Serge Gainsbourg/Biography

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1928-1959 1960-1964 1965-1969 1970-1978 1979-1986 1987-1991 1992-today

Born Lucien Ginsburg on 2 April 1928, he was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Lucien became a student of the fine arts and tenant of the Cité des Artistes. At the beginning he wanted to become a painter:

Un métier, un art qui me donnait un équilibre que je ne trouve pans dans la chanson. Figuratif, cubisme, surréalisme. A la Maturité, j'ai abandonné mes tubes et mes pinceaux puis détruit toutes mes toiles.

He then began to perform at the Trois Baudets of Jacques Canetti and in the cabarets of the "Rive gauche". At the time he was interested in classical music, but then discovered jazz (Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Art Blakey) and rock'n'roll (Screamin' Jay Hawkins).

One evening in 1958, Lucien saw Boris Vian at the Milord l'Arsouville. He was very impressed seeing him sing "Je bois", "La valse Martienne" and "Le déserteur". He found him very funny. Like Vian, Ginzburg-Gainsbourg had been bar pianist for a certain time and had also been accompanying Michèle Arnaud, before starting to perform himself as a singer under a white spotlight. He disturbed a good part of the public: his face and his air blasé shocked, people thought he was a dirty mouth; his vervosity, his texts were thought aggressive, immoral, cynic...

His first 10" album Du chant à la une! (1958), now under the name Serge Gainsbourg, was released by Philips. The writer Marcel Aymé wrote on the back cover:

Serge Gainsbourg est un pianiste de vingt-cinq ans qui est devenu compositeur de chansons, parolier et chanteur. Il chante l'alcool, les filles, l'adultère, les voiture qui vont vite, la pauvreté, les métiers tristes. Ses chansons, inspirées par l'expérience d'une jeunesse que la vie n'a pas favorisée, ont un accent de mélancolie, d'amertume, surtout la dureté d'un constat. Elles se chantent sur une musique un peu avare où, selon la mode de notre temps, le souci du rythme efface la mélodie. Je souhaite à Gainsbourg que la chance lui sourie surtout qu'il le mérite, et qu'elle mette dans ses chansons quelques taches de soleil.

With the exception of Boris Vian, most critics wrote negative reviews about this record which contains "Du jazz dans le ravin", "Ronsard 58", and also the famous "Le poinçonneur de lilas" which earned him the Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros the following year. Serge remembered:

J'ai très peu connu Boris Vian, parce qu'il est mort peu de temps après que je le rencontre. Il aimait ce que je faisais, ce qui est bien normal puisque je découle de lui... Pour ce qui est de ce 25 cm, il ne faut pas oublier que j'ai obtenu le Grand Prix avec une disque qui contenait des chansons interdites. Il y avait une floppé de chansons horizontales... La politique n'est pas mon propos. Alors de quoi parler? Moi, je parle de la femme, de faire l'amour...

"Le poinçonneur de lilas" was covered by the Frères Jacques and, still in 1959, Hugues Aufray won the prize "Les numéros 1 de demain" by interpreting the song. From 1959 to 1962 Serge recorded three more 10" albums: No. 2, L'étonnant Serge Gainsbourg containing "La chanson de Prévert", "Le rock de Nerval", and No. 4, and composed his first soundtrack for a movie, L'eau à la bouche (1960). He also sang texts by Alfred de Musset, Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire, but while noone listened to hear Gainsbourg sing, he wrote masterpieces for Juliette Greco ("La javanaise", 1963), Michèle Arnaud, Patachou and Philippe Clay. The list of artist which sang Gainsbourg is excessively long: among others it includes Dalida, Valérie Lagrange, Stone, Michèle Mercier, Anna Karina, Mireille Darc, Claude François, and the groupes Bijou, Starshooter and Jo Lemaire & Flouze.

Paradoxically it was the "yéyé" wave, which he treated with cynism, that brought him success. From 1963 to 1966, Gainsbourg became a strong part of the movement when he released his first 12" albums Gainsbourg percussions (the first French record using Afro-Cuban rhythms) with "Joanna", "Pauvre Lola", "Couleur café", and Gainsbourg confidentiel with "Chez les yé yé" and "Scenic railway". He wrote several hits for France Gall: "N'écoute pas les idoles", "Poupée de cire, poupée de son", a true testimony about these yéyé idols, which won the Grand Prix de l'Eurovision 1965, and "Les sucettes". Gainsbourg commented:

Quand les groups rock français sont arrivés, je n'étais pas brillant. C'est France Gall qui m'a sauvé la vie, car j'étais vraiment en perdition en 63-64 avec tous ces jeunes. "Annie aime les sucettes..." est une grande chanson, osée pour l'époque. Par la suite, elle l'a reniée. Pauvre petite France Gall! Et quand on lui a demandé pourquoi elle ne la chantait plus, elle a eu un mot superbe. Elle a répondu que ce n'était plus de son âge... Moi je ne regrette pas cette partie de ma vie. Du coup j'existe toujours.

Besides Gainsbourg also composed songs ("chansons", in fact) for Petula Clark ("La gadoue"), Dominique Walter ("Les petits boudins"), Régine ("Les p'tits papiers"), Françoise Hardy ("L'anamour") and the transvestite Zizi Jeanmaire ("Bloody Jack"). A little later, in 1966, Gainsbourg recorded for the first time in London ("Docteur Jekyll et Mr. Hyde") and in 1967 wrote an hommage to Brigitte Bardot with "Initiales B. B.", he composed "Harley Davidson" for her and sang the duet "Bonnie and Clyde" (1968) with the French superstar, for a French TV special. He first recorded his most famous song "Je t'aime... moi non plus" with her, but she refused to release it, fearing scandal, so Gainsbourg rerecorded the song with an English girl he had met in 1968 while shooting the movie Slogan (1969).

The name of the girl was Jane Birkin (born 1947 in London). The single became an international success and also a scandal... even the Vatican banned the song. Nevertheless (or because of it) the "années érotiques" of Gainsbourg started. In 1971, he recorded the pop opera Histoire de Melody Nelson for Jane and became a symbol of the sexual liberation. For Jane he wrote "Di doo dah" (1973), "Lolita go home" (1975), "Ex-fan des sixties"</a> (1978) and many more songs. Also for her he directed his first movie, Je t'aime moi non plus (1975).

After the superb L'homme à la tête de chou (1977), Serge got the best musicians, went to Kingston (Jamaica) and recorded a reggae album, Aux armes et caetera (1979), including a very controversial adaption of "La Marseillaise". Gainsbourg engaged Gainsbarre as his chief press officer. Against all expectations, the youth recognized the 51-year-old as one of theirs. His liberty of sound and a modern language placed him among the stars. Would he also have met with succes if he had tried to articulate himself? One day Gainsbourg declared: "La chanson est un art mineur!" This wasn't very lovely to himself and even less for Charles Trénet.

Between two intoxications and two scandals he even found time to publish a "parabolic tale", Evguénie Sokolov (1980), shooting commercials (Gini) and a second movie, Equateur (1983), with Francis Huster, and of course writing albums for Jacques Dutronc Guerre et pets (1980), Catherine Deneuve Souviens-toi de m'oublier (1981), Alain Chamfort Amour année zéro (1981), Alain Bashung Play blessures (1982), Jane Birkin Baby alone in Babylone (1983), Isabelle Adjani Isabelle Adjani (1983), and for himself Mauvaises nouvelles des étoiles (1981), Love on the beat (1984) as well as some songs for Diane Dufresne, Julien Clerc and others.

In 1985, he debuted at the Casino de Paris and sang a duo with his 14-year-old daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, a scandalaously beautiful song called "Lemon incest", using a melody of Frédéric Chopin. In December 1985 he recorded some live concerts for the double album Gainsbourg en concert (1986). In 1986 Gainsbourg composed the album Charlotte forever for his daughter and after recorded his last studio album, You're under arrest (1987). His severe operation in spring 1989 saved his life but left him very weakened, so his recovery was nothing but a reprieve. In full convalescence he still "fabricated" the album Variations sure le même t'aime for Vanessa Paradis, the "Lolycéenne" that had to be added to his list of winners. "Le premier album de toute ma carrière où j'ai dû retravailler des textes. C'était dur, trop dur..." In early 1990, Joëlle Ursull found herself on place 2 at the Concours de l'Eurovision with "Black and white blues", a composition by Gainsbourg.

He wanted to compose a last album for Jane Birkin, Amour des feintes, but on 2 March 1991 Serge Gainsbourg died at the age of 63. He was buried on 7 March in the Jewish part of the cemetery of Montparnasse in Paris.