Thursday, 29 April 2010

Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes by Sylvie Simmons

A veritable Requiem for a Twister, Fistful of Gitanes is Simmons’ homage to one of the geniuses of twentieth century pop music who died in 1991. Gainsbourg was a prolific songwriter who refused to stick to any genre, a provocateur who caused outrage with his priapic behaviour and drunken appearances on French Television, a poet and an artist, legendary in his home country, but whose reputation abroad is more of cult figure.


Born Lucien Ginsberg in 1928 to musician parents, both Jewish refugees from revolutionary Russia, Gainsbourg suffered a traumatic adolescence which saw him forced to wear a gold star in Nazi occupied Paris, and crippling stage-fright, (both in the concert halls and the bedroom), which he overcame by drinking, a habit he picked up during national service:

“Serge was the only person I’ve ever known who liked the service militaire,” said Jane [Birkin]. “He learned to drink in the army. I think, timid thing that he was, he found that if he had a little bit too much to drink he was funny – he was the one standing on the chair telling jokes whereas before he would have gone red with shyness – and that the could suddenly have chums and take a girl out without being too worried.” ... “I went into the French Army having never touched a drop of alcohol in my life,” he would later claim, “and I left 13 months later, an alcoholic.”

Starting out like his father as a nightclub piano player, success was slow for Serge. He was signed to record label Phillips but his records never sold, despite his strong song writing. As teenage rock music took over France, Serge thought he was never going to make it, then he wrote a winning song for the Eurovision Song Contest (some countries take it seriously, you know) and the French public couldn’t seem to get enough of him. By the late sixties, the charts were full of his songs and he was in the midst of an affair with Brigitte Bardot...

“There’s a trilogy in my life,” said Serge in Mort Ou Vices, “an equilateral triangle, shall we say, of Gitanes, alcoholism and girls – and I didn’t say isosceles, I said equilateral...”

An enthusiastic smoker (three to five packets of Gitanes a day!) as well as a drinker, Gainsbourg had his first heart-attack at 45. Not that he would let it cramp his style:

...although is doctors had warned him that cigarettes were bad for his heart; others in the medical profession had announced that drinking was good for it; so by upping the intake of one, he figured, he could cancel out the harmful effects of the other.

Gainsbourg spent the 70s with English actress Jane Birkin, with whom they had a daughter, actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. He wrote prodigious amounts of songs for her to sing, as well as for other artists and himself. His masterpiece Histoire de Melody Nelson was released in 1971, and he courted considerable controversy with a reggae version of the French national anthem at the end of the decade. Sadly, he was also getting increasing drunk and difficult to live with: Jane left in 1980. Gainsbourg himself, was turning into a Mr Hyde like character, his dissipated, alcoholic alter ego, Gainsbarre.

Serge himself had a wonderful phrase ready for when anyone else asked him about the Gainsbourg/Gainsbarre duality, something along the lines of fellow-drinker Tom Waits’ line about preferring “a bottle in front of me to a frontal lobotomy” but with a few added layers: “Gainsbourg se barre, Gainsbarre se bourre.” (For the non French-speakers, ‘bourre’ is pronounced like the ‘bourg’ bit of Gainsbourg. ‘Se barre’ means to cross yourself, shut yourself out or disappear, and ‘se bourre’ means to get shit-faced drunk, something usually achieved in un bar).

The effect on Gainsbourg wasn’t pretty, even if he was still producing music at a phenomenal rate:

...there was beginning to be a look of corruption about him. Like a negative image of Dorian Gray, as his work stayed fresh and invigorated, his appearance became more worn and debauched.

Rock journalist Nick Kent ran into him at a film festival in Val d’Isères:

“He looked like someone who wasn’t taking care of himself. His eyes had that bloodshot, unfocussed look of someone who was not so slowly poisoning himself with alcohol. One of the other people on the panel was staying in the room next door to Giansbourg’s suite, and he told me that every night he was awakened by Gainsbourg screaming – screaming – ‘I’m going blind!’..."

The writing was definitely on the wall. In 1989 he had another heart attack:

That year he would be in and out of the American Hospital five times. The first time, in January, the doctors warned him that if he didn’t stop drinking he would be blind in six months and dead in twelve. “My back’s against the wall, but I don’t give a fuck,” Serge shrugged.

To his credit, he actually stayed sober for a while, after he had had two thirds of his liver removed first. Still, all was going well until he started work with teen sensation Vanessa Paradis. The stress put him straight back onto the bottle. In the ever decreasing circles of his final decline, he spent his time with old friends and lovers including Jane Birkin:

“He couldn’t stop at a petit verre – a glass or two. He had to finish the bottle. Then another bottle. And as he didn’t used to eat at midday, if you have a Pernod as your breakfast then you’re usually pretty slaughtered by tea time...”

In March 1991, the years of strong cigarettes and stronger drink finally took their toll and Serge died, one month shy of his 63rd birthday. France mourned. Difficult, sometimes impossible, outrageous, but also warm hearted and amusing as well as incredibly talented, Gainsbourg led a colourful, contradictory career that has only recently been given the appraisal it deserves outside of his native France.

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