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Serge Gainsbourg - Singer/Songwriter

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The legendary Serge Gainsbourg.

Serge Gainsbourg, perhaps best known in the UK for his banned record 'Je T'aime (Moi Non Plus)'1, was one of the biggest stars in French music in the second half of the 20th Century. He rose to fame as a singer/songwriter in the mid-1950s and, with some ups and downs, consistently penned hit records, whether performed by himself or others, until his death in 1991. Alongside his musical achievements, Gainsbourg was also in love with the world of film, appearing in many French pictures as well as directing and producing some of his own. He is almost as well-known in France, though, for his relationships with a string of popular divas, including the love of his life, English rose Jane Birkin, who supplied the ecstatic sighs for the best-known version of 'Je T'aime'2. He's almost as renowned for making provocative public statements and actions in the media as for his impressive discography. Loved by many, loathed by a few; it is fair to say this unique character achieved legendary status in 20th-Century French popular culture.

Early Life

Lucien Ginsbourg, later known to the French public as Serge Gainsbourg, came into the world a few moments after his twin sister Liliane on 2 April, 1928. The proud parents, Joseph and Olga Ginsburg, were Russian Jews who had fled the anti-Jewish Bolshevik movement and settled in France in the early 1920s after a long and difficult journey via Georgia and Turkey. By the time Lucien was born, the Ginsburg family were living in a flat in the relatively humble 20th district of Paris. Joseph, a talented artist and pianist, was establishing a good reputation on the piano-bar circuit in Paris and earning extra money providing entertainment in flashy holiday resorts in the summer season. The 1930s were a prosperous period for the hard-working head of the Ginsburg family and though he sometimes took his family with him to his longer provincial engagements, young Lucien spent most of these pre-teen years in Paris.

With the outbreak of WWII, times were to change for the Jewish Ginsburg family. Joseph was no longer allowed to work as a pianist in the Paris bars and eventually decided to flee to the 'free zone' in the south, leaving his family behind in Paris. As well as attending school in the early 1940s, Lucien also studied art at the Montmartre Academy. By late 1943 Joseph had managed to make arrangements to bring his family to the town of Limoges, where they were reunited in early 1944, only to be arrested and forced to flee once again - though this time they remained together. When Paris was liberated in 1945, the Ginsburgs returned to their apartment there and turned the page on a painful period; Olga's brother was not so fortunate; he never returned from the concentration camp to which the Vichy regime had sent him.

In his final year of school in post-war Paris, Lucien was not a happy student and felt ugly - particularly because of his big nose and ears. It was at this time that he took up smoking, which was to become a lifelong habit and a personal trademark. Despite failing his baccalaureat exams, he stayed on at his Montmartre art college to study architecture. Above all, though, he wanted to follow in his father's artistic footsteps and he soon gave up on architecture and began to paint prolifically. Living in a garret room in the same building as his parents' Paris flat, he stopped attending his art classes, concentrating instead on his own works and copying many great paintings from the Louvre. It is said he produced more than 400 canvases during this period, before he suddenly decided to burn them all in a dramatic gesture of dissatisfaction with his own work.

I burned all my canvases, I gave up because I couldn't live the bohemian life - that anachronism - forever. In any case, when I burned my canvases, I was still developing, in a state of transition - I hadn't achieved anything, so there was nothing to keep.

In spite of this, a few of his paintings from this time are known to have survived, including a self-portrait from 1957.

From Artist to Artiste

At the Montmartre Academy in 1947, Lucien met and fell in love with the daughter of a Russian aristocratic family, Elizabeth Levitsky, fashion model and secretary to surrealist poet Georges Hugnet. Duty called, however, and in 1948 he was required to complete his national service, despite having enrolled in the Ecole Normale de Musique in a bid to avoid it. He would later say that it was during his national service that he learned to drink. On his return to civilian life a year later, he moved in with 'Lise' and, although dreaming of returning to music and painting, took a position in a centre for Jewish children, where he appears to have shown some talent for teaching. He stayed for two years, marrying Lise in November 1951 before moving back to Paris in the following year and taking to the bar circuit as a musician. He soon abandoned his ambitions as a painter entirely and, through his father's contacts, landed a steady job as a pianist/guitarist at the Club de la Forêt in Le Touquet. Although he had already written a few songs to entertain the kids at the centre, it was not until 1954 that he registered his first songs (six of them) with the SACEM3 under the pseudonym Lucien Grix. He had taken his first step in what would be a monumental career as a singer/songwriter.

Between 1954 and 1957, Lucien supported his family through regular appearances at the Club de la Forêt and from 1955 on, he could also be seen conducting a small orchestra at Madame Arthur's, a cabaret club specialising in drag acts where he wrote songs and generally collaborated with the artistic director Louis Laibe. By 1957 he was also working at another club, the Milord L'Arsouille, where he changed his pseudonym to Serge Barthélémy and registered, among others, the song that would shoot him to national fame, 'Le Poinçonneur des Lilas'4. In October of that year, though, Lucien and Elisabeth Ginsburg were divorced. Two months later, he recorded 'Le Poinçonneur des Lilas'. It was also around this time that he played piano one night for Boris Vian at the Milord and was inspired by the legendary surrealist writer/singer/songwriter's material and stage performance. During this time the young songwriter produced some pretty saucy lyrics, already beginning to use the kind of provocative wordplay that would become his trademark.

1958 - 1962 - The First Taste of Fame

On 29 March, 1958, under the new stage name of Serge Gainsbourg, he appeared for the first time on French television, performing 'Le Poinçonneur'. Over the course of that spring, people began to take notice of the odd-looking young singer-songwriter. In July he was back on the box, performing 'Douze Belles dans la Peau', an early example of the kind of (untranslatable) wordplay in his titles and lyrics that would become another of his trademarks. He also continued writing for others as he did over the years with remarkable success, particularly for some of the most glamorous female vocalists of the times. It was at about this time that he took part in the stage show Opus 109 (another play on words - cent neuf the number 109 and Sang neuf - new blood). 1959 saw Serge Gainsbourg become a household name for the first time. In early 1959, Opus 109 took to the road, with fellow up-and-coming 'chanteur' Jacques Brel headlining. In spring he was back on the television and in April he shared the 'variety' award at the 'Festival International de Haute Fidélité et de Stéréophonie. A second record was released in June, followed by another television appearance in July only to top it all in November by recording an EP of his songs performed by the massive star of La Chanson Française, Juliette Gréco. It was also around this time that he began to dabble in acting5, appearing in a minor role in the 1959 Brigitte Bardot film Voulez-vous Danser avec Moi?

January 1960 saw the release of his first hit record, the eponymous title track of the soundtrack for the film L'eau à la Bouche, which sold over 100,000 copies and still receives regular airplay in France today. In December he performed another song that would become a Gainsbourg classic, 'La Chanson de Prévert', on television. During the early sixties, his songs tended to be most successful when performed by others, especially his collaborations with Juliette Gréco. This is not to say that he did not release his own renditions, but they were never as successful as those performed by better-established stars of the Rive Gauche scene. Throughout this time, he also appeared regularly at various clubs and theatres to great applause, gaining a reputation as something of a dandy with misogynist tendencies. In late 1962, he wrote his first song for Brigitte Bardot, 'L'Appareil à Sous', and in January 'La Javanaise' was a huge hit for Gréco, as it would later be for Gainsbourg himself. Early in 1963, he was in Hong Kong working on L'Inconnue de Hong Kong and in June he felt confident enough to announce that 'La Nouvelle Vague, C'est Moi'. So by November of that year, when he recorded his first full album Gainsbourg Confidentiel, he was a successful figure in the French music industry, if not yet an established star in his own right. This he would achieve through his collaboration with a young female vocalist named France Gall.

Gainsbourg - star of the sixties

On 7 January, 1964 Gainsbourg married Françoise Pancrazzi, also known as la princesse, just as his first full album, Gainsbourg Confidentiel, hit the record shops all over France. He continued to write for other artists, though, and it was in March 1964 that he wrote the first of a series of songs for petite blonde starlet France Gall, 'N'écoute pas les Idoles'. In August his wife gave birth to a baby girl, Nathalie. By this time, he was performing to packed crowds at the Milord while spending his days recording a second album, Gainsbourg Percussions, released in November. With its innovative Afro-Cuban rhythms, Percussions contained many songs that would stand the test of time, but it was a move away from the Rive Gauche style that his established fans expected and received mixed reviews. Even so, 1964 saw him write several more songs for France Gall, as well as other stars such as Petula Clarke (O ô shérif), and Serge Regianni ('Quand J'aurai du Vent dans mon Crâne').

1965 was the crucial year in Gainsbourg's career. He kicked off with an interview in which he announced that he was turning his back on so-called 'literary songs' in favour of good honest rock music, but when touring as a support act for Barbara, he was disheartened by the poor public reaction, became depressed and abandoned the tour after just five shows. In the recording studio, though, he had started the year with a second collaboration with Bardot ('Bubble Gum') and the enormous hit 'Les P'tits Papiers' for Régine. It was France Gall's performance of his 'Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son', though, that launched them both into the upper echelons of French pop music stardom. The catchy pop number not only carried all before it at the Eurovision Song Contest that March, it was also, unlike some winners of that August's assembly of Europe's musical talent, a huge hit with the public, shooting to number one all over Europe6.

Suddenly thrust to star status all over Europe, and for the first time in his life a wealthy man, Gainsbourg continued to write for France Gall7 and penned a string of hits for other artists, often, but not exclusively, female. It was at this time that he openly explained in an interview that he had changed style in order to succeed, calculating that if he wrote twelve songs and put them all on a Serge Gainsbourg album, ten of them would probably never be successful; whereas if he gave them to other established artists to perform, they could all be hits. Nonetheless, he did release one EP of his own in 1966, 'Qui est In, Qui est Out', recorded in London with Arthur Greenslade. Meanwhile, freed from financial worries, the versatile artiste was devoting himself to his acting career, featuring alongside Jean Seberg in the sixties caper movie Estouffade à la Caraïbe, episodes of several popular television series and a string of minor French films throughout 1966-67. Perhaps the most memorable was the musical Anna, for which he wrote much of the soundtrack. It seems, however, that his personal life was suffering under the strain of all this success, and in the summer of 1966 he was divorced from his second wife, from whom he had been separated since late 1965. Although they did get back together for a time, they would soon split definitively when Gainsbourg entered into a relationship that would confirm his megastar status with the French public and inspire some of his biggest hit records.

Initiales BB

Brigitte Bardot had had a first hit with the Gainsbourg-penned 'Bubble Gum' in the summer of 1965, but it had been rather overshadowed by the Eurovision victory. But in May 1967, BB asked him to write 'la plus belle chanson d'amour qu'il puisse imaginer.'8. Gainsbourg claimed to have written his response, 'Je T'aime (Moi non Plus)', along with two other hit-songs-to-be, 'Harley Davidson' and 'Bonnie and Clyde', during the night of 26-27 May, 1967. In June 1967, the outbreak of the Six-Day War in Israel distracted Gainsbourg, once persecuted by the collaborationist Vichy regime, and inspired him to write a military marching song for the Israeli army, 'Le Sable et le Soldat'. For the rest of that summer he was filming Ce Sacré Grand-père with Michel Simon, and later the film Le Pacha with Jean Gabin, perhaps most notable for the classic Gainsbourg track 'Requiem pour un Con', included on the soundtrack. So it wasn't until October that he began recording work with Bardot and then the relationship quickly went beyond the studio and into the bedroom. It was to be a short, but intense and very public affair. In December they recorded the hit single 'Harley Davidson', and in January 1968 they produced the legendary Show Bardot on television - in which France's favourite female star performed some of their favourite musical auteur's latest material. In the few weeks they were together, they collaborated on two enormously successful albums, Bonny and Clyde and Initiales BB9 before their relationship imploded as quickly as it had begun and they went their separate ways.

Les Années 'Jane'

As France was in the throes of the social revolution known as 'the events of May 1968', Serge was in London auditioning for a film called 'Slogan' and it was here that he met the girl who would be the love of his life, Jane Birkin. In spite of an inauspicious start they embarked on a love affair that - despite the fact they ultimately split - would remain the most important of his life. In June, when filming began in Paris, their initial dislike for one another quickly mutated into a passionate love affair that was to last for twelve years. In November they recorded together, including the notorious 'Je T'aime (Moi Non Plus)10. 1968 had been a busy year for Gainsbourg; since his much-publicised affair/collaboration with Bardot, he had found time between appearing in and writing soundtracks for several films and following Jane (a rising star at that time) around Europe, to continue writing for other performers, including another hit single for Régine 'Ouvre la Bouche, Ferme les Yeux'.

Early 1969 found Gainsbourg trying to launch Jane's career as a singer. They performed together on stage and also appeared together in several films with limited success. In August the risqué 'Je T'aime (Moi Non plus)' hit number one in the UK charts and had similar success in other European countries - though the erotic 'panting' caused outrage, particularly in Italy and Catholic circles generally. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the 'Summer of Love', this did nothing to reduce (indeed, may well have increased) sales in France and following a second pressing sales topped the one million mark. In August the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore, denounced 'Je T'aime' as obscene. In September, other countries followed Italy's lead and the record was banned from radio and television in Sweden, Spain and the UK. Whether in a bid to capitalise on the publicity, or simply in phase with their times, the couple released a second sexually-charged single, '69, Année Erotique', taken from their album Jane Birkin, Serge Gainsbourg.

The 1970s - Gainsbourg to Gainsbarre

Throughout the early 1970s, Serge seems to have indulged his love of acting, appearing in a string of obscure films (both with and without Jane). Nonetheless, he did find time to record a single album in 1971, in the form of a kind of musical 'tale' entitled L'Histoire de Melodie Nelson. It was a year that brought him grief and joy in his private life; in April, his father Joseph died and in July Jane gave birth to a baby girl, Charlotte. The happy couple eventually married in the spring of 1972, in a remarkable ceremony at the Gare de Lyon. A sumptuous buffet was laid out in the departure hall followed by a masked ball, at the end of which the bride and groom boarded a train to a secret honeymoon destination. That year also saw him return to writing for other artists, including Juliette Gréco, France Gall, Régine and his first collaboration with Jacques Dutronc.

On 15 May, 1973 Gainsbourg suffered the first sign that his hard-drinking, chain-smoking lifestyle was taking its toll: he had a heart attack. By September, though, he was releasing an album of original material, Vu de L'Extérieur, including the classic hit single 'Je suis Venu te Dire que Je M'en Vais'. It was to be the first of three albums produced in London with a group of English musicians. In June 1974, he was back in front of the camera, playing the lead role in a short film that provided the supporting feature for the latest instalment of the Emmanuelle series11. After a period working with the radical new star of the French rock scene, Jacques Dutronc, in early 1975, Gainsbourg released a provocative album, Rock Around the Bunker, comprising a confusing collection of songs, some of them bizarrely upbeat, relating to various aspects of the Nazi regime. As a foil to this strangely provocative production, the summer saw the release of the raucously lightweight, but undeniably fun, 'L'Ami Caouette', about a peanut that just wants to have a good time!

The late 1970s was a quiet time for the now aging auteur. The rest of 1975 was spent on his debut film behind the camera, Je T'aime, Moi Non Plus, which came out in March the following year. Early 1976 saw him honing his directorial skills on a series of adverts, and after the premiere of Je T'aime (for which of course he wrote and released the soundtrack), he produced another experimental album, L'Homme à la Tête de Chou which would not appear in the shops until January 1977. In June 1978, he had a big hit with the summer single 'Sea, Sex and Sun', which would later be used by Patrice Leconte as the title music for his hugely successful film Les Bronzés.

Still, Gainsbourg had one more trick up his sleeve before facing the 1980s, and in 1979, with astonishing vision, he set off to Kingston to record a reggae album, engaging the talents of Sly Dunbar (drums) and Robbie Shakespeare (bass) - musicians usually associated with Peter Tosh, but who also worked with Black Uhuru and Gregory Isaacs and subsequently with Bob Dylan, Ian Dury and Joe Cocker. They were accompanied by Sticky Thompson, Mikey 'Mao' Chung on keyboards, Radcliffe Bryan on guitar, as well as Bob Marley's backing vocal trio, Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths. The resulting album, Aux Armes et Caetera12 was largely written and entirely recorded in just five days at Island Studios in Kingston, Jamaica. In April, Gainsbourg performed his reggae version of 'La Marseillaise' on French television and the album went platinum within six months. This use of the national anthem, however, sparked outrage among the right-wing press (not forgetting that Gainsbourg was Jewish) and provoked the outrage of many French right-wingers and particularly soldiers. In December of that year, Gainsbourg returned to the stage for the first time in fourteen years to perform with his group of Jamaican musicians, meeting with considerable success in spite of the ongoing Marseillaise scandal.

The 1980s - Growing Old Disgracefully

By 1980, as he was in his mid-50s, Gainsbourg was entering the fourth decade of his career and a new generation of fans was just beginning to discover his music. Though it was to be his last, it is fair to say that he continued to be innovative in his work and provocative in all things to the end. A famous incident took place on 11 March, 1984. Having spent the spring making a number of television commercials, Serge turned up drunk for a live television interview. As the nervous presenters tried to keep away from anything too scandalous, they found themselves asking him about income tax. Calmly joking about the 74 percent of his income that he had to hand over to the taxman, he promptly whisked out a 500 franc note13 and set it alight, leaving it to burn until only a quarter remained. Waving out the flames, he commented that that 'was all that was left to him out of every 500 francs he earned!

Then there was the Whitney Houston incident. Arriving on a talk show drunk on 5 April, 1986, our man sat down next to Whitney and immediately said in heavily-accented English, 'I'd like to f*** you.' This causes a bit of a stir, as it is one of the most widely-recognised words in the English language. The presenter tried to smooth over the incident, claiming that he had said he'd like to 'flirt' with Whitney. But Gainsbourg was having none of that, insisting, 'No, I said I'd like to f*** her.' Greatly amused by his little outburst, he carried on, 'Now, hang on, I didn't say I wanted to f*** her here on the show! No, afterwards!' Needless to say, Miss Houston was more than a little shocked by this 60-year-old French crooner's rather crude display of appreciation14, but she stayed nonetheless and sang a duet with him before the end of the show.

Early 1980 saw the publication of his only novel, Evguénie Sokolov. In August, after probably the happiest years of his often troubled personal life, Jane Birkin left him, taking their daughters Kate (13) and Charlotte (nine) with her. Meanwhile, after meeting Catherine Deneuve on the set of Je Vous Aime in which they both featured alongside Gerard Depardieu and other well-known stars, Gainsbourg wrote a number of songs for her, performed 'Dieu est un Fumeur de Havanes' on television as a duet and she released them as the album Souviens-toi de M'Oublier. In the spring of 1981, he met and began a relationship with 21-year-old Caroline Von Paulous, also known as Bambou. His second reggae album, Mauvaises Nouvelles des Etoiles, came out in November 1981. It was around this time that he appeared on TV with a black eye, explaining that he had been accosted coming out of a Champs-Elysees nightclub by some paratroopers who didn't like his recent material. In December 1981, perhaps as a kind of gesture of defiance towards those who had so disliked his treatment of the French national anthem, he acquired the original manuscript of the Marseillaise at auction. August 1983 saw the release of Equator, his second attempt at directing a feature-length film. In the second half of that year he wrote two albums, Baby Alone in Babylone for his estranged wife Jane, and Pull Marine for rising star of the silver screen Isabelle Adjani. As busy as ever, in 1984 he released the modern-sounding Love on the Beat featuring lots of synthesiser sounds and drum-machine beats, gaining him credibility with the eighties generation but causing a good deal of consternation among fans of his earlier work.

During the late 1980s, he would 'keep it in the family', beginning with a period of work involving his daughter Charlotte. 1985's Lemon Incest, a duet adapted from a tune by Chopin, caused a stir because it appeared to suggest a sexual relationship between father and 14-year-old daughter. Apart from a series of major concerts at the Casino de Paris in September/October, Serge had spent most of the year15 on his third offering as director, Charlotte Forever, released on 10 December. Daughter Charlotte played the title role and provided most of the vocals on the soundtrack, which was released the next year as an album under her name. In 1986 the original version of 'Je T'aime (Moi Non Plus)' with Bardot was finally released as a 12" single, Serge continued to record with Charlotte as well as recording a debut single for his new main squeeze, Bambou, Lulu. 1987 was not so productive; just a new album for Jane, Lost Song and in October 1987 his final studio album under his own name, You're Under Arrest - with an unflattering mug-shot style photo of 'Gainsbarre' for the front cover. In March 1988, he played a series of dates at the huge Zénith in Paris, followed by a tour of France, releasing the highlights of the Zénith shows as a double-album later that year entitled simply Le Zénith de Gainsbourg. Though it may not have been the high-point of his career, it will be thought of by many as a glorious and fitting end to his live performances.

From January 1989, it was clear that Gainsbourg's health was deteriorating and he was in and out of hospital with liver problems, complicated by a related eye condition that threatened to leave him blind. In April he underwent extensive liver surgery and left hospital the same month. In May, a double live album of recordings from his Zénith concerts the previous year was released and in June he directed his fourth and final film, Stan the Flasher. With a box-set release in September 1989, it would be easy to imagine that there was no more to come from the prolific songwriter, but this was not the case. Before the end of that year he had written a full album for Bambou, Made in China, releasing several of the tracks as singles in a bid to launch her career in pop music that would prove unsuccessful. In 1990 he penned the lyrics for France's Eurovision entry, coming second, wrote eleven songs for a young up-and-coming singer named Vanessa Paradis, which formed the bulk of her second album Variations sur le Meme T'aime, and a final album for Jane entitled Amours des Feintes. He finally gave up the ghost on 2 March, 1990, and was buried five days later at the Montparnasse cemetery, final resting place of many eminent French literary figures including 19th-Century poet Charles Baudelaire and 20th Century writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Catherine Deneuve read one of his texts at the funeral.

1You know the one, with the erotic heavy breathing. Just think Ladybirds and John Smith's bitter.2There was an earlier version with Brigitte Bardot doing the sighing.3An organisation rather like Equity for musicians in France.4The Ticket Inspector of Les Lilas.5He would appear in 36 films between 1959 and 1990.6With the perhaps unsurprising exception of the UK.7One of their most successful collaborations was the notoriously ambivalent 'Les Sucettes', a song about a little girl licking aniseed lollies, with a strong sexual subtext. It is a favourite Gainsbourg anecdote that she was quoted as saying, when asked why she didn't sing it any more, that it she had 'grown out of it' - Gainsbourg said that 'was a shame [for her husband]'!8Translation: 'The most beautiful love song he could imagine.'9Another Arthur Greenslade production.10Although he had written this for Bardot, and recorded it with her, she had considered it too overtly sexual and refused to allow it to be released.11Goodbye Emmanuelle, for which he provided the soundtrack.12An instantly recognisable reference to the French national anthem.13Worth about 50 Pounds Sterling.14Her face was a picture!15Although he still found time to write songs for several other artists, including Jane Birkin, Régine and Julien Clerc.

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