Comprehending a Cult
France’s beloved bad-boy troubadour Serge Gainsbourg is an acquired taste for foreigners. His cynical, grizzled, Gitane-puffing, pastis-soaked image can seem posy and pretentious. After years of trying to understand this French obsession, I have finally been convinced that he is indeed a strangely fascinating man by a visit to “Gainsbourg 2008,” a stylish biographical exhibition at the Cite de la Musique.
How do you put a whole person – in this case, a personality – on display in a museum-like show? It isn’t easy, but the exhibition’s curator, artist and “sound illustrator” Frédéric Sanchez has done it brilliantly by splintering Gainsbourg into his many component parts – artist, poet, singer, songwriter, actor, director – and putting him back together again. And, luckily for Sanchez, Gainsbourg gave him plenty of material to work with.
A short bio for those who have not been indoctrinated into the cult: Lucien Ginsburg was born in Paris in 1928 to Russian Jewish parents. During World War II, the family had to wear yellow stars, but then managed to live out the war years with false papers near Limoges. After studying art, he destroyed most of his paintings in 1958 and changed his name to Serge Gainsbourg. A piano player in Paris jazz bars and cabarets, he was a great admirer of Boris Vian, who helped him get his start, and eventually began composing songs, among them the beautiful “La Javanaise,” which he wrote for Juliette Greco.
Notoriety came later, when France Gall won the Eurovision song contest in 1965 with his composition, “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son,” and later created a major scandal by innocently singing Gainsbourg’s not-so-innocent “Les Sucettes,” which seemed to be about more than just sucking on lollipops. The world of pop was good to him, and he contributed many songs to it, even while maintaining his image as a cynical avant-garde artist.
Gainsbourg seems to have inspired great affection and even adoration not only in the public but also in his girlfriends (among them his longtime partner, English actress Jane Birkin, mother of Charlotte Gainsbourg, and model Bambou, his last partner and the mother of his son Lucien, a.k.a. Lulu), who staunchly defend his memory. Physically he wasn’t much of a prize. Grizzled and lizardly, he slouched around like a true debauchee.
Ask any French person why they love Gainsbourg so much and to a man and woman, they will respond “his lyrics.” Not only were they poetic, but they were also clever and full of sophisticated wordplay, so highly respected in France. A few examples: “Souviens-toi de m’oublier” (“Remember to forget me”); “Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais” (I’ve come to say I’m going”); “Je t’aime. Moi non plus” (“I love you. Me neither,” a song that famously includes the sound effects of a female orgasm and made him famous worldwide); “Fuir le bonheur de peur qu’il se sauve” (“Flee happiness for fear that it will disappear”). Gainsbourg is also considered to have been ahead of his time in the way he integrated other musical styles – classical, jazz, African, reggae, hip-hop and more – into his own music.
Provocateur? No question. Talk about politically incorrect! This is the man who once said to a talk-show host on a live show “I want to fuck her,” referring to his fellow guest, Whitney Houston. On another famous occasion, he burned a five-hundred-franc bill on a TV show. And then there is his interest in Lolita-like young women (he even starred his 13-year-old daughter in an erotic song and video entitled “Lemon Incest”). Yet Jane Birkin claims that Gainsbourg was terribly shy.
In a way, his whole life was a provocation: no surgeon-general’s warnings could stop him from pickling himself in pastis and smoking multiple packs of cigarettes per day. And he did it all gleefully (until, near the end, it finally sunk in that it was killing him; he died of a heart attack in 1991).
The darkened space of the exhibition echoes the decor of Gainsbourg’s black-walled Rue de Verneuil apartment (which his daughter Charlotte has left exactly as it was when he died, down to the cans of food in the kitchen cupboard and his last toothbrush, and wants to turn into a museum, to the consternation of the residents of the tony street). Thankfully, the show uses hardly any wall text to explain Gainsbourg’s life, which is illustrated visually and audibly on a forest of “totems” through film and video clips, photos, personal belongings and recordings of his texts by actors and actresses, among them Catherine Deneuve and his daughter Charlotte.
We see not only one of the few remaining examples of his artwork (a self-portrait that attests to his talent) and his manuscripts and scribbled texts, but also the artworks and artifacts he collected: a life-sized state of a naked man with a cabbage for a head by Claude Lalanne, for example, the inspiration for his album L’Homme à Tête de Chou, and – seemingly completely out of character – a collection of medals he had cadged from the policemen friends who drove him home late at night.
The show “samples” Gainsbourg’s life the way he sampled musical styles, taking visitors beyond the public provocation and immersing them in his life. By the time you leave this show, you may just be ready to join the cult yourself. Have a Gitane and a pastis to celebrate.
Musée de la Musique: Cité de la Musique, 221, avenue Jean Jaurès, 75019 Paris. Métro: Porte de Pantin. Vélib: near Porte de Pantin Métro. Tel.: 01 44 84 45 00. Open Tuesday-Thursday: noon-6 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, noon-10 p.m.; Sunday: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission: €8. Through March 15. See Web site for program of related concerts and films. www.cite-musique.fr/
Contributor David Platzer writes: “Serge Gainsbourg was the Picasso of pop music and not only a brilliant poet but a highly accomplished and sophisticated musician. The early Gainsbourg and the early Dylan both had a way of writing songs whose liltingly tender melodies belied their harsh lyrics (‘La Chanson de Prévert’ in the one case, ‘Don’t Think Twice’ or ‘4th Time Around’ in the other).”
© 2008 Paris Update
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