Serge Gainsbourg is a singer-songwriter of Russian Jewish descent adopted by France then the world twice, first when fleeing the 1917 Russian Revolution that dressed his family in the yellow star garments that the Nazi regime reserved for Jews and second for his profound talent, versatility and “je m’en fous-t”ism i.e. the “I really don’t care” mentality, no doubt born from the disillusions of the first 30 years of his life.
In 2010, the movie Serge Gainsbourg Vie héroique was released, directed by Joann Sfar and starring Eric Elmosnino whose face seemed to have been carved to play Gainsbourg. Co-stars include Laetitia Casta, the Corsica belle, then current pride of France and French symbol of “la Femme”, who appropriately plays Brigitte Bardot once pride of France herself. Also casted were the gorgeous Mylène Jampanoi and late Lucy Gordon, who play Serge’s wives, respectively Bambou and Jane Birkin.
Gainsbourg is better observed through the women in his personal and music worlds. They make up most of the textures of his life alongside his genius, songwriting, composing, singing, acting and painting and are the icons, expressions and media for his sensitivity and soul. The perfect anti-hero particularly recognised and preferred the beauty and the truthfulness in the imperfections of a frail voice over the make-up of technique and perfection. Jane Birkin, British by birth, French by French and universal adoption, world by musical sensitivity and Gainsbourg’s by artistic affinity, is the ultimate representation of that voice. Birkin’s album “Arabesque” is the perfect hommage to Gainsbourg, featuring her delicate vocals, the exotic scents of live acoustic world instrumentation (North African), and an original, minimalist take on Gainsbourg’s songs that show their relevance and leak their sensitivity if not the emotional weight of covering the songs of a genius she/we loved and who has left her/us behind.
Women played an essential part in Gainsbourg’s life, including Elizabeth Levitsky his first wife, Françoise-Antoinette Pancrazzi his second, Natacha the first daughter of this second marriage, Brigitte Bardot with whom he had a passionate love affair and for whom he dedicate an entire album Initials BB. His separation from the latter, a beauty and movie icon was a painful one but freed him for the relationship that is considered his most life changing, that of the then young Jane Birkin, a British singer and actress who shortly becomes his third wife.
The couple appeared defiantly as Beauty and the Beast. Serge Gainsbourg was never refrained by what people had grown to call his ugliness and noted “La laideur a ceci de plus que la beauté. Elle dure.”, translate “Ugliness has this above beauty. It lasts.“, perfectly resting his case. Jane and Serge were the relative equivalent of John and Yoko and there was a love and affinity that defied our common understanding even after they separated (OK, the fan is going astray). Their daughter is the multi-talented and beautifully reserved Charlotte Gainsbourg. Jane left Serge in 1980 and Gainsbourg went on to Bambou. Note that Serge has sons too.
Serge Gainsbourg meets Vanessa Paradis, better known as the teenage singer of “Joe le taxi”, a few years after her hit and taken by her voice, wrote all the new songs in her album “Variations sur le même t’aime” (variations on the same “love you”; note that in French t’aime rhymes with theme and therefore sounds also like variations on the same theme, which of course is love). The collaboration is an instant hit made in France with Vanessa Paradis fitting perfectly into the long line of beautiful female icons with breathy tones singing Gainsbourg’s tunes, next to Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Bambou and Isabelle Adjani. Interprets of Gainsbourg’s music have been diverse and have also included the then more established female singers such as France Gall, Nana Mouskouri, Françoise Hardy, Mireille Darc, Dalida as well as male singers e.g. Serge Reggiani.
Love and Sex…
Serge Gainsbourg’s music themes are often around love and sex and everything around, from its passion to its madness, although the limits are not always easily drawn. Across his albums, no lyric, no instruments and no musical genre (Jazz, chanson, baroque, disco, new wave, lounge-jazz, progressive rock and funk) is forbidden. This is probably one of the reasons why, throughout the decades, he has never been irrelevant. The other reason might be that his voice reflects the dark seductive and playful soul that tweak with every idea and the underlying nightmare of any parent with a teenage girl (or boy in fact). And with the voice comes the lyrics, with their snappy wit and seductive style, like the forbidden fruit that you cannot help but take a bite from.
His music releases reveal Gainsbourg inspiration as a mix between intentional provocation and the unavoidable fall into the highly immoral anti-hero. Albums by Gainsbourg include the iconic Histoire de Melody Nelson, the infamous L’homme à Tête de Chou (translate the man with the cabbage head, as he refers to himself). While his music seems to scream of extreme defiance, I cannot help but wonder if it only just pushes the boundaries or rather explores the infinity and therefore inextricably the latent, subtle and crouching fragility of a man who only wanted to be himself and be able to express it. Presenting it like that might strip him of some of his layers of apparent darkness and irreverence. But to me, his music and lyrics scream of the anti-hero just wanting to be.
The infamous “Je t’aime moi non plus” (translate “I love you me neither” and is not a mistake) albeit the best known Gainsbourg’s song does not summarise its author and composer. The album Arabesque by Jane Birkin is the best homage to a world-class singer-songwriter with the sensitivities of a world traveller, music adorer and multi-faceted talented artist and self-accepting as an anti-hero, Serge Gainsbourg. Gainsbourg à Gainsbarre is a best of of the man’s music that also attenpts, in his own voice, to capture the essence of a great artist.
Jane Birkin mixes her natural expressions of freedom, the transparent, emotions in her voice, a live acoustic instrumentation, the rhythms of the Arabic music, the knowledge and familiarity with Serge Gainsbourg’s songs to create the unparallel atmosphere that is Arabesque. It is the raw and breathy, simple and natural, vulnerable and unpretentious finger-tipping touch of the heart that Serge Gainsbourg has brought to the attention and sensitivity of the world through the unexpected voices of Birkin and the likes.
Serge Gainsbourg born in 2 Apr 1928 left us on the 2nd of March 1991. He has offended many, not least Whitney Houston on a live show, telling her exactly what raw sexual feeling she inspired him right there. However, it has always felt to me that these were merely screams coming out of someone with, if possible, too much itch to scratch, too much talent and genius to hold inside. His choice of interprets reminds us so well of what it is that Serge loved about the women in his life, music surely being the first one: what they have of truthfulness, fragility and what they would reveal to him about themselves but also what they would unveil about him.