JANE BIRKIN SINGS US FROM SEINE TO SOUK

Published Amsterdam Weekly, 24-30 November 2004

It’s apt that Jane Birkin is performing at Carré. The theatre, which reopened on 15 November after a €23 million refurbishment had a ribald start to life – it was originally built as a circus – but over the years it’s become a place for far more decorous entertainment, even gaining the royal stamp of approval along the way.

The 40-odd years of Birkin’s career have taken a not entirely dissimilar path to respectability, from her earliest incar nation as a risqué Chelsea girl to being appointed to the Legion d’honneur (a gong she finally accepted from the French government a couple of years back, after previously refusing it).

The journey from pin-up to favourite eccentric aunt began back in Swinging London, and Birkin’s pedigree from the era is impeccable. Discovered by (who else?) the photographer David Bailey, she’s possibly the prototype model/actress/singer/whatever

She got her first acting role (she’s made more than 70 movies since) in The Knack, but it was in Michelangelo Antonioni’s hymn to pot-smoking, free-loving London, Blow-Up, that she made 1966 a landmark year in UK cinema by becoming that nation’s first onscreen, full-frontal nude (blink, though, and you’ll miss it).

Her love life also kept her in the gossip columns from the moment she married James Bond composer James Barry at the age of 17. Yet it was when love and cinema, collided that Birkin really shot to stardom, particularly in France, which would become her adoptive home.

She left her native London for Paris in 1968 to land a part in the film Slogan opposite the complicated figure of Serge Gainsbourg – Renaissance man. musical genius and chain-smoking drunk. After an inauspicious first meeting (she called him “Serge Bourgignon” to his face, having no clue who he was and knowing no French), the pair soon became lovers and were inseparable for the next 12 years.

Birkin eventually left Gainsbourg in 1980 when his drinking, the late nights, and the intimate documentation of their lives got too much: “Nous sommes mythiques,” Gainsbourg said of their very public relationship. And yes, she is pretty close to a living legend.

But those 12 years were ones of remarkable creativity. Birkin inspired and recorded some of her lover’s finest songwriting, from the proto-concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson to her Ex-fan des Sixties (as well as inspiring, in her time, both the tribute band Baby Birkin and Hermes’s most coveted handbag).
But if you only know one thing about Jane Birkin, it’ll be ‘Je t’Aime… Moi Non Plus’, the filthy-chaste duet she and Gainsbourg recorded – with gloriously smutty appropriateness- in ’69. The song immediately caused a furore with its orgiastic moans set against a hypnotic church-organ grind, and was predictably banned.

For that, we can (if we believe music business lore) thank this country’s royal family. Queen Juliana had financial interests in Philips, Gainsbourg’s label, and legend says that when she heard about the scandal the disc was causing she ordered it to be dropped immediately. Naturally, this guaranteed that the record would become a timeless favourite, and 35 years later it can still raise the roof.

But if you think that French pop in general – and Gainsbourg in particular- is just lift music for lounge lizards, then you should hear Arabesque, the album of North African interpretations of his songs that Birkin- now, astonishingly, 58 – has been touring with since 1999 and brings to the Carré on Monday.

She’ll be accompanied by some extraordinary musicians. Djamel Benyelles has worked with the king of rai, Khaled (coincidentally, the first act to play the revamped Carré last Wednesday), and his plaintive violin shadows Birkin’s vocals, alongside Aziz Boularouy’s magical percussion work and Moumen’s haunting voice. Together, they transport Gainsbourg’s compositions from the Seine to the souk, lending them an elegiac quality.

Birkin’s fragile voice, somewhere between schoolgirl and schoolmarm, is never fully French yet not quite English either. Nearly 15 years after the songwriter died, and nearly 25 after Birkin left him, you still get the sense of a woman mourning a lost love she can’t quite give up. Her vulnerability makes the songs valedictory: I defy anyone to hear her ‘La Javanaise’ – an a cappella version sustained by a complex internal rhythm – and remain unmoved. It’s so intimate that you feel you’re intruding on someone’s private grief.

Yet amid the sadness there’s a sense of rejuvenation: North African music was one of the few areas that genre-busting Gainsbourg didn’t master, and Arabesque takes his songs off in new directions years after his death.

With racial tension boiling over, and seemingly no other conversational topic in Amsterdam besides the North African population, Birkin couldn’t arrive at a more fitting moment. For the city to celebrate North African culture instead of treating it as a suspect package will be as refreshing as a sip of mint tea.

And I even want to think – without sounding woefully naïve, I hope – that a Carré full of allochtonen and autochtonen, all there to listen to music at its multi-culti melting pot best, could work its magic and do its small bit to heal the rift.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: