Born Lucien Ginsburg on April 2, 1928, in Paris, France; died of a heart attack on March 2, 1991, in Paris, France; son of Joseph (a musician) and Olia (Besman) Ginsburg; married Elisabeth Levitsky (a secretary and model), 1951; divorced, 1957; married Beatrice Pancrazzi, 1964; children: Natacha, Paul (with Pancrazzi); Charlotte (with actress and singer Jane Birkin); Lucien (with Bambou, his companion before death). Education: Studied painting at the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1945-51.
In France, the unexpected death of singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg in 1991 sparked days of national mourning. One of France's most enduring cultural icons of the twentieth century, the perpetually controversial Gainsbourg was best known abroad for his breathy, salacious 1969 duet with the actress Jane Birkin, "Je T'Aime ... Moi Non Plus." In his own recordings, Gainsbourg was a clever provocateur who relished any chance to shock the haute bourgeoisie, and it was only in later years that critics and fellow musicians came to hail these often avant-garde solo works as masterpieces. Yet Gainsbourg was also a prolific songwriter who crafted pop tunes and torchy ballads for an array of attractive chanteuses over his 30-plus-year career. Independent journalist Robert Chalmers called him "the greatest popular musician France has ever produced, and the best of his recordings rank with those of Lennon and McCartney and Bob Dylan. Echoes of his favourite technique, of murmuring profanities against a delicate and beautiful harmony, can be heard in many contemporary records, not least the later work of Leonard Cohen." When Gainsbourg died, no less a personage than French president François Mitterand commented upon the loss, comparing him to nineteenth-century poet Charles Baudelaire.
Gainsbourg was one of twins, named Lucien and Liliane, born in Paris in 1928 to Joseph and Olia Ginsburg. His parents were Russian Jews from the Ukraine who had settled in France after Russia's revolutionary upheavals a decade earlier. Nicknamed "Lulu" from an early age, Gainsbourg's artistic talents were encouraged during his childhood, and he was enrolled in a Montmartre art school at the age of 13. His adolescence proved a difficult one, however, as France was under Nazi German occupation between 1940 and 1944, and as Jews the Ginsburgs were subject to persecution. They were compelled by law to wear a Jewish star on their clothing in public. Gainsbourg's father worked as a piano player in Paris nightclubs, but an 8 p.m. curfew for Jews curtailed the family's income severely. Joseph soon fled to southwest France's free zone, and several months later was able to obtain forged travel papers for the rest of the family. Thus the teenaged Gainsbourg escaped the terrible fate of thousands of France's Jews, spending the remainder of the war years living quietly in Limoges.
Back in Paris after the war, Gainsbourg began studying art in earnest at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in 1945. There he met his first wife, Elisabeth Levitsky, who was a part-time model and acquaintance to some noted artists of the era. They were married in 1951. Soon after, Gainsbourg abandoned the bohemian art scene for music. Taking up his father's profession, he joined France's official songwriters' society, and when he registered his first songs in 1954, he changed his first name to "Serge" and altered Ginsburg to "Gainsbourg," after the celebrated British painter. By 1958 he had a regular slot playing piano at Milord L'Arsoille, a famed nightclub on Paris' Left Bank. There he came to know Michele Arnaud, an established singer with a certain Parisian cool to her style, and she began performing his songs elsewhere. Soon Gainsbourg was offered a contract by the Polygram division of Philips, and he released his first LP, Du Chant A la Une!, in 1958. Its songs were "a combination of elegant cocktail jazz, cool, existentialist beatnik-jazz-pop, and French chanson," noted Sylvie Simmons, author of a 2001 biography, Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes.
Gainsbourg went on to release a string of similar works--jazz-styled songs with arch, sometimes even caustic lyrics--and while they enjoyed modest sales, they failed to make him a star. He had better luck writing for singers like Arnaud, Juliette Greco, and Françoise Hardy, among others. As times changed, he moved away from jazz and into a more rock style. In 1965 he won the Eurovision Song Contest with a bubblegum-pop song he wrote for teen singer France Gall, "Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son" ("A Lonely Singing Doll"). Meanwhile, he was also acting in films such as Estouffade A La Caraibe alongside Jean Seberg, and he was writing film scores as well. By 1967 his first marriage and a subsequent one to Beatrice Pancrazzi, with whom he had two children, had both ended, and in October of that year he met film star Brigitte Bardot on a French television program. A renowned bombshell for more than a decade by then, the sultry Bardot was married to a millionaire playboy at the time.
Bardot and Gainsbourg became romantically involved, and he began writing songs for her. Their first duet together, "Bonnie and Clyde," displayed the new, sexier sound to his style, and the resulting publicity over their far-from-secret romance boosted his profile immensely. The track appeared on his 1968 release Bonnie and Clyde, which was quickly followed by Bardot's own record, Initials B.B. Then Gainsbourg wrote a steamy, sexually suggestive duet, "Je T'Aime ... Moi Non Plus," and the duo recorded it in a Paris studio in late 1967; word leaked to the press that it had been an "audio verité" recording, and journalists sought out Bardot's husband for comment. Outraged, he demanded it be withdrawn. Bardot was slated to begin a film soon and, worried about the adverse publicity, asked Gainsbourg not to release it. Their romance--and professional collaboration--ended shortly thereafter.
"Je T'Aime" Sparked Outrage
Within a few months Gainsbourg had met a young English actress, Jane Birkin, on the set of the film Slogan. Best known at that point for her appearance in the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film Blow Up in the first full-frontal nude scene to appear on a British cinema screen, Birkin was barely out of her teens and married to film composer James Barry, who scored the memorable James Bond "007" films of the era. The marriage was disintegrating by the time she and Gainsbourg met in Paris in mid-1968. Gainsbourg and Birkin became inseparable, and Gainsbourg asked her to record "Je T'Aime ... Moi Non Plus" with him. Released in 1969, it became the most successful song of his career. The duet featured heavy breathing, racy innuendo, and nonsensical French lyrics, including the amusing line that translates, "I come and go between your kidneys." The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) refused to air the song, as Simmons recalls, with a spokesperson stating that it was "not considered suitable for play." It was also forcefully condemned by the Vatican as obscene, and the head of Fontana's Italian division was briefly jailed and fined.
"Je T'Aime" reached number two on the British charts when released on the Fontana label. Then the label's parent company became nervous; Philips, the Dutch electronics giant, was owned in part by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, who requested that the record be taken off the market. It was reissued on a small independent label and went on to hit number one on October 11, 1969, making it the first foreign-language song to achieve that distinction in the United Kingdom. In the end, the record sold six million copies and even charted again when rereleased. It also did moderately well in the United States, entering the top 100 and peaking at number 69, but it would prove Gainsbourg's only international hit. "Propelled by its inbuilt shock value, 'Je T'Aime' gave Gainsbourg a taste for the inestimable powers of bad publicity which he was later to explore to the full," noted Jerome Maunsell in the Observer. "The song had another major thing going for it--you didn't have to be French to understand it."
Albums Stirred More Controversy
Gainsbourg's next record, Histoire de Melody Nelson, was released in 1971. It was a concept album, the tale of a tragic love affair between a middle-aged French lothario and a delicate English beauty many years his junior. To accompany the album, he and Birkin filmed a half-hour television special that was shot on video, a rarity when it aired on French television at Christmastime in 1971. The record came to be considered an avant-garde classic, with some parts later sampled by the French band Air. American alternative songster Beck also used a sample from it in his work. "There's an ambition, a conceptual depth to Melody Nelson that's incredibly hard to pull off but which Gainsbourg does completely," Beck told Simmons. "It's very cool and its dynamic is genius."
After 1973's Vu de l'Exterieur, Gainsbourg--who by then had had a daughter with Birkin they had named Charlotte--made the controversial Rock around the Bunker. The 1975 LP featured rockabilly-style songs about Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, his mistress Eva Braun, and assorted World War II-era Nazi atrocities, and it naturally ignited a great deal of media attention. But Simmons points out that Gainsbourg, recalling his own narrow escapes from Nazi scrutiny in occupied France, 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 1976 he released L' Homme A Tete de Chou ("The Man with the Cabbage Head"), another concept album; this one recounted the story of a man's passion for a shampoo girl named Marilou, but the tryst ends in violence. Gainsbourg's 1979 album, Aux Armes et Caetera, also proved somewhat scandalous, though critics have hailed it as one of his masterpieces. Recorded in Jamaica, it features guest appearances by reggae stars Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, and Rita Marley. The furor erupted over its reggae version of France's sacrosanct national anthem, "La Marseillaise." Newspapers like Le Figaro excoriated Gainsbourg for his audacity, and he even received death threats.
Declining Years, Posthumous Acclaim
Gainsbourg and Birkin split in 1980, at the onset of a decade in which the singer's public and private behavior grew increasingly erratic. In 1984 he appeared on a live television program alongside a rising American R&B singer, Whitney Houston, and said something obscene to the host about her. By that time his latest record, Love on the Beat, was also being condemned in certain quarters for its sly references to male prostitution. He reportedly drank heavily during its recording sessions in New York City and appeared on its cover in drag. The next year, yet another public furor erupted over a single he recorded with his 13-year-old daughter Charlotte, "Lemon Incest." A reworking of Chopin's Etude No. 3 in E Major, the pop song contains the line "The love we will never make is the purest, the most tender...," and the video, in which both appeared, was suggestive, but not graphic. Critics saw the move as an attempt by Gainsbourg to regain, in a more free-thinking era, some of the notoriety he had first enjoyed with "Je T'Aime ... Moi Non Plus." "There may have been stars who became more completely the prisoner of their own myth than Gainsbourg, but few survived to serve so long a sentence," declared Chalmers in the Independent newspaper. "With time, his career as a provocateur had become increasingly hampered by public tolerance."
Gainsbourg continued to transgress boundaries with his final few releases, including a mildly obscene rap effort from 1987, You're Under Arrest. Two years later, Philips released the 207-song boxed set, De Gainsbourg a Gainsbarre, a retrospective of his career. A heavy smoker for much of his life, he died of a heart attack in his sleep at his home on the Rue de Verneuil on March 2, 1991. The news of his death sparked an outpouring of national grief in France: flags flew at half-mast, television stations aired his videos and films, and the media eulogized him. President Mitterand called him "our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire."
Well into the 1990s, Birkin was still performing the songs Gainsbourg had written for her. His other works were rediscovered by a new generation of fans after his death as well: the British pop acts Suede and the Pet Shop Boys, American hip-hoppers De La Soul, and even the industrial hard-core act Psychic TV have all recorded covers of their favorite Gainsbourg tracks. The chanteuse Hardy, who worked with Gainsbourg in the late 1960s, told Simmons that his "inspiration has been so rich that it cuts the grass from underneath the feet of all the songwriters who have followed on from him. It is impossible to undo his influence; he found everything before everyone else."
by Carol Brennan
Serge Gainsbourg's Career
Began music career as piano player in Paris nightclubs; passed examination for French songwriters' society, Société des Auteurs-Compositeurs (SACEM), 1954; began writing and performing songs on stage of Milord L'Arsoille, Paris; discovered by singer Michele Arnaud; signed with Philips label, released first record, Du Chant A la Une!, 1958; wrote songs for performers including Arnaud, Juliette Greco, Francoise Hardy, France Gall, Petula Clark, Vanessa Paradis; duet with Jane Birkin, "Je T'Aime ... Moi Non Plus," became first-ever foreign-language song to reach number one on U.K. charts, 1969.
- Selected discography
- Du Chant A la Une! , Polygram, 1958.
- No. 2 , Polygram, 1959.
- L'Etonnant Serge Gainsbourg , Polygram, 1961.
- No. 4 , Polygram, 1962.
- Gainsbourg Confidentiel , Philips, 1963.
- Gainsbourg Percussions , Philips, 1964.
- Anna , Philips, 1967.
- Bonnie and Clyde , Philips, 1968.
- Jane Birkin--Serge Gainsbourg , Fontana, 1969.
- Histoire de Melody Nelson , Philips, 1971.
- Vu de l'Exterieur , Philips, 1973.
- Rock around the Bunker , Philips, 1975.
- L'Homme A Tete de Chou , Philips, 1976.
- Aux Armes et Caetera , Philips, 1979.
- Love on the Beat , Philips, 1984.
- Gainsbourg Live , Philips, 1986.
- You're Under Arrest , Philips, 1987.
- De Gainsbourg a Gainsbarre , Philips, 1989.
- Jazz and Cinema , Vol. 3, Sunnyside, 2002.
- Simmons, Sylvie, Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes, Da Capo Press, 2001.
- Esquire, February 1998, p. 26.
- Independent (London), February 15, 1997, p. 3; January 4, 2000, p. 1.
- New Statesman, April 11, 1997, p. 43.
- Observer (London), May 20, 2001, p. 16.
- Sunday Times (London), June 1, 1997, p. 3.