Serge Gainsbourg

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Serge Gainsbourg
Serge Gainsbourg par Claude Truong-Ngoc 1981.jpg
Serge Gainsbourg in 1981
Background information
Birth nameLucien Ginsburg
Also known asJulien Grix, Gainsbarre
Born(1928-04-02)2 April 1928
Paris, France
Died2 March 1991(1991-03-02) (aged 62)
Paris, France
GenresFrench rock, French pop, yé-yé, jazz, reggae, new wave
Occupation(s)Singer-songwriter, musician, poet, actor, director, artist
InstrumentsVocals, piano, guitar, bass, clavinet, accordion, harmonica
Years active1957–1991
LabelsMercury/Universal
WebsiteOfficial website from Universalmusic
 
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Serge Gainsbourg
Serge Gainsbourg par Claude Truong-Ngoc 1981.jpg
Serge Gainsbourg in 1981
Background information
Birth nameLucien Ginsburg
Also known asJulien Grix, Gainsbarre
Born(1928-04-02)2 April 1928
Paris, France
Died2 March 1991(1991-03-02) (aged 62)
Paris, France
GenresFrench rock, French pop, yé-yé, jazz, reggae, new wave
Occupation(s)Singer-songwriter, musician, poet, actor, director, artist
InstrumentsVocals, piano, guitar, bass, clavinet, accordion, harmonica
Years active1957–1991
LabelsMercury/Universal
WebsiteOfficial website from Universalmusic

Serge Gainsbourg (born Lucien Ginsburg;[1] French pronunciation: ​[sɛʁʒ ɡɛ̃sbuʁ]; 2 April 1928 – 2 March 1991)[2] was a French singer, songwriter, pianist, film composer, poet, painter, screenwriter, writer, actor and director.[3] Regarded as one of the most important figures in French popular music, he was renowned for his often provocative and scandalous releases,[4][5] as well as his diverse artistic output, which embodied genres ranging from jazz, mambo, world, chanson, pop and yé-yé, to rock and roll, progressive rock, reggae, electronic, disco, new wave and funk. Gainsbourg's varied musical style and individuality make him difficult to categorize although his legacy has been firmly established and he is often regarded as one of the world's most influential popular musicians.[6]

His lyrical work incorporated a vast amount of clever word play to hoodwink the listener, often for humorous, provocative, satirical or subversive reasons. Common types of word play in his songs include mondegreen, onomatopoeia, rhyme, spoonerism, dysphemism, paraprosdokian and pun. Through the course of his career, Gainsbourg wrote over 500 songs,[7] which have been covered more than a thousand times by a wide range of artists.[8] Since his death, Gainsbourg's music has reached legendary stature in France. He has also gained a cult following in the English-speaking world, with numerous artists influenced by his arrangements.

Biography[edit]

Born in Paris, France, Gainsbourg was the son of Jewish Russian migrants, Joseph Ginsburg (28 December 1898, in Kharkov, Ukraine – 22 April 1971) and Olga[9] (née Bessman; 1894 – 16 March 1985), who fled to Paris after the 1917 Russian Revolution.[10][11] Joseph Ginsburg was a classically trained musician whose profession was playing the piano in cabarets and casinos; he taught his children, Gainsbourg and his twin sister Liliane to play the piano.[12][13][14]

Gainsbourg's childhood was profoundly affected by the occupation of France by Germany in World War II. The identifying yellow star Jews were required to wear became a symbol and haunted Gainsbourg and which in later years he was able to transmute into creative inspiration. During the occupation, the Jewish Ginsburg family was able to make their way from Paris to Limoges, traveling under false papers. Limoges was in the Zone libre under the administration of the collaborationist Vichy government and still a perilous refuge for Jews. After the war, Gainsbourg obtained work teaching music and drawing in a school outside of Paris, in Mesnil-Le-Roi. The school was set up under the auspices of local rabbis, for the orphaned children of murdered deportees. Here Gainsbourg heard the accounts of Nazi persecution and genocide, stories that resonated for Gainsbourg far into the future.[15] Before he was 30 years old, Gainsbourg was a disillusioned painter but earned his living as a piano player in bars.

Gainsbourg changed his first name to Serge, feeling that this was representative of his Russian background and because, as Jane Birkin relates: "Lucien reminded him of a hairdresser's assistant."[16] He chose Gainsbourg as his last name, in homage to the English painter Thomas Gainsborough, whom he admired.[17]

He married Elisabeth "Lize" Levitsky on 3 November 1951 and divorced in 1957. He married a second time on 7 January 1964, to Françoise-Antoinette "Béatrice" Pancrazzi (b. 28 July 1931), with whom he had two children: a daughter named Natacha (b. 8 August 1964) and a son, Paul (born in spring 1968). He divorced Béatrice in February 1966.

In late 1967 he had a short but ardent love affair with Brigitte Bardot, to whom he dedicated the song and album Initials BB.

In mid-1968 Gainsbourg fell in love with the younger English singer and actress Jane Birkin, whom he met during the shooting of the film Slogan. Their relationship lasted over a decade.[18] In 1971 they had a daughter, the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. Although many sources state that they were married,[19] according to their daughter Charlotte this was not the case.[18] Birkin left Gainsbourg in 1980.

Birkin remembers the beginning of her affair with Gainsbourg: he first took her to a nightclub, then to a transvestite club and afterwards to the Hilton hotel where he passed out in a drunken stupor. Birkin left Gainsbourg when pregnant with her third daughter Lou by the film director Jacques Doillon.[20]

His last partner was Bambou (Caroline Paulus, grandniece of German Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus of Stalingrad fame). In 1986, they had a son, Lucien (known as Lulu).[2]

Early work[edit]

His early songs were influenced by Boris Vian and were largely in the vein of old-fashioned chanson. Very early, however, Gainsbourg began to move beyond this and experiment with a succession of musical styles: jazz early on, pop in the 1960s, funk, rock and reggae in the 1970s and electronica in the 1980s.[2]

Gainsbourg, Gall, and del Monaco in a Screenshot of the Eurovision Song Contest, on 20 March 1965

Many of his songs contained themes with a morbid or sexual twist in them. An early success, "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas", describes the day in the life of a Paris Métro ticket man, whose job is to stamp holes in passengers' tickets. Gainsbourg describes this chore as so monotonous, that the man eventually thinks of putting a hole into his own head and being buried in another.

By the time the yéyés arrived in France, Gainsbourg was 32 years old and was not feeling very comfortable: he spent much time with Jacques Brel or Juliette Greco but the public and critics rejected him, mocking his prominent ears and nose. During this period, Gainsbourg began working with Greco, a collaboration that lasted throughout the 'Left Bank' period culminating in the song La Javanaise in the fall of 1962.

He performed a few duets in 1964 with the artist Philippe Clay, with whom he shared some resemblance. Around this time, Gainsbourg met Elek Bacsik and Michel Gaudry and asked them to make a record with him. This would become Confidentiel, which exuded a modern jazz aesthetic that pleased Gainsbourg, despite knowing that such a sound would not allow him access to success. The album sold only 1,500 copies. The decision was taken right upon leaving the studio: "I'll get into hack work and buy myself a Rolls". Still, his next album, Gainsbourg Percussions, inspired by the rhythms and melodies of Miriam Makeba and Babatunde Olatunji, was a world away from the yéyé wave, on the scene which was to become a key to the Gainsbourg fortune.

More success began to arrive when, in 1965, his song Poupée de cire, poupée de son was the Luxembourg entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. Performed by French teen and charming singer France Gall, it won first prize. The song was recorded in English as "A Lonely Singing Doll" by British teen idol Twinkle.[2]

His next song for Gall, Les Sucettes (Lollipops), caused a scandal in France: Gainsbourg had written the song with double-meanings and strong sexual innuendo of which the singer was apparently unaware when she recorded it. Whereas Gall thought that the song was about a girl enjoying lollipops, it was really about oral sex. The controversy arising from the song, although a big hit for Gall, threw her career off-track in France for several years.

Gainsbourg arranged other Gall songs and LPs that were characteristic of the late 1960s psychedelic styles, among them Gall's 1968 album. Another one of Serge's songs Boum Bada Boum, was entered by Monaco in the 1967 contest, sung by Minouche Barelli; it came fifth. He also wrote hit songs for other artists, such as Comment Te Dire Adieu for Françoise Hardy.[2]

In 1969, he released Je t'aime... moi non plus, which featured explicit lyrics and simulated sounds of female orgasm. The song appeared that year on an LP, Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg. Originally recorded with Brigitte Bardot, it was released with his future girlfriend Birkin when Bardot backed out. While Gainsbourg declared it the "ultimate love song", it was considered too "hot"; the song was censored or banned from public broadcast in numerous countries and in France even the toned-down version was suppressed. The Vatican made a public statement citing the song as offensive. Despite (or perhaps because of) the controversy, it sold well and charted within the top ten in many European countries.

The 1970s[edit]

Histoire de Melody Nelson was released in 1971. This concept album, produced and arranged by Jean-Claude Vannier, tells the story of a Lolita-esque affair, with Gainsbourg as the narrator. It features prominent string arrangements and even a massed choir at its tragic climax. The album has proven influential with artists such as Air, David Holmes, Jarvis Cocker, Beck and Dan the Automator.[21]

In 1975, he released the album Rock Around the Bunker, an album written entirely on the subject of National Socialism. Gainsbourg used black comedy, as he and his family had suffered during World War II, being forced to wear the yellow star as the mark of a Jew. Rock Around the Bunker belonged to the mid-1970s "retro" trend.

The next year saw the release of another major work, L'Homme à tête de chou (Cabbage-Head Man), featuring the new character Marilou and sumptuous orchestral themes. Cabbage-Head Man is one of his nicknames, as it refers to his ears. Musically, L'homme à tête de chou turned out to be Gainsbourg's last LP, in the English rock style he had favoured since the late 1960s. He would go on to produce two reggae albums recorded in Jamaica (1979 and 1981) and two electronic funk albums recorded in New York (1984 and 1987).

In Jamaica in 1979, he recorded "Aux Armes et cætera", a reggae version of the French national anthem "La Marseillaise", with Robbie Shakespeare, Sly Dunbar and Rita Marley. Following harsh and anti-semitic criticism in right-wing newspaper Le Figaro by Charles de Gaulle biographer Michel Droit, his song earned him death threats from right-wing veteran soldiers of the Algerian War of Independence, who were opposed to their national anthem being arranged in reggae style. In 1979, a show had to be cancelled, because an angry mob of French Army parachutists came to demonstrate in the audience. Alone onstage, Gainsbourg rose his fist and answered "The true meaning of our national anthem is revolutionary" and sung it with the audience. The soldiers joined them, a scene enjoyed by millions as French TV news broadcast it, creating more publicity. Shortly afterward, Gainsbourg bought the original manuscript of "La Marseillaise". He replied to his critics that his version was, in fact, closer to the original as the manuscript clearly shows the words "Aux armes et cætera..." for the chorus. This fine album, described by legendary drummer Sly Dunbar as "Perhaps the best record he ever played on" was his biggest commercial success, including major hits Lola Rastaquouère, Aux Armes Et Cætera and a French version of Sam Theard's jazz classic You Rascal You entitled Vieille Canaille.[22] Rita Marley and the I-Three would record another controversial reggae album with him in 1981, Mauvaises nouvelles des étoiles. Bob Marley was furious, when he discovered that Gainsbourg made his wife Rita sing erotic lyrics.[23] Posthumous new mixes, including dub versions by Soljie Hamilton and versions of both albums by Jamaican artists were released as double "Dub Style" albums in 2003, to critical praise in France as well as abroad and to international commercial success. Although belatedly, Aux Armes Et Cætera – Dub Style and Mauvaises Nouvelles Des Étoiles – Dub Style further established the late Serge Gainsbourg as an influential icon in European pop music.

Final years[edit]

Tribute graffiti covers the outer wall of Serge Gainsbourg's house on the rue de Verneuil in Paris, looked after by Charlotte Gainsbourg after her father's death

In 1982, Gainsbourg wrote an album for French rocker Alain Bashung, Play blessures. The album, although now considered a masterpiece by French critics, was a commercial failure.[citation needed]

After a turbulent 13-year relationship, Jane Birkin left Gainsbourg.[24] In the 1980s, near the end of his life, Gainsbourg became a regular figure on French TV. His appearances seemed devoted to his controversial sense of humour and provocation. In March 1984, he burned three-quarters of a 500 French franc bill on television to protest against taxes raising up to 75% of income.[25][26]

Serge Gainsbourg

He would show up drunk and unshaven on stage: in April 1986, in Michel Drucker's live Saturday evening show, with the American singer Whitney Houston, he objected to Drucker's translating his comments to Whitney Houston and in English stated: "I said, I want to fuck her" - Drucker insisted this meant "He says you are great..."[23] The same year, in another talk show interview, he appeared alongside Catherine Ringer, a well known singer who had appeared in pornographic films. Gainsbourg spat out at her, "You're nothing but a filthy whore, a filthy, fucking whore".[27]

His songs became increasingly eccentric during this period, ranging from the anti-drug Aux Enfants de la Chance, to the highly controversial duet with his daughter Charlotte named Lemon Incest.[28] This translates as "Inceste de citron", a wordplay on "un zeste de citron" (a lemon zest). The title demonstrates Gainsbourg's love for puns – another example of which is Beau oui comme Bowie, a song he gave to Isabelle Adjani.

By December 1988, while a judge at a film festival in Val d'Isère, he was extremely intoxicated at a local theatre where he was to do a presentation. While on stage he began to tell an obscene story about Brigitte Bardot and a champagne bottle, only to stagger offstage and collapse in a nearby seat.[27] Subsequent years saw his health deteriorate. He had to undergo liver surgery but denied any connection to cancer or cirrhosis. His appearances and releases became sparser as he had to rest and recover in Vezelay. During these final years, he released Love on the Beat, a controversial electronic album with mostly sexual themes in the lyrics and his last studio album, You're Under Arrest, presented more synth-driven songs.[2]

Film work[edit]

Acting

Gainsbourg appeared in nearly 50 film and television roles. In 1960, he co-starred with Rhonda Fleming in the Italian film La Rivolta Degli Schiavi (The Revolt of the Slaves) as Corvino, the Roman Emperor Massimiano's evil henchman. In 1969, he appeared in William Klein's pop art satire Mister Freedom, and in the same year he starred with Jane Birkin in Les Chemins de Katmandou (The Pleasure Pit). They acted together again in Cannabis the following year, and he also made a brief appearance with Birkin in Herbert Vesely's 1980 film, Egon Schieles Exzess und Bestrafung. He co-starred alongside Birkin in the French film Slogan for which he wrote the title song "La Chanson de Slogan". Also with Birkin, he acted in the French-Yugoslav film Devetnaest djevojaka i jedan mornar (19 girls and one sailor) where he played a role of a partisan.

Directing

Gainsbourg directed five movies: Je t'aime ... moi non plus, Le Physique et le Figuré, Équateur, Charlotte for Ever, and Stan the Flasher.

Composing

Throughout his career, Gainsbourg wrote the soundtracks for nearly 60 films and television programs. In 1996, he received a posthumous César Award for Best Music Written for a Film for Élisa, along with Zbigniew Preisner and Michel Colombier.

Writing[edit]

Gainsbourg wrote a novel entitled Evguénie Sokolov.[29]

Death and legacy[edit]

The gravesites of Serge, Olga and Joseph Gainsbourg

Gainsbourg died on 2 March 1991 of a heart attack. He was buried in the Jewish section of the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. His funeral brought Paris to a standstill,[citation needed] and French President François Mitterrand said of him, "He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire... He elevated the song to the level of art."[30] His home at the well-known address 5bis rue de Verneuil is still covered in graffiti and poems.

Since his death, Gainsbourg's music has reached legendary stature in France. He has also gained a following in the English-speaking world, with numerous artists influenced by his arrangements. One of the most frequent interpreters of Gainsbourg's songs was British singer Petula Clark whose success in France was propelled by her recordings of his tunes. In 2003, she wrote and recorded La Chanson de Gainsbourg as a tribute to the composer of some of her biggest hits.[citation needed] The majority of Gainsbourg's lyrics are collected in the volume Dernières nouvelles des étoiles.[31]

The Parisian house that Gainsbourg lived in from 1969 until 1991, at 5 bis Rue de Verneuil, remains a celebrated shrine, with his ashtrays and collections of various items, such as police badges and bullets, intact. The outside of the house is covered in graffiti dedicated to Gainsbourg as well as with photographs of significant figures in his life including Bardot and Birkin.[32]

Film biopic[edit]

A feature film titled Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) was released in France in January 2010, which is based on the graphic novel by the writer-director of the film, Joann Sfar. Gainsbourg is portrayed by Eric Elmosnino and Kacey Mottet Klein. The film was awarded 3 César Awards, including Best Actor for Elmosnino, and nominated for an additional 8.[33]

Selected covers and tributes[edit]

Tributes left at the gravesite

Discography[edit]

Studio albums[edit]

Live albums[edit]

Selected film scores[edit]

Singles[edit]

Editions[edit]

A 207-track survey of Gainsbourg's career from 1959 to 1981 on nine CDs, issued both separately and in a box: Vol. 1 – Le Poinçonneur Des Lilas, 1959-1960; Vol. 2 – La Javanaise, 1961-1963; Vol. 3 – Couleur Café, 1963-1964; Vol. 4 – Initials B.B., 1966-1968; Vol. 5 – Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus, 1969-1971; Vol. 6 – Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M'en Vais, 1973-1975; Vol. 7 – L'Homme à Tête de Chou, 1975-1981; Vol. 8 – Aux Armes et Cætera, 1979-1981; and Vol. 9 – Anna, 1967–1980. A two-CD highlights collection, also called De Gainsbourg à Gainsbarre, was culled from this edition in 1990. The box was reissued in 1994 with two more discs containing the later albums Love on the Beat (1984) and You're Under Arrest (1987).
An 18-CD box issued to mark the tenth anniversary of Gainsbourg's death containing each of his sixteen studio albums and the EP Essais Pour Signature (1958) in its original format (one per CD), plus a disc of rarities, Inédits, Les Archives 1958-1981. A separate 3-CD box, Le Cinéma de Serge Gainsbourg: Musiques de Films 1959–1990 (2001, Mercury) covered his film music.
A 20-CD, 271-track box issued to mark the twentieth anniversary of Gainsbourg's death. The first sixteen discs contain his studio albums and related tracks. They are followed by a disc of singles, a disc of television and radio recordings, and two discs of film music.

Albums written for other artists[edit]

Singles written for other artists[edit]

Selected tribute albums and posthumous releases[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Ginsburg is sometimes spelled Ginzburg in the media, including print encyclopedias and dictionaries. However, Ginsburg is the name engraved on Gainsbourg's grave, and "Lucien Ginsburg" is the name by which Gainsbourg is referred to, as a performer, in the Sacem catalog [1] (along with "Serge Gainsbourg" as the author/composer/adaptor)
  2. ^ a b c d e f allmusic Biography
  3. ^ Obituary Variety, 11 March 1991.
  4. ^ Ankeny, Jason. "Serge Gainsbourg – Music Biography, Credits and Discography". AllMusic. Retrieved 2012-11-10. 
  5. ^ Simmons, Sylvie (2 February 2001). "An extract from Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes by Sylvie Simmons". The Guardian. 
  6. ^ 2003年4月21日 (月). "The 100 Greatest Artists – No. 62". Hmv.co.jp. Retrieved 25 January 2011. 
  7. ^ fr:Liste des chansons de Serge Gainsbourg
  8. ^ fr:Reprises des chansons de Serge Gainsbourg
  9. ^ Sometimes spelled Olia, his mother's actual given name was Olga, as written on Gainsbourg's grave
  10. ^ Benjamin Ivry: The Man With the Yellow Star: The Jewish Life of Serge Gainsbourg, The Jewish Daily Forward, 26 November 2008.
  11. ^ Great Jewish Music, Deconstruction in Music.
  12. ^ "Serge Gainsbourg Biography – life, family, parents, name, story, death, wife, school, young, son, book, old, born, husband, marriage, time, year, scandal, sister, The outsider". Notablebiographies.com. Retrieved 25 January 2011. 
  13. ^ LucienGrix No real name given + Add Contact. "1928 Liliane & Lucien Ginsburg | Flickr – Photo Sharing!". Flickr. Retrieved 25 January 2011. 
  14. ^ http://www.vanityfair.com, Robinson, Lisa, Legends, “The World of Serge Gainsbourg,” November, 2007, retrieved September 3, 2012
  15. ^ http://www.m.forward.com, Ivry, Benjamin, “When You Feel The Jewish Life of Serge Gainsbourg,” November 26, 2008, retrieved September 4, 2012
  16. ^ http://www.vanityfair.com, Robinson, Lisa, Legends, “The World of Serge Gainsbourg,” November, 2007, retrieved September 3, 2012
  17. ^ http://www.notablebiography.com, "Serge Gainsbourg," retrieved September 3, 2012
  18. ^ a b Adams, William Lee (26 January 2010). "French Chanteuse Charlotte Gainsbourg". TIME. 
  19. ^ "Best-Looking Couples Ever". LIFE.com. See Your World LLC. 
    JoAnne Good (9 July 2011). "Inside Travel: Pooches in Paris". independent.co.uk. 
    "Serge Gainsbourg's women: the music". The Telegraph (Telegraph Media Group Limited). 7 February 2011. 
    "Birkin, Bardot and Gainsbourg, the accidental sex symbol". The Guardian (Guardian News and Media Limited). 5 July 2010. 
    "Jane Birkin". Apple Inc. 
  20. ^ Wyatt, Petronella (25 January 2008). "Jane Birkin reveals the naked truth about being a Sixties' icon". The Daily Mail (London). 
  21. ^ Album notes from Initials SG
  22. ^ Batteur Magazine, France, 2003
  23. ^ a b Chrisafis, Angelique, The Guardian (14 April 2006). "Gainsbourg, je t'aime". London. 
  24. ^ Vanity Fair, "The Secret World of Serge Gainsbourg", November 2007
  25. ^ Roughly 75 €, but in 1984, 500 FF represented one sixth of the net minimum monthly wage in France
  26. ^ Hodgkinson, Will, The Guardian (5 February 2003). "Serge, mon amour". London. 
  27. ^ a b Kent, Nick , The Guardian (15 April 2006). "What a drag". London. 
  28. ^ A controversial video for Lemon Incest featured a half-naked Gainsbourg lying on a bed with his daughter Charlotte. Phrases from the song include L'amour que nous ne ferons jamais ensemble/ Est le plus beau le plus violent/ Le plus pur le plus enivrant (The love that we will never make together/ is the most beautiful, the most violent/ The most pure, the most heady).
  29. ^ "Tam Tam Books". Tam Tam Books. Retrieved 25 January 2011. 
  30. ^ Simmons, Sylvie, The Guardian (2 February 2001). "The eyes have it". London. 
  31. ^ Bart Plantenga (2014). "Serge Gainsbourg: The Obscurity of Fame". wfmu.org. wfmu.org. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  32. ^ Jody Macgregor (16 April 2014). "8 secret music destinations you need to visit right now". Faster Louder. Faster Louder Pty Ltd. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  33. ^ César Awards 2011 imdb.com

References[edit]

External links[edit]