Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Birkin’

Book review: Jane & Serge: A Family Album

January 1, 2014

This article was originally published on Diva magazine‘s website in November 2013

Serge Gainsbourg was a difficult character. He was often sexist and even more often drunk. As he slid, half-cut, into old age, he became a parody of the dirty old Frenchman. When he died of a heart attack, in 1991, at the age of 62, he was hardly in his prime. Five years previously, he’d humiliated Whitney Houston on Michel Drucker’s talk show (plus French singer Catherine Ringer of Les Rita Mitsouko on a different show that same year) in the sleaziest, drink-sozzled, most predictable way. He’d turned out a few pedestrian, 80s-by-numbers albums. But my goodness, before the bottle throttled his creativity, the man was a creative colossus, a musical genius, a style icon.

These golden years have been captured in a new book, Jane & Serge: A Family Album by Andrew Birkin, film-maker and brother of the more famous Jane of the title, who was Gainsbourg’s lover, muse and mother to their daughter Charlotte. The beautiful volume is text free, like a true family album (it comes with an accompanying booklet of “essays” by both Birkins, plus glossy prints, stickers and even an iron-on patch) and pictures Jane then Serge from 1963 to 1979, with the couple’s 12-year relationship as its core.

Gainsbourg is usually portrayed in the UK as a sort of singing Hugh Hefner, a louche lounge lizard who was lover to some of the world’s most beautiful women (including Brigitte Bardot). But he was more complicated than that, and there was always something rather feminine to him: he was defined by the women he was consort to, rather than vice versa. He wept (as Andrew and Jane both mention in their essays). He was extremely sensitive about his looks, and despised French newspaper coverage that framed him and his girlfriends in terms of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Andrew Birkin also reveals in his text that Serge kept Nana the bulldog as a pet because “compared to [her] Serge felt beautiful.”

He also wrote some of the most extraordinary love songs ever, which float up, up and way beyond pop into pure poetry; in fact, in France he’s regarded as much as a poet as a pop star. From his pen, love is superheroes leaping skyscrapers (‘Comic Strip’); love is criminals on the lam (‘Bonnie & Clyde’); love is like a cup of coffee (‘Couleur Café’). Yet, unlike many love songs, his work is sung by both men and women and completely belongs to whoever sings it: and his songs have been sung (or sampled) by everyone, from Petula Clark to Kylie Minogue via Nick Cave and Goldie Lookin’ Chain.

Birkin’s book shows Serge in all his joli-laid glory and provides a glimpse into the everyday life of a couple whose life was far from everyday. This was one of the original celebrity couples, who lived out their love affair in France, the nation that gave the world Paris-Match and thus the template for Heat and Closer, and an entire newsagent’s worth of imitators. When Caitlin Moran tweeted this summer that “Everything I understand about the world is being thrown into revolt by OK! doing a feature on Serge Gainsbourg” she was wrong. This man lived his life in front of a clicking shutter. One of the shots from 1973 shows Serge gurning in mock-horror at a full-page newspaper feature spread about his and Jane’s home life. This is what makes the book so touching: as well as some beautifully posed shots of a man who was a pro at public image (he and Nana in profile together, Birkin looking languorous, Serge looking rumpled, both draped across a bench in Oxford; posing with the omnipresent Gauloise between his lips for the millionth time), there are also cute, intimate pictures of Gainsbourg en famille, with a tiny tomboy Charlotte, playing bogeyman with his stepdaughter Kate; at a wedding.

A Family Album is also essential reading for anyone interested in picking up tips on androgynous style. Serge in his jacket-T-shirt-jeans-dance-shoe uniform (a look Charlotte would later adapt into her own), or dandy in wraparound shades and leather bomber, both Gitane and a delicate jewel necklace always present. Jane – who looked extraordinary at the time, all gamine cheekbones – wears white men’s shirts, black polo necks, aviator shades and singlets, every pared down masculine piece she wears picking up her couture glamour.

The book ends in 1979, a year before the relationship did, and the accompanying booklet makes clear this is a book of love letters: Jane to her brother, Andrew to Jane and Serge, the whole thing to a brief moment in history: Paris in the 1960s, a place and time that anyone who has ever entertained any bohemian feeling still longs to run away to.