Review: Serge Gainsbourg Tribute for KCRW’s World Festival at the Hollywood Bowl

Written by
Beck by Andrew Youssef*

In 1974, American wordsmith David Mamet wrote a play called “Sexual Perversion in Chicago“. In 1986, that play got the Hollywood treatment, and was turned into a hip dramedy about the complexities of sexual relationships called, “About Last Night…”. In 1971, brilliantly horny French dude Serge Gainsbourg wrote a sleazy and stunningly brilliant concept album called, “Le Histoire de Melody Nelson.” Last night a marvelous cast of marvelously hip performers paid tribute to the man (and that 1971 album in particular) under cover of night at the Hollywood Bowl.

Although seemingly incongruous and endlessly strange on paper, the line-up of Serge’s son, Lulu, goth banshee Zola Jesus, Beach House’s Victoria Legrand, Faith No More’s Mike Patton, Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste, Sean Lennon and his supermodel turned girlfriend and musical partner Charlotte Kemp-Muhl, actor/dreamboat Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Beck…hosted by KCRW’s own lovely Anne Litt, the evening was as fitting and inspired a tribute as I’ve ever seen.

Serge Gainsbourg was a compelling artist and remarkably multi-faceted artist. (Granted, every one of those facets is dripping in infinitely greasy, French psychedelic sex. But, I digress.) The man was seemingly insatiable and lecherous, while also being intensely sincere and sensitive. He was a sad clown, a growling supercreep, and a tender lover, hopelessly romantic about every girl he’s with, while winking at the NEXT girl.

A funny looking ladies’ man, that ladies found supersexy, even if he had gnarly smoker’s breath and looked like maybe he hadn’t slept or showered in days. This guy was a kind of man that just doesn’t exist anymore.

So much a man (of the “Swinging Sixties”) that it literally took a cast of moderntimes men to approximate his male essence. And between Patton’s growl during “Requiem pour un Con…”, Droste’s English language rendition of “Je suis venu tu dire…”, Sean Lennon’s relaxed sense of humor and self, and Gordon-Levitt’s reading his spoken word portions out of his little black book, while occasionally leering and smirking at the audience via the Bowl’s jumbotron screens, the cast did a pretty spectacular job of conjuring the man, albeit in pieces.

All the women, (each individual a strong, charismatic performer in her own right) did a fantastic job of drawing out the aspects of Gainsbourgs’ muses. He didn’t have a type per se.

However, what they all had in common was an unflinching adoration of him and each possibly figured she was strong-willed enough to reform him.

Charlotte Kemp Muhl by Timothy Norris via LA Weekly (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Nika (Zola Jesus) is actually quite young, a tiny fragile thing with a huge voice, although mostly playing the role of Melody Nelson, Victoria was seemingly playing the knowing and slightly aloof lover, whereas Charlotte just vamped hard with a stunning, raw sexuality that left her – and most of the Bowl — in need of a cigarette after her performance of “Je T’aime Moi…” (I remember turning to RR and whispering, “I pretty sure I just RE-lost my virginity. Again.”)

After a brief intermission, Gainsbourg’s writing partner and arranger for the immaculately lush orchestral meat of “Le Histoire de Melody Nelson“, Jean Claude Vannier then took the stage, in Los Angeles, for the first time ever.

With a call for, “Beck please.” Vannier conducted the orchestra through a number of odd Gainsbourg pop compositions for France Gall, as sung by Beck. It was a truly surreal turn of events. After a short video portion of Gainsbourg interview clips, the entire show gelled perfectly, as the orchestra and performers, under the direction of Vannier began performing “Le Histore de Melody Nelson” in it’s entirety from beginning to end. A piece of questionable fantasia, Melody Nelson is the story of a then middle-aged Serge hitting a 14-15 year old red-haired girl on a bicycle with his Rolls Royce, having a brief, torrid relationship with her, and then mourning her death in a fatal plane crash. (Got me wondering why the bookers didn’t ALSO involve R.Kelly in this. But I digress.) Thanks to everyone involved, the drama, agony, and ecstasy of the album were drawn out something lovely.

Theatrics aside, it would be a crime to understate the fact that Beck’s touring band, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and the CSU Fullerton choir were phenomenal. Between love ballads, the band and orchestra drew out some of Gainsbourg & Jean Claude Vannier’s film score compositions, like my personal favorite “La Horse” to great effect.

Slinky basslines and druggy drumming are elemental to Gainsbourg’s work and they did a marvelous job bringing it. And the choir who stood silent for most of the evening until “Cargo Culte“, at which point literally every hair on my body stood on end. It was haunting, gorgeous stuff.

Hollywood loves a remake. Most of the time, they really suck. But…just so you know, about last night…the Hollywood Bowl did it right. It didn’t suck. It touched, sighed, moaned, and kissed in all the right places. (I need a cigarette.)

— Mario Cotto

*view a slideshow of photos from Andrew Youssef at Stereogum here
***view a slideshow of photos from Timothy Norris on the LA Weekly site here
*** Cheap Cigarette Store site