Serge Gainsbourg was the dirty old man of popular music; a French singer/songwriter and provocateur notorious for his voracious appetite for alcohol, cigarettes, and women, his scandalous, taboo-shattering output made him a legend in Europe but only a cult figure in America, where his lone hit “Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus” stalled on the pop charts — fittingly enough — at number 69.
Born Lucien Ginzberg in Paris on April 2, 1928, his parents were Russian Jews who fled to France following the events of the 1917 Bolshevik uprising. After studying art and teaching, he turned to painting before working as a bar pianist on the local cabaret circuit. Soon he was tapped to join the cast of the musical Milord L’Arsoille, where he reluctantly assumed a singing role; self-conscious about his rather homely appearance, Gainsbourg initially wanted only to carve out a niche as a composer and producer, not as a performer.
Still, he made his recording debut in 1958 with the album Du Chant a la Une; while strong efforts like 1961’s L’Etonnant Serge Gainsbourg and 1964’s Gainsbourg Confidentiel followed, his jazz-inflected solo work performed poorly on the charts, although compositions for vocalists ranging from Petula Clark to Juliette Greco to Dionne Warwick proved much more successful. In the late ’60s, he befriended the actress Brigitte Bardot, and later became her lover; with Bardot as his muse, Gainsbourg’s lushly arranged music suddenly became erotic and delirious, and together, they performed a series of duets — including “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Harley Davidson,” and “Comic Strip” — celebrating pop culture icons.
Gainsbourg’s affair with Bardot was brief, but its effects were irrevocable: after he became involved with constant companion Jane Birkin, they recorded the 1969 duet “Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus,” a song he originally penned for Bardot complete with steamy lyrics and explicit heavy breathing. Although banned in many corners of the globe, it reached the top of the charts throughout Europe, and grew in stature to become an underground classic later covered by performers ranging from Donna Summer to Ray Conniff.
Gainsbourg returned in 1971 with Histoire de Melody Nelson, a dark, complex song cycle which signalled his increasing alienation from modern culture: drugs, disease, suicide and misanthropy became thematic fixtures of his work, which grew more esoteric, inflammatory, and outrageous with each passing release. Although Gainsbourg never again reached the commercial success of his late-’60s peak, he remained an imposing and controversial figure throughout Europe, where he was both vilified and celebrated for his shocking behavior, which included burning 500 francs on a live television broadcast and recording a reggae version of the sacred “La Marseillaise.”
Gainsbourg also created a furor with the single “Lemon Incest,” a duet with his daughter, the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. In addition, he posed in drag for the cover of 1984’s Love on the Beat, a collection of songs about male hustlers, and made sexual advances towards Whitney Houston on a live TV broadcast. Along with his pop music oeuvre, Gainsbourg scored a number of films, and also directed and appeared in a handful of features, most notably 1976’s Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus, which starred Birkin and Andy Warhol mainstay Joe Dallesandro. He died on March 2, 1991. (by Jason Ankeny)
Gainsbourg Confidentiel, first released in 1963 and reissued this year by Rumble Records, finds Serge Gainsbourg singing over no more than Elek Bacsik’s guitar and Michel Gaudry’s bass. It’s an obscure record, at least in the States, that might startle those used to the lavish orchestrations of Melody Nelson or his early records with Alain Goraguer. Think of it as equivalent to Beach Boys’ Party: A one-off novelty that burns with the soul of an experimental artist.
The arrangements work so long as Gainsbourg is performing quiet songs. While the “rock” songs, such as “Chez les yé-yé” and “Amour sans amour,” beg for a drumbeat, such ballads as “La saison des pluies” and “Sait-on jamais où va une femme quand elle vous quitte” translate better to this setting. Like so much of his music, this is an experiment, but its novelty often outweighs its practicality. It’s telling he’d never go back to this format; his next album Gainsbourg Percussions, inspired by then-faddish Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, was another such one-off.
Gainsbourg’s songwriting would sharpen as he grew older and more well-read, but some of his tics and obsessions are already apparent, like how material things stand in for romantic dissatisfaction. On “Scenic Railway” it’s the train his lover childishly wants him to take her on. On “La fille au rasoir” it’s an electric razor, over which she can’t hear anything he says. On “Talkie Walkie” it’s a device which, as Gainsbourg announces portentously in English, is “made in Japan.” Gainsbourg never learned English, but he sings it with a certain arrogant self-assurance.
Another obsession in plain view here, alas, is with very young girls. The girl on “Talkie Walkie” is young enough to find in a schoolyard. “Temps de yoyo” translates to “the time of yo-yos,” which he contrasts with “the time of yé-yé”—French teen pop, its name derived from the “yeah, yeah” shouts of its singers. He laments as his love-interest moves from one to the other, and on “Chez les yé-yé” he follows her to the dance, intent on getting “his Lolita” lest he do something violent.
One is not sure if these lines reflect Gainsbourg’s own sexual preferences, the rampant fetishization of children in early rock history, or his taste for scandal. He infamously performed a duet with his then-12 year-old daughter Charlotte on “Lemon Incest,” and his best-known record Histoire de Melody Nelson concerns the seduction of a 15-year-old. But considering the lyrics here, and the unwholesomeness of the songs he wrote for yé-ye girl France Gall shortly thereafter, it’s worth questioning his intent in shoehorning himself into the teenybopper industry.
“Poupée de cire, poupée de son” celebrated pop stars as puppets for older men,“Les sucettes” was a lollipop-themed double entendre that went over the clueless singer’s head and made her a laughing stock. Today, these songs are sort of legendary—victories for the songwriter, no matter their effect on the singer. Gainsbourg is a textbook example of a powerful man in entertainment not only going unpunished but actually being celebrated for his sexual greed. This is something all who encounter his art must reckon with, and on Confidentiel it’s on naked display. (Daniel Bromfield)
Elek Bacsik (guitar)
Serge Gainsbourg (vocals)
Michel Gaudry (bass)
01. Chez Les Yé-Yé 2.29
02. Sait-On Jamais Où Va Une Femme Quand Elle Vous Quitte 1.59
03. Le Talkie-Walkie 2.04
04. La Fille Au Rasoir 1.45
05. La Saison Des Pluies 3.29
06. Elaeudanla Téïtéïa 1.39
07. Scenic Railway 2.35
08. Le Temps Des Yoyos 2.38
09. Amour Sans Amour 2.04
10. No No Thank’s No 2.33
11. Maxim’s 1.51
12. Negative Blues 1.34
All songs written by Serge Gainsbourg
except 05.: written by Elek Bacsik & Serge Gainsbourg