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It’s all but impossible to walk at night in the Paris neighborhoods of Montmartre or Saint-Germain-des-Prés and not to hear, at least in your head, the voice of the late French musician Serge Gainsbourg. The low mumble of Gainsbourg’s confident croon and his incomprehensible swagger made him a sort of folk hero. He remains an icon in France. His legacy is complicated; his songs, particularly those inspired by and sung with Brigitte Bardot, are some of the most remembered of the French chanson; and he almost singlehandedly leant cool and credibility to French pop in the yé-yé era. Yet Gainsbourg’s lecherous and at times obnoxious, drunken behavior equally defined his career.
Gainsbourg’s carefree attitude that marked his stardom were the antithesis of a traumatic childhood, growing up Jewish in a Paris occupied by Nazi Germany. He and his family were forced to wear yellow stars marking them as Jews. They fled for a time under false identities to the Zone Libre, an unoccupied region in the southern part of France. He later attended art school, first the legendary Beaux-Arts de Paris, and graduated from an academy in Montmartre. Gainsbourg did a short stint in the military and kicked around odd jobs before becoming a fixture in the cabaret scene of Montmartre as a piano player. He changed his name. Born Lucien Ginsburg, Serge was a way to embrace his family’s Russian roots and Gainsbourg an homage to Thomas Gainsborough, the English landscape painter he admired.
The youthful Gainsbourg was awkward and a little shy but his gift was song writing and his often comedic and playful wordplay allowed him to break into the scene in Paris’ Left Bank, with chanson contemporaries such as Juliette Greco and Jacques Brel. Gainsbourg’s big break came in writing a pop song, “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son,” sung by France Gall, that won the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest—which truthfully isn’t too cool. Yet this strange-looking man would go on to become known for his affairs and suggestive songs with and about the actresses Bardot and Jane Birkin.
Gainsbourg’s sheer force of will made him a celebrity and, against all odds, a male sex symbol. With his slight frame and “unconventional” looks, he was famously described as resembling a “drowsy turtle.” Yet he pulled it off, and that attitude as much as the discography is what endeared Gainsbourg to the French. His controversies were innumerable but none probably as consequential as the reception in 1969 of his duet with English star Birkin, “Je t’aime…moi non plus” (translates as “I love you…me neither”). It was written for Bardot during a short-lived affair and they recorded it together originally, but her husband caught wind and commanded that the song never be released. Gainsbourg complied. The song drips with sex appeal and lacks any subtlety in its meaning. The reception and the resulting condemnation, most notably by the Vatican, made it a global sensation.
The musical versatility and song-writing strength of Gainsbourg kept him relevant for most of his public life and he went on to star and direct in both television and film. Unfortunately, his later years are more notable for failed relationships and bad behavior. He lived hard, loved drinking and smoked five packs a day of the unfiltered French brand Gitanes. He suffered a heart attack in 1973 but didn’t want to give up the drinking and smoking that marked the bohemian celebrity life he had cultivated. He died of a second heart attack in 1991; he was 62.
GAINSBOURG’S GREATEST HITS
“Le Poinçonneur des Lilas,” 1958
Legend has it that this was the song and its straightforward, almost existentially poetic lyrics that got the attention of show-goers when Gainsbourg was playing piano in the Parisian cabaret scene. The song that may have launched his iconic career chronicles the day of a ticket puncher on the Métro, his refrain: “J’fais des trous, des p’tits trous, encore des p’tits trous” (or “I make holes, little holes, and more little holes”). The song’s hero shares stories from a copy of Reader’s Digest that he keeps in his jacket pocket and dreams one day—perhaps from boredom—of making a hole in his head and being buried in a hole of his own.
“La Javanaise,” 1963
Gainsbourg wrote this song for Juliette Greco, one of his many muses; her version became popular, his became a classic. He sings of falling in love dancing, and the methodical melody and chorus are all a play on French slang, the language of Java and a dance craze. Fortunately, none of us need to get the joke to enjoy the baritone crooning.
“Bonnie and Clyde,” 1967
Arguably the best known Gainsbourg song of all time—at least to English-speaking audiences. He wrote it for and performed it with Brigitte Bardot. The song is based on the poem written by fugitive Bonnie Parker after she and Clyde Barrow were captured. It’s lyrically captivating, and the use of the tape loop comes off as the first use of sampling in popular music. Whether it was or not, I’ll leave to music historians; but it was certainly ahead of its time.
“Je t’aime…moi non plus,” 1969
This remains the iconic Gainsbourg song. Despite its infamy—banned by the BBC and strongly condemned by the Pope—it became the first-ever foreign-language No. 1 hit in Britain. It was originally recorded by Gainsbourg and Bardot, but that version was never released; they claimed it was too steamy, which is impressive given that the released version included what was the first studio recording of an orgasm, well, for non-scientific purposes anyhow. This song remains important both culturally and historically to French pop music and the legacy of Serge Gainsbourg, the coolest man in the history of France.