Serge Gainsbourg: A Life Dedicated to Music, Poetry, Art, Women and Controversy

The controversial French artist Serge Gainsbourg was born on this day in 1928

Serge Gainsbourg: A Life Dedicated to Music, Poetry, Art, Women and Controversy

Born in Paris, France on April 2, 1928, Serge Gainsbourg (birth name Lucien Ginsburg), remains one of the most geniuses and controversial figures of French music. A poet and a composer of unforgettable songs, Gainsbourg wrote over 550 songs throughout his career, many for other artists including Brigitte Bardot, France Gall, Petula Clark, Jane Birkin or Juliette Greco. His love for controversy equals the love he had for drinking, smoking and women. During the 1960’s he reached the peak of his popularity when he became successful at an international level, making him one of the few French artists who was able to make it on the Anglo-Saxon markets. His music embodied genres ranging from jazz, mambo, world, chanson, pop and yé-yé, to rock and roll, progressive rock, reggae, electronic, disco, new wave, and funk. Gainsbourg’s varied musical style and individuality make him difficult to categorize although his legacy has been firmly established and he is often regarded as one of the world’s most influential popular musicians. Gainsbourg’s lyrical works incorporated a vast amount of clever word play to hoodwink the listener, often for humorous, provocative, satirical or subversive reasons. Many of his songs contained themes with a bizarre, 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 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. When the French Pop and Rock movement Yé-Yé exploded in France, Gainsbourg was already in his 30’s. Though at first not comfortable to compete with the new wave of young artists, he ended up having a pivotal role on it and compose many songs that became Yé-Yé classics. One of the first artists of that emerging genre he wrote for was France Gall, she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965 with the song “Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son” representing Luxembourg. His next song for Gall, “Les Sucettes” (Lollipops), caused a scandal in France due to the age of the singer as she was only 16: Gainsbourg had written the song with double-meanings and strong sexual innuendo of which the singer was apparently unaware when she recorded it. Whereas Gall thought that the song was about a girl enjoying lollipops, it was actually about oral sex. The controversy arising from the song, although a big hit for Gall, threw her career off-track in France for several years. However, she kept collaborating with him and during the late 1960’s, he wrote several other songs and albums for Gall that consisted heavily on the Psychedelic Rock style as the Yé-Yé movement was losing ground for Psychedelic music. Gainsbourg was married two times and had several relationships, and, though not what could be considered a physical attractive men, his bohemian and outcast looks together with his talent and a way with the words, made him conquered some of the most beautiful women in France and Europe. Among his most famous relationships were the ones with the actress and singer Brigitte Bardot and British model, actress and later singer, Jane Birkin. During the late 1960’s he wrote several songs for Bardot, that became some of her best well known and re-launched her career as a hip Pop singer with hits such as “Harly Davidson”, and also a series of prominent pop duets, such as “Ford Mustang” and “Bonnie and Clyde”. However, his most controversial moment with Bardot was the scandalous song “Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus)”. In 1967 Bardot asked Serge to write the most beautiful love song he could imagine and that night he wrote “Je t’aime” and “Bonnie and Clyde”. But the heavy eroticism of the duet was declared offensive. The lyrics are commonly thought to refer to the taboo of sex without love, and were delivered in a breathy, suggestive style. But news of the recording reached the press and Bardot’s husband, German businessman Gunter Sachs, was angry and called for the single to be withdraw.

The relationship with Bardot also ended shortly after that, and in 1968 he met the 20 year old British model and actress Jane Birkin. Birkin remembers the beginning of her affair with Gainsbourg: he first took her to a nightclub, then to a transvestite club and afterwards to the Hilton hotel where he passed out in a drunken stupor. For Birkin he wrote several beautiful and hip Pop songs and remade the duet of “Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus)”. When it was released in 1969, sparkled a wave of enormous controversy across Europe due to the suggestive lyrics and the sexual tone of the duet. The song culminates in orgasm sounds by Birkin: mostly because of this,The song was banned from airing on the radio in several European countries including Spain, Sweden, the UK, Italy, and Portugal, banned before 11 pm in France. It was also banned in Brazil and not played by many radio stations in the United States because it was deemed too risqué. The controversial song was also denounced by the Vatican and the L’Osservatore Romano; one report even claimed the Vatican excommunicated the record executive who released it in Italy. Birkin says Gainsbourg called the Pope “our greatest PR man”. In the UK, where in 1969 peaked to No.1 on the singles charts, for the first time a French artist was on the top of the British music charts, and for the first time, BBC wouldn’t play the No.1 song on their broadcast. With Birkin Serge had a daughter, the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. Birkin left Gainsbourg in 1980 when pregnant with her third daughter Lou by the film director Jacques Doillon. During the 1980’s, Gainsbourg, who couldn’t move away from controversy, was again in the spotlight for a scandalous behavior when he recorded a song charged with sexual and inappropriate lyrical content with his teenage daughter Charlotte, “Lemon Incest”. This translates as “Inceste de citron”, a wordplay on “un zeste de citron” (a lemon zest) demonstrating his love for puns was still very present at this stage of his career.

Near the end of his life, Gainsbourg became a regular figure on French TV. His appearances seemed devoted to his controversial sense of humor and provocation. In March 1984, he burned three-quarters of a 500 French franc bill on television to protest against taxes raising up to 75% of income. He would often show up drunk and unshaven on stage: in April 1986, on Michel Drucke’s live Saturday evening television show Champs-Élysées, he made one of the most bizarre moments in TV history with Whitney Houston. While drunk on the show, he told to Houston, in French, that he wanted to “fuck her”. The host tried to fix the situation telling Houston he told she “was great”, but Serge objected to Drucker’s translating his comments to Whitney Houston and in English stated: “I said, I want to fuck her” – Drucker insisted this meant “He says you are great…”. Aside of music and poetry, Serge also was an actor and a movie director. He directed five movies: “Je t’aime moi non plus”, “Le Physique et le Figuré”, “Équateur”, “Charlotte for Ever”, and “Stan the Flasher”. Serge Gainsbourg died in Paris on 2 March 1991 of a heart attack aged 62. He was buried in the Jewish section of the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. French President François Mitterrand said of him, “He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire … He elevated the song to the level of art.” Since his death, Gainsbourg’s music has reached legendary stature in France and around the world, with new fans emerging every day. He has also gained a following in the English-speaking world, with numerous artists influenced by his arrangements and his songs have been covered more than 1,000 times by a wide range of artists worldwide. In 2010, his biopic “Gainsbourg” was released and offers a very accurate insight on his life, specially during the 1960’s focusing on his relationships with Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin.

Watch Serge Gaibnsbourg performing “La Javanaise” in 1968

Look back at the 1969 promo film for the controversial “Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus” by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin

Listen to the compilation “Serge Gainsbourg – Double Best Of – Comme Un Boomerang” on Spotify

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