Serge Gainsbourg (1928–1991), the greatest French songwriter of the 1960s and 1970s, was as famous for his decadent life and cynical wit as for the songs he sang. He made a career out of writing clever, provocative lyrics, recording many of them himself and giving others to his many famous friends and lovers to sing. His theatrical rudeness and outrageous provocations made him infamous and beloved in France.
Gainsbourg was born at the Hoôtel Dieu hospital in Paris, along with his twin sister Liliane, on April 2, 1928. His birth name was Lucien Ginsburg. His parents, Joseph and Olia Ginsburg, were Jewish immigrants who had fled the Ukraine around the time of the Russian Revolution. Joseph was a talented pianist in theaters and clubs in Paris, well-versed in both classical music such as Chopin and American pop composers such as Cole Porter and George Gershwin. He taught his son and daughter piano, beginning when they were four years old. Lucien became interested in painting, so his parents sent him to art school in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris.
World War II began when Gainsbourg was 11 years old, and he spent his early teens in Paris during the German occupation. A 1942 law required Jews to wear yellow stars with the word “Jew” written on them, an experience that hurt and scarred him. “It was like you were a bull, branded with a red-hot iron,” he said in an interview quoted in Sylvie Simmons’s biography, Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes . The racist shaming magnified his feelings of adolescent alienation. “Even at 13, 14 years old, I had already become an outsider, because the tough guy thing wasn’t me.” He took refuge in reading books and smoking cheap cigarettes. Soon, an 8 p.m. curfew for Jews made it impossible for Joseph Ginsburg to work in nightclubs, so he sneaked away illegally to Limoges in southern France, where he found work with an orchestra and quietly sent money home. A year and a half later the rest of the family, using false identification, traveled to Limoges to join him. Limoges was in southern France, which was not directly occupied by Germany but controlled by the French government based in Vichy, so it was slightly less dangerous for Jews, though not safe. One day the headmaster of Gainsbourg’s school had the young man hide in nearby woods for a night to avoid a military documents check. When Paris was liberated in 1944, the family returned home.
In 1945 Gainsbourg enrolled in the prestigious art school École Supérieure Des Beaux Arts, to pursue painting. Two years later he also enrolled in a music school while continuing his art studies. He started dating Elisabeth Levitsky, secretary to poet Georges Hugnet and a part-time model, and she began supporting him financially. His father, wanting him to provide for himself, paid for him to take lessons from a gypsy guitar player so he could make money performing. While Gainsbourg spent a year in the military (as required of all French men), he developed a drinking habit that stuck with him the rest of his life. In 1951 he and Levitsky married.
The Astonishing Gainsbourg
Joseph Ginsburg began passing some of his piano playing gigs on to his son. As the young Gainsbourg got more work in nightclubs, he gave up painting, frustrated that he was not a genius at it, as he explained decades later. He joined France’s songwriters’ society in 1954 and registered his first six songs. For his new career, he renamed himself. He had never liked his first name. “He thought it was a loser’s name,” his longtime girlfriend Jane Birkin said in Simmons’s book. “He said it reminded him of hairdressers—they were always called Lucien. Serge, he thought, sounded more Russian. And he chose Gainsbourg because he loved the English painter Gainsborough.” Performing in nightclubs, Gainsbourg attracted a lot of female attention, and his womanizing caused Elizabeth to divorce him in 1957.
Gainsbourg began performing at the Milord L’Arsouille nightclub on Paris’s Left Bank, he where he gained two important supporters: popular singer Michèle Arnaud, who worked two of Gainsbourg’s songs into her act, and Boris Vian, a novelist and composer of songs full of biting humor. Word spread about Gainsbourg’s talent. He was signed to the Philips record label and recorded the 1958 album “Du Chant à la une!” (Songs on Page One). A mix of jazz and ballads in the French chansonstyle, the album was filled with lyrics that were cynical and bitter, especially toward women. It did not sell well, but Boris Vian wrote an article praising it, and it won the grand prize of L’Académie Charles Cros, a songwriting award. One song from the album, “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas” (The Ticket-Puncher), about a lonely subway ticket-taker who becomes suicidal, eventually became a classic of French songwriting. The next year, the acclaimed French singer Juliette Gréco released a four-song album of his songs, including one of his first compositions, “Les Amours Perdues” (The Lost Loves). His 1961 album, “L’Étonnant Serge Gainsbourg” (The Astonishing Serge Gainsbourg), made his literary influences clear; one song, “La Chanson De Prévert,” paid tribute to French poet Jacques Prévert.
For a few years, it seemed that Gainsbourg would never attract more than a cult following of jazz intellectuals and bohemians. Several French singers recorded his songs, but French chanson fell out of vogue starting around 1962, as French youth embraced American and British rock ‘n’ roll and French imitations known as yé-yé. Gainsbourg recorded a few songs mocking yé-yé fans and defied the trends by recording the experimental Gainsbourg Percussions , influenced by African and Caribbean percussion styles. Later, determined to write a hit song, he began writing material for 16-year-old yé-yé star France Gall, including the hit “Les Sucettes” (Lollipops) and “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” (Wax Doll, Singing Doll), which won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965. Soon, Gainsbourg’s songs were more popular than ever among female French singers, and he spent the next two years focusing on his songwriting.
Gainsbourg married his second wife, Béatrice, whose given name was Françoise-Antoinette Pancrazzi, in early 1964. They soon had a daughter, Natacha. The marriage was doomed from the start, since she was extremely possessive, jealous of his singer friends and his fans. They divorced two years later, reuniting temporarily in 1967 and conceiving another child, Paul, born in 1968. But by then Gainsbourg had left Beatrice permanently. He had fallen in love with one of France’s most beautiful and most famous actresses, Brigitte Bardot.
Bardot and Birkin
Gainsbourg was not a conventionally attractive man. In fact, he was often described as ugly; one French fanzine said he resembled a drowsy turtle. Yet one famous sex symbol after another became either his friend or his lover. “He attributed his appeal to women to a charmed sense of vulnerability, as well as his baggy eyes, three-day stubble and perpetual halo of smoke from five daily packs of Gitanes,” William Drozdiak wrote in the Washington Post . Accordng to Drozdiak, Gainsbourg often said that “ugliness is superior to beauty because it lasts longer.”
Bardot, a singer as well as an actress, had already recorded a few of Gainsbourg’s songs before they appeared together on a prime time TV show together in late 1967. Bardot’s second marriage was in trouble, and she and Gainsbourg discovered a mutual attraction. She invited him to appear on her own TV show, and he began writing new songs for her. Soon they became lovers, meeting discreetly at first, then going out to trendy nightclubs. They sang Gainsbourg’s new songs, playful and full of abandon, on her show amid sets wild with pop psychedelia. “Comic Strip” was pop art as song, with Gainsbourg singing lead and Bardot intoning cartoon sound effects: “Shebam! Pow! Blop! Wizz!” To perform “Bonnie and Clyde,” they styled themselves as flashy crooks. Next, they recorded “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus” (I Love You … Me Neither), a clever duet punctuated by erotic groans and sighs. According to Simmons’s biography, rumor spread that Gainsbourg and Bardot had been engaged in “heavy petting” while recording it. Enraged, Bardot’s husband demanded that the record company cancel the single. Worried he would hurt Bardot’s image, Gainsbourg complied, and the Bardot recording was not released until 1986.
Bardot returned to her husband, and Gainsbourg found a new lover, Jane Birkin, a beautiful 22-year-old British actress whose looks evoked the Swinging London fashion scene of the time. They met while acting in the film Slogan , and Gainsbourg swept her off her feet with a passionate, all-night trip through the nightclubs of Paris. Gainsbourg rerecorded “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus” with Birkin and released the new recording as a single. The lyrics were a clever interplay of cynicism and sentiment, but the suggestive vocal effects caught more listeners’ attention. The Vatican called the song obscene and the BBC banned it, but it hit the top of the British singles charts anyway, Gainsbourg’s only hit outside France. It sold 6 million copies worldwide.
Gainsbourg and Birkin quickly became one of the most famous celebrity couples in Europe. According to some accounts, they secretly married sometime in the 1970s, but other accounts say they never did. Either way, they stayed together for more than a decade. In 1971 Birkin gave birth to their daughter, Charlotte. The same year, Gainsbourg and Birkin released their next musical collaboration, Histoire de Melody Nelson (Story of Melody Nelson), a concept album about a middle-aged man in a forbidden romance with a 15-year-old girl. The music included an orchestra and a choir. Some critics considered the 1971 album to be Gainsbourg’s masterpiece. “The story is silly,” wrote New York Times critic Jody Rosen, but “it has real-life emotional resonance and actually holds together like a literary work: Gainsbourg’s lyrics are filled with wonderful details and moments of genuine pathos.”
Throughout the 1970s Gainsbourg continued writing songs, though a heart attack in 1973 slowed him down for a while. Birkin convinced him to adopt a more casual style, including an unshaven, stubbly look that became his visual trademark. Gainsbourg had enjoyed the scandal around “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus,” and his 1970s output and public appearances seemed increasingly calculated to shock. For instance, his 1975 album Rock Around the Bunker was a caustically funny song series about Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany set to 1950s-style American rock. One song was named after the yellow star the Nazis had forced him to wear as a boy.
Again seeking to innovate and surprise, Gainsbourg traveled to Jamaica and recorded a reggae album in 1978, at a time when reggae was just becoming popular in Western Europe. He booked a session in a Kingston recording studio with accomplished reggae musicians Sly and Robbie. Their meeting was awkward—the musicians were in no mood to record French music—until Sly declared that the only French song he knew was “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus.” Once Gainsbourg told them it was his song, they got along well. Their 1979 album Aux Armes et cetera (To Arms, Etc.) included the title track, Gainsbourg’s reggae version of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” Instead of singing some of the bloodiest lines of the anthem, Gainsbourg sang, “Aux armes, et cetera,” and let the lyrics trail off. The radical transformation of the anthem “was, for the French, the equivalent of the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ and Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ rolled into one,” Simmons wrote in her biography. The conservative national newspaper Le Figaro called it an outrage and declared that Gainsbourg’s French citizenship should be revoked. Gainsbourg embarked on a tour of France with the reggae musicians, and the shows sold out, but they were plagued by bomb threats from the extreme right. Before Gainsbourg’s show in Strasbourg, a band of paratroopers warned the city’s mayor that they would stop the show by force if necessary. Gainsbourg took the stage alone, though several of the paratroopers were in the audience, and sang the national anthem solo, then directed a disrespectful hand gesture at the paratroopers. His defiance made him a hero to much of the younger generation in France.
In the 1980s Gainsbourg’s life began to turn tragic. Birkin left him in 1980, upset that he had begun drinking more heavily and acting outrageously. They remained friends, however, and Gainsbourg continued to write songs for her albums. A year later, Gainsbourg began a new relationship with the young singer Caroline Von Paulus, better known by her stage name, Bambou. They had a son, Lucien, in 1986.
In his own songs, Gainsbourg began to include references to an alter ego, “Gainsbarre,” a character hobbled by alcohol and depression. “His excessive indulgencein booze, tobacco and women seemed to nurture his commercial success, as the French public became more fascinated by him with every outrageous piece of music or behavior,” wrote Drozdiak. Once he burned a 500-franc note on live TV to protest high taxes. In 1986, also on live TV, he vulgarly propositioned the American singer Whitney Houston. He did, however, find one taboo the French did not want broken. In 1984 he recorded the song “Lemon Incest” as a duet with his daughter Charlotte, then 13. The video showed them lying near each other on a bed, and the lyrics “come close to extolling carnal relations,” as Drozdiak put it. Three years later Gainsbourg directed an entire film, Charlotte Forever , as an homage to her. He also continued recording, experimenting with funk and hip-hop, and writing songs for others, including Bambou, Birkin, and the young French singer Vanessa Paradis, mostly known in the United States for later marrying American actor Johnny Depp.
Publicly indulging in too much alcohol and too many cigarettes, Gainsbourg spent 10 years committing suicide, as one friend of his put it. He endured heart problems and a liver operation before dying on March 2, 1991, of a heart attack at his apartment in Paris. Much of France mourned. French President François Mitterand declared that Gainsbourg, “through his love for the language and his musical genius, lifted the song to the level of an art” (as quoted in the Chicago Tribune ). He was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, the final resting place of many of France’s greatest writers and artists. Since his death, Gainsbourg’s legend has grown. Many young French, American and British singers acknowledge his influence, and fans still leave huge collections of art and gifts, including packs of Gitanes, outside his old apartment.