The Scatological Genius of the late Serge Gainsbourg

by Angeline Morrison

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Seedy, smoke-ringed and diminutive, French pop’s gnome prince Serge Gainsbourg is perhaps best remembered by Anglophones worldwide for two major achievements. The first is his silencing of the noxious Whitney Houston on live television with a scrupulously honest, if a little barefaced, ‘I want to f*ck you’. The second is the release in 1969 of an orgiastic song he’d originally written as a duet for his then-lover Brigitte Bardot, Je t’aime…Moi Non Plus. You didn’t actually need to understand any French to get the gist of the song; in between coming and going like a wave between her kidneys (it honestly goes like that, ask any French speaker); Gainsbourg moans and grunts his answers to English starlet Jane Birkin’s horribly mis-pronounced French mating calls. Vilified by the Vatican and banned by mainstream radio stations as soon as they realised what was going on, Gainsbourg stood by his record, insisting that it was a joke, a spoof on oral sex in the much loved French tradition of sexual farce. And as if to prove that ‘they’ don’t necessarily know what’s good for you, the record managed to spend 31 weeks at the top of the UK charts, despite being the first single ever to be banned by national radio.

Birkin, at that time the wife of English film score icon John Barry, was to be the love of Gainsbourg’s life. She bore him his only child, 29 year old daughter Charlotte, who can be seen acting in perfect English in The Cement Garden. Birkin’s own acting career is piecemeal and, frankly, as rubbish as her voice. She can be seen in Antonioni’s cult classic Blow Up for all of ten minutes, but then she does show her boobs which I suppose counts for something. Gorgeous but talentless, Jane bewitched her Serge. He wrote for her, recording with her, and directing her in his first film, Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus, which also featured a young, unknown and alarmingly beautiful Gerard Depardieu.

Gainsbourg was (understandably) quite self-conscious about his own looks. He referred to himself as ‘cabbage-head’, because of the way his ears stuck out like jug handles. His unique profile and dark, dangerous allure did, however, prove too much for such luscious ladies as Brigitte Bardot to resist. They were together for some time as a couple – quite how he managed to get it together with BB remains a mystery to many – with Gainsbourg masterminding the recording career of the young starlet. He hit upon a formula which was to prove too successful to change for quite some time, and which he repeated with a variety of different young women. Here is a summary of the basic ingredients for French pop success in the Sixties:
1. beautiful girl who is entirely unable to sing,
2. pure, bubble-gummy ‘yé-yé’ pop melody,
3. brilliant, slightly ironic lyrics.

Later variations on this theme included tricky string arrangements (see Ballade de Melody Nelson album, Les Initiales BB, or the yelping Bonnie and Clyde, which MC Solaar famously sampled in his track, Nouvelle Western). He also made gimmicky use of American English slang, the nadir of which is undoubtedly the Bardot/Gainsbourg track Ford Mustang. The idea was to inject life and feeling into the comic strips of his youth, with Bardot bringing to life the ‘Ker-Blam!’ and ‘Pow!’ noises. The sad reality is that after only two listens it will, in fact, make you want to feel the squishy warmth of human veins between your teeth.

As a Jewish child during the Nazi occupation, little Lucien Ginzburg had known the horror of being hunted, wearing the yellow star on his clothes, and watching the speed at which friends and neighbours turned against his family. Luckily the Ginzburgs were able to escape to Limoges, and after the war Ginzburg Snr, an accomplished traditional jazz pianist, began his young son’s apprenticeship in the seedy jazz bars of the Pigalle district. Serge retained a lifelong fascination for the dirtiness and forbidden atmosphere of Pigalle, which surfaces in his lyrics, his melodies and his famously cavalier attitude towards sex. It was in Pigalle that a twentysomething Serge first experimented with his songwriting. Worried that he didn’t have the right looks to be a front-man, he gave his compositions to resident club singers like Michele Arnaud to perform. Soon the whole of Paris was buzzing with excitement about this up-and-coming musician, and as his confidence grew, Gainsbourg decided that nobody could really deliver his compositions as well as he himself could.

In 1958 he released his first album on the Philips label. Although not a commercial success, the critics went nuts for it and lavished such praises on the work as to ensure a captive audience for his subsequent releases. Gainsbourg won acclaim from the French literary establishment for the witty lyrics of Le Poinconneur de Lilas, a lament for the mundane, workaday existence of the little man who punches holes in train tickets. The essential rudeness that characterises much of Gainsbourg’s writing is only slightly veiled, the chorus of ‘little holes, little holes, always little holes, little first class holes, little second class holes…’ is of course open to interpretation.

Scatology was never far behind Gainsbourg. His one and only novel, ‘Evguénie Sokolov’ was, predictably, banned for being too rude. And rude it was, but it was also a burning satire on the pretence and posturing of the art establishmen, with its critics who could frequently be full of so much hot air. The protagonist, Sokolov, is a painter who suffers from horrific, agonising, noisy, non-stop farting. Through his ‘ailment’ Sokolov discovers a new method of painting. He simply places the brush lightly on the canvas, allowing the rectal gusts to propel his body in whatever direction they will. The art world is all over Sokolov, hailing him as the new artistic genius, but it’s very nearly all over for him when he’s cured of his fart-attacks. You’ll find scatology abounding in his music, too. A duet with blues legend Screamin’ Jay Hawkins entitled Constipation Blues features a lot of pained straining, and his song to baby Charlotte, La Poupée qui fait Pipi et Caca really needs no further elucidation.

Always the rebel, Gainsbourg became infatuated with reggae music in the early to mid-Seventies, and spent much time in Jamaica working with Sly and Robbie, and some of the original line-up of the Wailers. He was one of the first white musicians to really take reggae seriously, and got into a lot of hot water with the French establishment (now there’s a thing), for his reggae version of La Marseillaise. The Nazi Rock and Rock Around the Bunker years were also seen by many as a real low point for Gainsbourg, who was reviled for his insensitivity towards Jews in general and Holocaust survivors in particular. Considering his own Jewishness and experiences during the war, this is at best ironic. Considering his lyrics closely, it is simply misinformed. His lampooning of the Third Reich was Gainsbourg’s way of suggesting that genocide and racial hatred don’t just stop at the German borders.

They say the measure of a life lived can be gained by an inspection of the mourners at the deceased’s funeral. When Serge Gainsbourg died in 1991, the whole of Paris came to a standstill. Brigitte Bardot, Isabelle Adjani, Catherine Deneuve and multitudes of the beautiful, the influential and the iconic all wept openly at his funeral. Gainsbourg had become a national institution in France, and as a musical export he really is the Grandaddy of the current Francopop craze. French bands like 'Air' cite him as a seminal influence, and it’s no longer considered arcane to quote his lyrics. His poetry even features as part of the syllabus for High School students in France. You can’t help but wonder what the laconic, ironic renegade who once said, ‘ for me, provocation is oxygen’ would make of it all.

© Angeline Morrison 10.2000


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