmons
Paperback: 192 pages
Dacapo Press (18 September 2002)
ISBN: 0306811839

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. Zwerin is currently writing a book entitled "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of


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