02 December 2013

Serge Gainsbourg

French singer and composer Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) was one of the most important figures in French pop music, renowned for provocative and scandalous releases as Je t'aime... moi non plus, as well as for his artistic output, which embodied many genres. He appeared in several French and Italian films and directed four films, in which his long time lover Jane Birkin starred.

Serge Gainsbourg
French postcard, no. A100.

Haunting Symbol

Serge Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris in 1928. He had a twin sister, Liliane. Their parents were the Russian-Jewish emigrants, Olga (née Bessman) and Joseph Ginsburg, who fled to Paris after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Joseph was a classically trained musician who played the piano in cabarets and casinos and taught his children to play too. Gainsbourg's childhood was profoundly affected by the occupation of France by Nazi Germany. The identifying ‘yellow star’ Jews were mandated to wear, became a symbol which haunted Gainsbourg and which in later years he was able to transmute into creative inspiration.

During the Nazi occupation of World War II, the Jewish Ginsburg family was able to make their way from Paris to Limoges, travelling under false papers. Limoges was an unoccupied city, but under the administration of the collaborationist Vichy government and still a perilous refuge for Jews.

At war’s end, Gainsbourg obtained work teaching music and drawing in a school outside of Paris, in Mesnil-Le-Roi. The school was set up under the auspices of local rabbis for the orphaned children of murdered deportees. Here Gainsbourg heard the accounts of Nazi persecution and genocide, stories that resonated for Gainsbourg far into the future.

Before he was 30 years old, Gainsbourg was a disillusioned painter, but earned his living as a piano player in bars. He changed his first name to Serge feeling that this was representative of his Russian and chose Gainsbourg as his last name in homage to the English painter Thomas Gainsborough whom he admired.

His early songs were influenced by Boris Vian and were largely in the vein of old-fashioned chanson. Gainsbourg began to move beyond this and experiment with a succession of musical styles: jazz early on, pop in the 1960s, funk, rock and reggae in the 1970s, and electronic in the 1980s.

Many of his songs contain themes with a morbid or sexual twist in them. An early success, Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, describes the day in the life of a Paris Métro ticket man whose job it is to stamp holes in passengers' tickets. Gainsbourg describes this chore as so monotonous that the man eventually thinks of putting a hole into his own head and being buried in another.

In 1951, he married Elisabeth ‘Lize’ Levitsky and divorced her in 1957. He started to appear in films, such as in Voulez-vous danser avec moi?/Come Dance with Me (Michel Boisrond, 1959) with Brigitte Bardot.

In Italy, Gainsbourg co-starred in the Peplums La Rivolta Degli Schiavi/The Revolt of the Slaves (Nunzio Malasomma, 1960) with Rhonda Fleming, and Sansone/Samson (Gianfranco Parolini, 1961) featuring Brad Harris.

By the time the Yé-yé arrived to France, Gainsbourg was 32 years old and was not feeling very comfortable. The public and critics rejected him, mocking his prominent ears and nose. During this period, Gainsbourg began working with Juliette Greco, a collaboration that lasted throughout the 'Left Bank' period culminating in the song La Javanaise (1963).

He also appeared with Dalida in the crime musical L'inconnue de Hong Kong/Stranger from Hong-Kong (Jacques Poitrenaud, 1963). Gainsbourg married a second time in 1964, to Françoise-Antoinette ‘Béatrice’ Pancrazzi, with whom he had two children: Natacha (1964) and Paul (1968). He divorced Béatrice in 1966.

Serge Gainsbourg
French postcard by Philips. Photo: Jean d'Hugues.

Serge Gainsbourg
French postcard, Ref. 558.

Serge Gainsbourg
French postcard, no. INC 039.

Je t'aime... moi non plus

Success began to arrive when Serge Gainsbourg’s song Poupée de cire, poupée de son (A Lonely Singing Doll) was the Luxembourg entry in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. The song was performed by French teen singer France Gall, and it won first prize.

His next song for Gall, Les Sucettes (Lollipops) (1966), caused a scandal in France because of the double-meanings and strong sexual innuendo. When she recorded it, Gall was apparently unaware that the song was not about a girl enjoying lollipops, but about oral sex. Although it was a big hit for Gall, the controversy threw her career off-track in France for several years.

He also wrote hit songs for other artists, such as Comment Te Dire Adieu (How to say farewell) (1968) for Françoise Hardy. In 1967, Gainsbourg had a short but ardent love affair with Brigitte Bardot to whom he dedicated the song and album Initials BB (1967).

He also continued to appear regularly in films, such as the action drama L'inconnu de Shandigor/The Unknown Man of Shandigor (Jean-Louis Roy, 1967) with Marie France Boyer, and Vivre la nuit/Love in the Night (Marcel Camus, 1968) with Jacques Perrin.

In mid-1968, he starred in the French film Slogan (Pierre Grimblat, 1969), for which he wrote the title song La chanson de slogan. During the shooting of the film, he fell in love with his co-star, the younger English singer and actress Jane Birkin.

In 1969, they released the song Je t'aime... moi non plus, which featured explicit lyrics and simulated sounds of female orgasm. It appeared on the LP, Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg (1969). Originally he had recorded the song with Brigitte Bardot, but BB backed out and Birkin stepped in.

The song was censored or banned from public broadcast in numerous countries, and the Vatican made a public statement citing the song as offensive. However, Je t'aime... moi non plus charted within the top ten in many European countries.

That year, he also appeared in William Klein's pop art satire Mister Freedom (1969), and he starred with Jane Birkin in Les Chemins de Katmandou/The Pleasure Pit (André Cayatte, 1969) with Pascale Audret.

Serge Gainsbourg
French postcard, no. A098. Sent by mail in 1995.

Serge Gainsbourg
French postcard, no. A097. Sent by mail in 1995.

Serge Gainsbourg
French postcard, Réf. 557.

Cabbage-Head Man

The relationship of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin  lasted for over a decade. In 1971 they had a daughter, the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg.

He acted with Birkin in such films as the French-Yugoslavian productions Devetnaest djevojaka i jedan mornar/19 girls and one sailor (Milutin Kosovac, 1971) and Romansa konjokradice/Romance of a Horsethief (Abraham Polonsky, 1971) with Yul Brynner, and the Italian Giallo La morte negli occhi del gatto/Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (Antonio Margheriti, 1973) with Hiram Keller.

In 1975, Gainsbourg released the album Rock Around the Bunker, a rock album written entirely on the subject of the Nazis. The next year saw the release of another major work, L'Homme à tête de chou (Cabbage-Head Man), featuring the new character Marilou and sumptuous orchestral themes. Cabbage-Head Man is one of Gainsbourg’s nicknames, as it refers to his ears. Musically, L'homme à tête de chou turned out to be his last LP in the English rock style he had favored since the late 1960s.

In Jamaica he recorded Aux Armes et cætera (1979), a reggae version of the French national anthem La Marseillaise, with Robbie Shakespeare, Sly Dunbar, and Rita Marley. It earned him death threats from right-wing veteran soldiers of the Algerian War.

Gainsbourg directed four films: Je t'aime ... moi non plus (1976) starring Jane Birkin  and Joe Dallesandro, the thriller Équateur (1983), Charlotte for Ever (1986) with his daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Stan the Flasher (1990).

Gainsbourg also made a brief appearance with Birkin in the film, Egon Schiele Exzess und Bestrafung/Egon Schiele: Excess and Punishment (Herbert Vesely, 1981).

After a turbulent 13-year-long relationship, Jane Birkin left Gainsbourg in 1980 when pregnant with her third daughter, Lou, by the film director Jacques Doillon.

In the 1980s, near the end of his life, Gainsbourg became a regular but controversial figure on French TV. He would show up drunk and unshaven, and in these years his health deteriorated. His songs became increasingly eccentric, ranging from the anti-drug Aux Enfants de la Chance to the highly controversial duet Lemon Incest (1985) with his daughter Charlotte.

Serge Gainsbourg died in 1991 in Paris of a heart attack. His last partner was since 1981 Caroline ‘Bambou’ Paulus, grandniece of Field marshal Friedrich Paulus. In 1986 they had a son, Lucien.

Throughout his career, Gainsbourg wrote the soundtracks for more than forty films. In 1996, he received a posthumous César Award for Best Music Written for a Film for Élisa, along with Zbigniew Preisner and Michel Colombier.

Since his death, Gainsbourg's music has reached legendary stature in France. A feature film titled Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) was released in 2010, based on the graphic novel by the writer-director of the film, Joann Sfar. Gainsbourg is portrayed by Eric Elmosnino and Kacey Mottet Klein. The film was awarded 3 César Awards, including Best Actor for Elmosnino, and was nominated for an additional 8.

Serge Gainsbourg, Vanessa Paradis
French postcard, no. A068. With Vanessa Paradis.

Serge Gainsbourg
French postcard by Humour a la Carte, Paris, no. 3395. Photo: J.L. Rancurel.

Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte Gainsbourg
French postcard. With Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Sources: Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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