In the past few years, a new name, albeit an unpronounceable one, has appeared on the lips of English-speaking musicians – Serge Gainsbourg. When speaking to the French, the speaker is often asked to repeat the supposed neologism until those who continue to say “Ze Bitulz” finally grasp that is in fact an inadvertently mangled proper noun. But what a name! Serge Gainsbourg, the singer-songwriter-Pygmalion-actor-filmmaker-author-entertainer-agitator-gambler-ladys man, a man whose many facets reflect in each other to form one of the most dazzling prisms in twentieth-century French culture, and whose sparkle now spreads well beyond both France and the century.
A few years ago both the superstar Madonna and the underground prophet John Zorn declared their admiration for Gainsbourg – separately, but with the same zeal. The English group Portishead lifted the heady atmosphere of Cargo culte from the Melody Nelson album for their stunning remix of Massive Attack’s Karmacoma. De La Soul sampled Gainsbourg, Beck borrowed wholesale (Paper tiger), and countless artists cover his songs. In France and worldwide (from Air to Sonic Youth) artists by the dozens claim him as an influence, to the point that the first proper Gainsbourg biography in English, A fistful of Gitanes by the journalist Sylvie Simmons ended up establishing Gainsbourg on the international scene both as a musician and cultural icon.
Yet for a long time, all the British knew about him was his romp on vinyl with Jane Birkin on Je t’aime moi non plus, a single banned by the BBC, condemned by the Vatican, and yet which topped British charts in 1969. They also knew that he got Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani and Vanessa Paradis – four landmarks of the French feminine ideal seen from outside France – to sing, and that he shocked Whitney Houston on live television. He is therefore widely remembered in Britain as a sex maniac with, as his album title says, a cabbage for a head.
But those used to pacing the avenues and alleys of his expansive repertoire know very well that Gainsbourg cannot be summed up in a bit of famous heaving and panting. In fact, Gainsbourg cannot be summed up at all – he is enlarged and appreciated from various angles with the helpless realisation that none of these can provide a satisfactory snapshot of the man.
Trying to discover him all in one go, as was the case for many outside France, is to suffer severe vertigo. Most are flabbergasted when they realise that at the beginning, he was the heir and soon-to-be conspirator of the Left Bank cabarets and the cellars of Saint-Germain, mixing Baudelairean poetry and oblique jazz under the influence of Boris Vian, coloured with exotic essences from lounge music. Again, when they discover he became the transformer of the pop movement, turning young Londoners’ heads, handing out songs to girls like sugar-and-spice pills. Or once more, when they come across the film soundtracks, mirroring some of his intensely cinematographic albums, such as Initials BB or Melody, not to mention when he parachuted into Jamaica at the time of the reggae version of La Marseillaise, or into New York USA under the blows of digital funk.
For Gainsbourg is the classical and the modern combined in one man – ultra-classical (his perfect rhymes as trimmed hedges as the ones in an 19th century French bourgeois garden, and his composition often paying tribute to Chopin or Brahms) and ultra-modern, able to absorb, Bowie-like, all that is avant-garde and bring it into the light, or to wrap up slang in the words of the great French orator, Bossuet.
Because of all this, and still much more, over time Gainsbourg has become something of a Colossus whose shadow weighs heavily over those who intend to see him. This is particularly the case with French artists who have tried to cover his songs – their deference is sometimes so great that the strain gives them a hernia before the first chorus. However, those who rubbed shoulders with Gainsbourg know very well that he was overjoyed when his work was readapted, especially with those brave enough to get inside his head, dismantling his work for material to build something else. As he himself put it, songs are a minor art form, not for worshipping, but rather for twisting our way.