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Serge Gainsbourg

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Serge Gainsbourg


The single most influential French artist of the second half of the 20th century, Serge Gainsbourg still looms large, and his influence can now be heard in English speaking acts such as Beck, Nick Cave, and a multitude of indie rockers. Gainsbourg's use of, and ironic distance from, many musical genres was decidedly post-modern before anyone even knew what that term meant. His tart, spoken word delivery, misanthropic lyrics, and employment of snappy, repetitive vamps also prefigures hip-hop in many ways. Not a handsome man by any stretch of the imagination, he ended up using this to his advantage. To the public, Gainsbourg was a modern hedonist, one who seemed to enjoy a nonstop throng of famous beauties, drink and drugs. While there was much truth to Gainsbourg's image, the classically trained musician was also a workaholic whose professionalism was respected by his peers. During the 1950s and early '60s, the Parisian performer appealed to a select Left Bank beatnik crowd, and his critically praised album sold poorly. Thankfully, Gainsbourg quickly found success as a behind-the-scenes composer, writing hits for others. Many of his finest songs were written during this period, and he was becoming known for his biting lyrics, which brimmed over with verbal puns and satiric jabs. One of Gainsbourg's many talents was that he absorbed any musical style he came into contact with. But instead of simply copying a genre, he redirected it for his own sardonic, and often, nefarious purposes. So, when Bob Dylan and the Beatles brought pop to new levels of artistic excellence, he knew that there was much he could do with the French "ye-ye" rock style. The turning point in Gainsbourg's career happened when he started writing for, and performing with, Brigitte Bardot, the most openly sensual object of desire during the sexual revolution. Suddenly, the buttoned-down jazzer quickly became a star of the Continental counterculture movement. The eternally hip "Bonnie and Clyde" stands as the greatest of the Serge/Brigitte duets, but the free-living actress actually balked at recording "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus," Gainsbourg's celebration/subversion of physical love. So, Gainsbourg cut the track with the English model and actress Jane Birkin. The song was banned in almost every country in the world but still became a huge international hit. Gainsbourg ended up snatching Birkin away from John Barry, and in 1971, he recorded his greatest album with the elegant beauty. One of the finest works of the rock era, Histoire De Melody Nelson is a concept LP involving a wealthy middle-aged man (Gainsbourg) being seduced and ultimately killed by a intoxicating Lolita (Birkin). As usual, Gainsbourg's often misanthropic lyrics for Melody Nelson are mordantly, bitterly funny, but the expansive music on the record (a mix of spacey guitars and elegant, cinematic strings) also makes it something that any music fan needs to hear - repeatedly. Not an immediate hit, Melody Nelson's stature kept growing and along with its composer's. Gainsbourg kept working at a dizzying pace, often gleefully scandalizing the public with an unkempt appearance and an even dirtier tongue. Whether Serge Gainsbourg's public persona was originally an act or not, his increasingly debauched lifestyle came to define him, and he died in 1991, before reaching 60. He left behind a body of work whose enormity is only matched by its excellence.
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