When Serge Gainsbourg’s biggest hit, « Je t’aime » stalled at 69 on the American charts, it was clearly a case of la justice poetique.
Article by James Truman, published in Spin Magazine, October 1986
The music room of Serge Gainsbourg’s Paris home contains three pianos, a bronze statue and a telephone. The pianos are decorated with Polaroids of his girlfriend’s breasts, arranged horizontally above the keys. The statue overlooks them, nursing a bronze erection. The telephone has been ringing all evening. Gainsbourg leans over and grabs the receiver.
« Qu’est-ce que tu veux? (What do you want?) Eh…? Tu veux me baiser? (You want to fuck me?) Vache ! Pute ! (Cow! Whore!) »
He hangs up sharply and shrugs his shoulder.
« The fans… They won’t leave me alone » he sighs.
He’s right. They won’t. Even if his number weren’t in the phone book, they probably wouldn’t. And if they did. you would imagine he’d call them to find out if they wanted to fuck him. The week before, on a television talk show, he’d put the question to Whitney Houston. « I’am not Reagan and you are not Gorbachev, so let’s do it » he reasoned. It was a great picked line. He’s still puzzled about why it didn’t work.
In France, Serge Gainsbourg is a legend. For 20 years he has reigned as the country’s pop superstar. True, there hasn’t been much competition, but then Gainsbourg is more than just a pop star. He also reigns as France’s leading drankard, philanderer, beatnik, scandal-maker and buffoon. In all of those areas the competition is ferocious.
Now 56. he became a pop star fairly late in life. Before, that, there had been a wild memoir-worthy life: studying painting with Léger, hanging out with Dali they watched porno films together, falling in love with Bardot. It was with Bardot in mind that he wrote « Je t’aime » a graphic between the sheets love song that for 1968 was scandalously rude. When Bardot had second thoughts about releasing it, he rerecorded her song with Jane Birkin, a British actress who he later married. Banned everywhere upon release, the second sold more than four million copies. In America it was quickly withdrawn from sale and stalled on the charts at No 69. This fact still delights Gainsbourg. He runs out of the room and staggers back with a giant blowup of the relevant chart, snoring with glee: « Superbe, superbe! »
The record’s vocal style became Gainsbourg’s signature. Not much of a singer, he’s terrific heavy breather and a crooner of genius. He’s also a songwriter and storyteller of rare perversity. That is, there aren’t many other pop singers who would make concept albums about a man who has a cabbage for a head (L’Homme à la Tete de Chou) or write Histoire de Melody Nelson. The later, his masterpiece, tells the story of a man who runs over a 12 year-old girl in his Rolls-Royce, takes her to a convent, rapes her, buys her a plan ticket home, and spends the rest of his life in despair after the plane crashes.
« It is like taking photographs of the sky » he offers. « When the sky is blue, the picture shows nothing. When there are clouds, then you see a picture. It is the clouds that interest me. I am a sad man »
In the late 70s it was reggae that interested him. He recorded a couple of dubious LPs with Sly and Robbie and put out a dub version of the French national anthem, which caused another scandal and also went platinum. Oddly enough, it also made him honorary leader of the French punk movement. « They found a guy who didn’t care about anything, who was antiestablishment like them. They didn’t like me, they loved me. » He says.
But then Sid Vicious died and Gainsbourg decided he could never make another reggae record. How there two connect is obscure, even after he’s explained it. Somewhere along the way, it also involves the Dadaist, Rimbaud, Marilyn Monroed, and Francis Bacon. But that’s typical: Gainsbourg is more than adept at the French are name-dropping.
With Sid gone, Serge decided to go disco, recording in New York with black session musicians. Love on the Beat is his first LP to be released in America. Even though almost all the words are in French, a sticker on the cover warms of explicit lyrics and advices parental caution. The caution is most needed for the album’s closing track, a song about incest sung by himself and his 13-year-old daughter Charlotte, and the title song which has a woman’s bloodcurdling screams for a backing track.
Gainsbourg is offended by the idea that it’s and S&M song. « Not at all. What happened was one night I put a tape recorder under my bed, I fuck my girlfriend and she makes these noises ». By way of apology, you compliment him on his stamina the song goes on forever. But he just sniffs the air. « Actually the tape went on for an hour. I had to shorten it ».
A propos of nothing, he suddenly announced that he’s about to die. « I smoke and drink too much. Perhaps I have two or three years left, but no more » he says, looking unconcerned. « The only thing I regret is that I have not been in a major art. I am only a small master of a minor art. It is just that we live in a time when the minor arts have taken over the major arts, they have fucked them completely. This is why Gainsbourg is famous.
« The thing I am most proud of I think is ‘Je T’aime’ he continues. « I think it is one of the best love song ever written. In my own life I have never been able to tell a woman that I love her. I’m not sure if it because I am too shy or too smart. I thing it’s because I am too smart ». At which point he drains his glass, staggers to his feet, falls back into the chair and looks distraught. « Oh shit, I’m pissed again ».
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