We all know the artist very well but a few know the man himself for real. His music was so complex and deep that the department of musicology of the university La Sorbonne, in Paris needed a close examination. Let us dive into the life of this great musician, the last real accursed poet, “poète maudit “ in French, even if he has never described himself as a poet.
Lucien Gainsbourg is born on 2 April 1928 in Paris from an Ukrainian mother and a Jewish father of Russian origin. Together with his twin sister Liliane, he takes up the challenge of an abortion that has failed and his destiny begins to come thanks to the sudden discovery of his artistic skills. His father Joseph is a pianist and a liberal, therefore artistic education is usual at the Gainsbourgs’ who live and fully adopt the Parisians habits. Nevertheless, the family suffers from the consequences of being Jewish during these years of anti-Semitic madness. They fortunately manage to escape and thanks to other stratagems they implemented, the family succeeded in coming back to Paris in 1944.
Lucien (“Lulu” for his friends) is now teenager and his personality starts to become apparent: shy, bored and disgracious, his ugliness is neither temporary nor typical of his age but still permanent and decadent. However the curious way in which Lulu’s face is organized has got charme, is quite seducing.
By that time, he did not know that this physic itself would conquest very beautiful women. He did not manage to refer in a satisfying way to women and this would define his
misogynous attitude as well as of dependence towards the women for the rest of his life.
Evolution and awareness are close to each other, school is not enough stimulating for him and his father, aware of his son’s talent, encourages him to go to an art institute thanks to he will start to take a foot into the artistic world that, in these years, certainly was rich and electrifying!
The following period is rich of discoveries for the young Lulu who, going out with artists and models of the workshops, becomes always more aware and less clumsy, cigarettes and alcohol quickly become part of the repertory of defaults of the young artist and will always be beauty secrets for him.
He marries the model Elizabeth Levitsky and shares the hirings as a pianist with his father. The circumstances does not suit to his hedonist spirit and by now, he is ready to go on stage. He divorces and changes his name: Serge is a sophisticated name just enough and his Russian origins are properly suggested. Gainsbourg pays tribute to the English painter Gainsbourgh.
The complexity of his music becomes quite slowly successful, which is due to the difficulty to give a frame to his genre. That is the distinctive touch of G,
the impossibility to attribute him uniformity to his songs pushes the more clever auditor to look in his sources of inspirations that comes from an heterogeneous and autodidact culture.
The album of his débuts is “ Du chante à la une” and it is complicated to define it: Gainsbourg sings cynicism, disillusion, love and betrayal, ambiguity and human misery with his own personal nonchalance. Non respectful and spontaneous, he goes from swing rhythm to jazz more sophisticated, showing a romanticism not so romantic and introducing himself to the public without much formalism.
Also the cinema is seduced by the shy provocation of his smooth and ambiguous look that often plays the mean figurant of many historical movies.
Paris’ Rive Gauche represents his existentialist and vicious behaviour that rules in G’s life, who, from this period on, adopts a style that will never change until the end:
- jackets, chemises, pants definitely seventies and fully in denim stand for his usual clothes in which he appears in the most famous photographic portraits.
- The variant is a crossed coat thrown with maxi buttons, chemise of chambray (fabrics often mixed with denim but from which the different texture confers him a lightness that makes him less rigid) and exclusively flared pants.
Navy blue and black seem to be the only available colors apart from the white shoes with a Parisian signature famous to be the reference for all the dancers: Repetto.
An elegance mixed to a sophisticated negligence characteristic of the one who secretly cultivated absolute esthetics.
His relationship with the women will always be complicated but many will get seduced by the unique personality of the shy and insolent artist that shows his misogyny but strongly desires love and sincerity, who every time he is surprised by the attention paid to him.
Juliette Gréco, Nico, Brigitte Bardot with whom he experiences a destroying passion that will empty him and let him in suffering. His second wife was Beatrice, whom he did not choose well, and finally Jane Birkin, his most important love. That is the year 1969 and our hero, who survived to rather intense years both sentimentally and professionally, moves in to the hotel of Rue de Verneuil and dedicates to the realization of soundtracks for the cinema.
Movie-maker Pierre Grimblat asks Serge to be his first role in his film “Slogan” and to record the soundtrack; the main actress is Jane Birkin. Their first encounter is a disaster, there’s no shadow of anything will be their future. Only after having tried many times and failed to get closer to him,caused by the hostile behaviour of Serge towards the very young and innocent Jane, they dance together during a dinner organised by the movie-maker and finally really look at each other for the first time. That’s the beginning of their love story that will fascinate the whole world and make the English Girl Birkin the defined Parisian .
The song “Je t’aime, moi non plus” becomes the symbol of the couple, and the song had been written during the love affair with the garrulous Bardot. With Jane, the song adopts appropriate nuances and reaches a censured success, scandalous, lascivious, is even excommunicated by the Vatican and also very elegant. In 10 other songs from the album Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin, a lot of space is given to Jane and as usual, an articulated and a complex mix of styles and refined adaptations.
The year 1970 is the one of love, travels around the world, unconsidered gestures and mundane game. One of the biggest works of SG, officially recognised as one of the master-chiefs of light music, comes to the light in 1971: that’s l’Histoire of Melody Nelson. For every piece, video clips are then collected in a short Musical called “Melody”.
In the following years, Serge fends for himself with his usual nonchalance between the lack of consensus of the public followed by the mediocre success of his last albums. The birth of his much beloved daughter does not distract him from his favorite default: cigarettes. His so much discussed eighty Gitanes a day that, offer him in 1971 a cardiac crisis, terrifies the young mom Jane but they will never be put into question. That’s the beginning of a slow but inexorable fall towards the end of freedom, hedonism and the genie.
His appearance of free man is the mirror of his desperate searching for artistic approval; neither success and the understanding of his public will be satisfying enough nor the lack of interest put on stage together with his usual elegance. They can’t contrast with the spectrum of deep suffering that will consume him as much as hepatic cirrhosis.
His relationship with Jane will transform but won’t never really end. The dealing of uncomfortable social topics is the specialty of G who, scandal after scandal, earns the title of most impolite artist of France, he reaches the top with “Lemon incest”, declaration of love to Charlotte, full text on a musical base of Chopin which will be qualified as excessively ambiguous, reprehensible and devious.
Not even the birth of his son Lulu (who will call him by his real name, Lucien) he got with the euro Chinese model Caroline Paulus, Bambou as an artist name, managed to deliver him from his alcohol addiction which has built a fortress of blind loneliness that will end with his death on 2 March 1991.
Today, his apartment at the hotel at 5 bis rue de Verneuil has become a shrine as his daughter Charlotte wished. She will probably transform it into a museum that will smell like Gitanes and perfume Van Cleef & Arpels.
France pays tribute to the misunderstood genius, secretly loved myth, too disturbing for a right-thinking country that pretends to be irreverent and lives from bourgeoise resignations.