Posts Tagged ‘Serge Gainsbourg’

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.

La Chanson de Pervert

December 30, 2013

Fifteen years after his death Serge Gainsbourg is going global, and there’s a fistful activities in his memory
Published in Amsterdam Weekly, 2006

‘I was living in France when Gainsbourg died and suddenly the whole country was in mourning. Every time you turned on the radio there was Gainsbourg; every time you turned on the TV there was Gainsbourg. We had this old farmer as a neighbour, he was crying and the young people were too, and I thought: this is a real testament to the sad state of French pop that this guy who’s only done one song has got everyone in mourning.’

That was in 1991. Like the rest of the non-Francophone world, rock journalist Sylvie Simmons only knew Serge Gainsbourg as the ‘dirty old man who made Jane Birkin famous’ with that one song ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’. In fact, he wrote more than 500 songs, and this year, the 15th anniversary of his death, has seen a surge of interest in Serge, including the current homage, which culminates on Saturday night in Paradiso.

Simmons will be there, reading from A Fistful of Gitanes, her biography which has played no small part in spreading Gaisnbourg’s reputation around the rest of the globe since publication in 2001. Alongside the writer, Jean-Claude Vannier, arranger and producer of Gainsbourg’s influential 28-minute masterpiece, Histoire de Melody Nelson, will perform excerpts from the album, while Radio Oh-La-La’s DJ Nataska, aka Natasha Cloutier, will DJ with Amsterdam Beat Club.

Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginzburg in 1928, to Russian parents who fled to Paris after the revolution. His childhood in occupied France scarred him, particularly since he was Jewish and had to wear the yellow star. As a young man, Gainsbourg wanted to be a painter, but made a living playing the piano in nightclubs; eventually, the means of making ends meet became a career and in 1958 he released ‘Poinçonneur de Lilas’, the suicidal lament of a bored Metro conductor. Over the next three and a half decades he would be astonishingly prolific.

All at once, Gainsbourg was chansonnier; jazz tinkler; Eurovision hit-maker; ladies’ man (seen on the arm of Greco, Bardot, Birkin, Deneuve); intellectual; director (his films are showing this week); novelist (there’s be a reading of Evgenie Solokov in Dutch on Saturday); actor. He was a provocateur, burning banknotes, reggaefying the national anthem and, in 1984, releasing ‘Lemon Incest’. The video, showing father and 13-year-old daughter Charlotte lounging on a bed semi-clad, caused outrage. Yet he was also a cherished establishment figure, whom, when he died, Mitterand compared to France’s greatest poets.

What took the rest of the world so long to catch up? For Montreal-born Cloutier, the answer is simple: ‘Because it’s not in English. The fact that British and American artists with a working understanding of French finally ‘got’ Gainsbourg helps the masses get him as well. Without Jane Birkin or daughter Charlotte acting as a bridge between Gainsbourg and the Anglo-Saxon world this may not even have happened.’ Simmons, meanwhile, thinks it only came with a broader change in listening habits: ‘People who were doing dance music were sampling from Italian and French soundtracks and they picked up on Gainsbourg. Also the world music scene was becoming big, so if people sang in French it didn’t matter any more.’

It was in the mid-90s that Gainsbourg’s reputation really started taking off outside France, when his playboy reputation and more kitsch elements were seized upon. It fitted well with the ironic times, but meant that his more difficult aspects were overlooked, and he was packaged as a kind of singing Hugh Hefner. But rather than being a red-blooded male caricature, there’s something almost feminine about his image. After all, it was never really just ‘Gainsbourg’ but ‘Gainsbourg and…’, whether it be Bardot, Birkin or one of the many people he wrote for – and he was as associated with them as they with him. What complicated his persona more, Simmons points out, is that: ‘He often used to tease, or maybe talk honestly about, a kind of latent homosexualilty’ a theme explored in ‘Love on the Beat’ and Je t’aime, moi non plus the movie.

Complexity is the key to understanding – or not – Gainsbourg. He had a restless, magpie approach, which Simmons thinks unique: ‘There’s a great courage to be a star and say: “I don’t care. I’m going to move onto something else.”‘ His subjects ranged from 18th-century literary forgers, Austrian composers, Symbolist poets to bank robbers. ‘Torrey Canyon’ at first appears to be a slice of Sixties shoo-be-doo pop, but its lyrics about a (real-life) environmental disaster reveal a startlingly prescient view of global trade and corporate responsibility. And it’s a great slice of shoo-be-doo Sixties pop. As Cloutier says: ‘It’s by no means superficial. Since it’s about sex, incest, violence, women and other ‘taboo’ subjects, you can’t just listen to Gainsbourg’s music and “get it”. It takes time.’

Even ‘Je t’aime…’ his most famous song, is a complex beast. It doesn’t bear up to comic or ‘ironic’ reinterpretations – although there have been many – because its tongue is already planted firmly in its cheek. And it is also properly sexy. Gainsbourg had every angle covered in advance. And the hand which wrote something that filthy could also turn out something as gorgeous as ‘La Chanson de Prévert’, as well as truly original love songs, which replace hearts and flowers with outlaws and superheroes.

Stylistically, Gainsbourg leapt all over, too, conquering every genre he alighted on: jazz; afro; lounge; prog rock; even reggae albums with Jamaica’s finest, Sly and Robbie. Simmons says Gainsbourg was able to make such masterful music because ‘he was good at selecting the right people to work with. He got great producers, he got great arrangers, and he let them get on with stuff. There wasn’t that ego where he controlled every single thing. He let them do what they did best.’

It resulted in thrilling music, which seemingly never ends. ‘When you get into Gainsbourg, you hear him and then go off and in every direction to discover all the stuff he wrote for other people. It’s overwhelming,’ says Cloutier. Indeed. In addition to 20-odd studio albums, there is the work he composed for others, ranging from one-off songs to entire albums. A Fistful of Gitanes, published in 2001, Lists 115 artists who have recorded Gainsbourg’s music – everyone from Donna Summer, to the Bollock Brothers to Nana Mouskouri – and in the years since the book came out there’s been a steady stream of new releases, most notably this year’s Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisted. And again, Gainsbourg’s work will be taking off in new, unexplored directions on Saturday, when Cor Gout and AU do never-before performed Dutch translations of the master’s works.
That’s one more to add to the collection, then.

JANE BIRKIN SINGS US FROM SEINE TO SOUK

January 7, 2010

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.