Q Magazine

On This Day in Music… April 2, 1928: Serge Gainsbourg, Artist, Hedonist, Genius, Is Born

'There's a trilogy in my life,' Gainsbourg once said. 'An equilateral triangle, shall we say, of Gitanes, alcoholism and girls.'

serge gainsbourg
Source: mega

Serge Gainsbourg lived his life as an expression of his art.

Link to FacebookShare to XShare to Email

Serge Gainsbourg could only have come from France – perhaps because only the French would have not only tolerated, but venerated him. The singer, songwriter, novelist, poet, actor, screenwriter, director, agitator, misanthrope, hedonist, misogynist, genius, and lover of both Brigit Bardot and Jane Birkin, was born on April 2, 1928 in Paris, and died 62 years and 11 months later in the same city.

During that time he wrote over 550 songs covering pop, disco, jazz, reggae, easy listening, electronica and avant-garde, which have been covered or sampled more than 1,000 times by artists as diverse as Air, Suede, Beck, the Pet Shop Boys and De La Soul, as well as composing several dozen film scores and soundtracks. But if music was Gainsbourg’s principal creative medium, it was his scandalous life that became the real expression of his art.

An outspoken, controversial, alcoholic, chain-smoking womanizer, Gainsbourg made being a lounge lizard cool… but then he made just about everything he did seem cool – even when, by society’s normal standards, a great deal of it was anything but.

Article continues below advertisement
serge gainsbourg paris
Source: mega

Gainsbourg made being a lounge lizard cool… but then he made just about everything he did seem cool.

Born Lucien Ginsburg, his parents were Jewish Russian emigres who had fled from the Bolshevik Revolution. His father worked as a piano player in Parisian nightclubs and casinos, but after the Nazi occupation of France in 1940, fled with the family to Limoges, and the relative safety of southwest France.

After the war, the family returned to Paris and Gainsbourg enrolled at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study painting, and began writing music, changing his name to the more enigmatic “Serge”, and adapting Ginsburg to Gainsbourg, after the British painter Thomas Gainsborough. By 1954 he was building a reputation as a songwriter, and in 1958 released his first album, the jazzy Du Chant A la Une!

That album – and it successor, No. 2, failed to make an impact, and after a stint acting in films including The Revolt of the Slaves and The Fury of Hercules, he finally scored a hit in 1965, with France’s Eurovision entry, the unashamedly bubblegum pop number, “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son”. That song was sung by teenager France Gall – she would represent the first of Gainsbourg’s famed muses, all winsome, beautiful, younger women in thrall to his artistic vision.

Article continues below advertisement
serge gainsbourg jane birkin
Source: mega

Gainsbourg with Jane Birkin - one of several younger muses.

In 1967 he met Brigitte Bardot. The 39-year-old Gainsbourg was already divorced twice-over; Bardot, at 33, was a bona fide international movie star… and married to a millionaire. Not that Serge cared: the pair soon began a passionate affair, collaborating on the duet “Bonnie and Clyde”, and then, after she reportedly told him to “write the most beautiful love song you can imagine”, the outrageously suggestive “Je t’aime… moi non plus”. Against a backdrop of lilting organs (not that kind), Gainsbourg and Bardot whispered sweet nothings to each other, in-between bouts of increasingly heavy breathing.

The track was scandalous enough as it was, but when rumors began circling that it was recorded as “audio verité”, Bardot’s husband finally had enough: the song was withdrawn, and their romance ended soon after.

If Gainsbourg was heartbroken after splitting with one of the world’s most beautiful women, he didn’t show it. Within months he had taken up with 22-year-old English actress Jane Birkin, best known at that time for her full-frontal nude scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 movie Blow Up. Despite her tender years, she too was married – and despite both those things, Gainsbourg and Birkin soon began another affair, effectively going public with the 1969 rerecording and release of “Je t’aime… moi non plus”, this time with Birkin providing the climactic heavy breathing.

The BBC promptly refused to air the song, the Vatican declared it “obscene”, and in Italy, the head of Fontana Records was jailed for even allowing it to be recorded. Nevertheless, it topped the British charts, and broke into the Billboard Hot 100 (reaching No. 58) – and made Gainsbourg an international star… as well as a magnetic symbol for a particular kind of louche, sexually-promiscuous, wine-soaked, Gitanes-chaining, art-obsessed, uniquely French debauchery.

Article continues below advertisement

Never miss a story — sign up for the Q newsletter for the latest music news on all your favorite artists, all in one place.

Article continues below advertisement

It was an image Gainsbourg exploited and even encouraged – whilst also continuing to produce music of occasionally sublime quality. Arguably his artistic peak came with 1971’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, a concept album telling the tale of a tragic love affair between a middle-aged French lothario and a delicate (underage) English beauty, for which he also created a half-hour feature film with Birkin, shown on French television over Christmas. Histoire de Melody Nelson is a lush, soaring triumph, by turns jazzy, funky, orchestral, rocky, euphoric, spooky, disturbing… and described by Allmusic as a “masterpiece of perversion and corruption… by turns fascinating and repellent, hilarious and grim, but never dull.”

The album stands as the apotheosis of Gainsbourg’s desire to create beautiful art while also provoking outrage… and furthering his own myth in the process.

Other controversies followed: 1975’s Rock around the Bunker featured songs about Adolf Hitler and Nazi atrocities during the war; to counteract accusations that he was trivializing the Holocaust, Gainsbourg wrote underneath a self-portrait on its cover, “I have never forgotten that I ought to have died in 1941, ‘42, ‘43, or ‘44.”

In 1979 his album, Aux Armes et Caetera, featuring a reggae version of France’s national anthem “La Marseillaise” recorded in Jamaica with collaborators including Sly and Robbie and Rita Marley, caused a national uproar, with Gainsbourg even receiving death threats. It nevertheless went on to sell over a million copies.

Article continues below advertisement

Although he continued to write and record until his death, Gainsbourg’s later years were increasingly defined by alcoholism. In 1984, on a live TV show with rising star Whitney Houston, he grew frustrated with the host’s refusal to accurately translate his compliments to the singer, eventually leering in English: “I said I want to f--k her.”

Somehow, despite the lechery, the drinking and chainsmoking, the bouts of misogyny and deliberate provoking of the haute bourgeoisie, Gainsbourg remained one of France’s best loved figures. As well as his 500+ songs, he directed four films, and wrote the soundtracks for several dozen more. In France at least, Art, it seems, excuses all.

On March 2, 1991, Serge Gainsbourg died of a heart attack in his sleep at his home in Paris. The country plunged into national mourning: flags flew at half mast, hundreds of thousands of words filled newspapers and magazines, dozens of TV hours were dedicated to showing his films and videos, and President Mitterand described him as “Our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire.” He was buried in the Jewish section of Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery, also final resting place of Charles Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

“There’s a trilogy in my life,” Gainsbourg once said. “An equilateral triangle, shall we say, of Gitanes, alcoholism and girls – and I didn’t say isosceles, I said equilateral. But it all comes from the background of a man whose initiation in beauty was art.”


Subscribe to our newsletter

your info will be used in accordance with our privacy policy

Read More