THE LEGENDARY SERGE GAINSBOURG (1928-1991)

Serge Gainsbourg was a painter, actor, songwriter, composer, poet, author, and director. As new audiences continue to discover and appreciate his music, they are also curious about his life and artistic versatility.

Born to Russian parents in Paris on 2 April 1928, Serge was named Lucien Ginsburg at birth. Twin brother to Liliane, Lucien was endearingly referred to as Lulu by his family. His parents, Olia Besman and Joseph Ginsburg, had migrated to France to escape hostility against Jews and became French citizens soon after settling in Paris. Joseph Ginsburg was a talented musician and was influential in the development of his son’s artistic and musical ability. Joseph played in many venues in Paris, working late into the night―a lifestyle that would later appeal to Serge as his career developed.

During World War II, political leaders sought to position France as a country that could be a partner in the new Europe. Anti-Semitism was to become embedded in French culture and this manifested in social exclusion and discrimination as curfews, transport restrictions and deportations were applied, and food and fuel shortages ensued. As Jewish families were not safe, the Ginsburgs left Paris for six months after Joseph obtained employment in a rural town. When the Germans instituted the yellow star for Jews in Paris in the Occupied Zone from 7 June 1942, Lucien resented this form of government imposition. Forced to wear a yellow star in public, he felt conspicuous and humiliated. These harsh conditions during his formative years shaped the person he became.

After the war, a more prosperous middle class began to emerge. Automobiles became prominent and America symbolised this increased consumerism. While French cinema and culture during the 1950s was regarded as inventive and invigorating, France retained its avant garde reputation as arts and culture flourished. Caught up in the general climate, Serge had wanted to be a painter and attended drawing classes at the Académie Montmartre as an admirer of Salvador Dali and Surrealism. Yet though he was talented, he did not perceive himself to be sufficiently brilliant and transferred his ambitions to music and acting.

It was not until 1958 that Serge Gainsbourg officially emerged. Lucien, aged 30, formally changed his name and released his debut album, ‘Du Chant À la Une!’. His first official song on this album was called ‘Le Poinçonneur Des Lilas’. However he did not achieve the success he had sought as a performer of his own songs and left the stage, humiliated, during a 1965 concert. He did not perform live again for 13 years.

There have been many beneficiaries of Serge’s songwriting ability. France Gall won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965 with the song ‘Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son’. In 1967, he wrote more than one hundred songs for other performers. During his career, Gainsbourg wrote songs for artists as diverse as Françoise Hardy, Catherine Deneuve, Nana Mouskouri, Marianne Faithfull, Isabelle Adjani, Juliette Greco, Michèle Arnaud, Petula Clark and Vanessa Paradis. His songwriting ability exposed him to a range of artists that promoted his work throughout the world.

Serge’s collaboration during the 1960s with the fabulously famous Brigitte Bardot fuelled his personal popularity. Songs like ‘Initials BB’, ‘Ford Mustang’ and ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ captured the interest of audiences looking for excitement and freedom. He also featured in ‘The Bardot Show’ in 1969. Because of Bardot’s marital status, this passionate relationship did not continue.

With his ability to deconstruct and reformulate, Serge played with ideas and words, concepts and images. He was original, controversial, and moody. His beloved Gitanes cigarettes and alcohol were never far away, and he enjoyed many affairs with women. His first marriage to Elisabeth Levitsky in 1951 ended in divorce in 1957. His second marriage in 1964 to Françoise-Antoinette Pancrazzi, (known as Beatrice), also ended in divorce in 1967. They had two children together, Natacha and Paul.

A dynamic individual, Serge flourished in the receptivity of audiences of the sixties and seventies. He also achieved film and musical success with the young English actress Jane Birkin who had gone to France in 1969 to work with him on a film called ‘Slogan’. The duo became a popular and engaging couple. With Jane as his muse, they enjoyed a long and productive relationship. Their daughter Charlotte Lucy was born in 1971 and is today a well-known French actress and musician.

If film and music dominated the lives of Serge and Jane, the release of ‘Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus’ (‘I Love You, Me Neither’) in 1969 gave Serge the international attention he had craved. While the song was very bold and audiences loved it, the Vatican did not. Serge had also recorded an earlier version with Brigitte Bardot that had not been released.

In 1971, Serge and Jane released ‘L’Histoire de Melody Nelson,’ an album of metaphors and psychedelic sounds with a musical narrative of a fatal love affair between a middle-aged French man and an under age English girl. Like many of his projects, parts of the story were seemingly biographical. Serge touched on somber and contentious subjects, conveying complex and sophisticated themes across a broad spectrum. Towards the end of the 1970s, he developed an interest in reggae music and traveled to Jamaica after meeting with musicians who had worked with Bob Marley. His culturally infused music was well received.

While often perceived as controversial because of his affairs, lifestyle and liberal behaviour, Serge was modest and shy. This dichotomy contributed to his success. A master of the media with the capacity to attract significant attention, Gainsbourg developed public and private personalities that enabled him to move between the worlds he created and inhabited. An existentialist or follower of the philosophical movement that developed after World War II, Gainsbourg also sought to reinforce his individuality by creating the alter ego, ‘Gainsbarre’.  Serge attributed much of his unpredictable behaviour to ‘Gainsbarre’ who delighted in shocking people.

As excesses tend to exact their price, a life of over-indulgence rendered Gainsbourg susceptible to health problems and in 1973 he suffered a heart attack. Although he recovered, he did not modify his lifestyle: Gitanes and alcohol remained essential. Despite their separation, Jane and Serge remained close friends. Gainsbourg had another child, also called Lucien (and Lulu) with his final partner Bambou.

Serge died alone on 2 March 1991, in his home at Rue de Verneuil amid the blackened décor that had provided him with the private sanctuary he needed in life. Friends, family, and France mourned the loss of their beloved Serge and buried him in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

Between October 2008 and March 2009, the Music Museum in Paris (Musée de la Musique) hosted an exhibition dedicated to Serge Gainsbourg, bringing together all the elements that encapsulated his creative genius. It was helped considerably by the fact that his daughter Charlotte, who is protective about the memory of her father and has preserved his home at 5 rue de Verneuil since his death, lent the Musée de la Musique many items which had not been publicly available.

Take your cue from the exhibition and allow some time to explore his work in the context of his upbringing and the socio-political environment of France during his life. Let Serge’s music speak to you as you experience his poetic lyrics and sensuous melodies, just as other new audiences are also discovering his diverse repertoire.

Diane Grant

References

Sowerwine, Charles.  ‘France since 1870:  Culture, Society and the Making of the Republic’, 2nd Edition, Palgrave Macmillan, UK, 2009

Simmons, Sylvie.  ‘A Fistful of Gitanes’, Helter Skelter Publishing, UK, 2002.

 

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