Serge Gainsbourg: Toujours Cool

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On August 28 there is a Serge Gainsbourg Tribute at the Hollywood Bowl, part of the successful KCRW World Festival series.  The artists are mostly non-Francophones, with a few exceptions (Victoria Legrand, the U.S.-based niece of the composer) and Lulu Gainsbourg, son of Serge).

You don’t have to be French or a Francophone to appreciate Serge Gainsbourg.  But it does help.  He was a superb songwriter who bolted onto the music scene in the late 1950s with the song “Le Poinçonneur de Lilas”, referring to the ticket punchers who punch your tickets on the Paris metro.

It is a very witty and droll song about boredom, fantasy, escape from a dull and repetitive  job.  It’s a song that  Jessica Fichot, an LA-based  French chanteuse, performs with panache.  She is not, however, on the Bowl ticket.  Neither (for whatever reason, probably distance) is Mick Harvey, an Australian artist who did a convincing album of Gainsbourg covers a few years ago.  Probably just not a draw, and the Bowl is a big place.

Serge Gainsbourg was outré:  He was infamously provocative on a French TV show when he said to Whitney Houston, in English, “I Would like to #)#& you).  The host politely retorted, “He said he wants to kiss you”.  Serge shot back, “no, I said I want to #(&# you”.  In the late 1969–a year Gainsbourg called “l’année erotique”– he recorded the erotic, ironic love song “Je t’Aime Moi Non Plus” (“I love you, me neither), first with Brigitte Bardot, who was so scandalized that she refused to let it be released, then with his English lover, Jane Birkin.  It was banned.  The Bardot version didn’t come out until 1986.  Later came songs about American culture such as “Harley Davidson”, “Bonnie and Clyde”, and “Ford Mustang”.  All these songs established his status as a fine songwriter.

He smoked two packs of Gauloises a day, that smelly black tobacco cigarette Jean Paul Belmondo, Camus, Sartre, and other French actors and literati smoked.  It’s amazing that his wife Jane Birkin didn’t die of second hand smoke.  When Gainsbourg died of a massive heart attack in 1991 and was buried (I believe at Père Lachaise Cemetery, where Jim Morrison is also buried) fans would put cartons of Gauloises around his grave, just in case.

His songs are delicate and refined.  And snappy.  He used top Congolese musicians on songs like “Joanna” and “New York USA).  Latin musicians for the wonderful song “Couleur Café”.   There’s also a great cd called “Gainsbourg Percussions”, which show his predilection for using Afro-Cuban and African rhythms.

He nevertheless got death threats from WWII vets and French Foreign Legion types when he recorded his reggae version the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise” as “Aux Armes Etcetera”.  A true “je m’en fou” – “I don’t give a damn” version.  Hence the infuriated nationalists.  On this album he used Sly and Robbie, as well as Rita Marley.

It will be interested to see how the large cast of musicians pay tribute to Serge Gainsbourg.  He isn’t that well-known here, and perhaps this upcoming concert will change that.

Here are two very cool youtube videos Gainsbourg (originally for French ORTF TV) made for his 1964 song “Couleur Café”, always one of my favorite songs.

And the infamous song “Aux Armes, Etcetera”.