Serge Gainsbourg once described “Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus” (I Love You, Me Neither), his orgasmic 1969 duet with Jane Birkin, as a “chanson anti-baise”—an anti-fuck song. Such contradictions abound in Sylvie Simmons’s sympathetic if skin-deep biography of the singer, songwriter, actor, screenwriter, and novelist. Born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris to Russian Jews, forced to wear a yellow star in 1942 (a period revisited on his 1975 album Rock Around the Bunker), Gainsbourg challenged audiences with his renegade behavior, risqué lyrics, and genre surfing—1979’s reggae version of “La Marseillaise” was a succès de scandale.
Gainsbourg “created his own musical form out of his lack of a singing voice and his personal obsessions, a kind of ongoing autobiographical erotic novella,” according to an obit included in A Fistful of Gitanes. In his Nabokovian masterpiece, Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971), a Rolls-Royce driver runs into a red-haired 15-year-old English girl, deemed the “Spirit of Ecstasy”; the “déliceuse enfant” dies in a plane crash soon after her sexual initiation. And in the darker L’Homme à Tête de Chou (“The Man With the Cabbage Head,” 1976), a journalist brutally murders his unfaithful girlfriend and serenades her corpse. Simmons lets Serge explain these preoccupations: “Love is dirty; the dirtier love is, the more beautiful it is.”
The provocateur described by lover Birkin as pudique—reserved, shy, discreet, chaste—developed his dissipated alter ego, Gainsbarre, after she left him, ushering in his heartbreaking decline, marked by alcoholism and a debilitating cigarette addiction. (Right before he died, doctors were threatening to amputate his artereosclerotic legs.) Reminiscent of de Sade, he described his career as “a search for the truth via an injection of perversity”; upon his death at age 62 in 1991, President Mitterand dubbed him “our Baudelaire.” Simmons delineates the wide reach of Gainsbourgisme, from Air to Pulp to Beck, but fails to mention Japanese chanteuse Kahimi Karie, whose 1994 Girly EP is an homage to Melody Nelson. While his music has enjoyed a revival, he remains identified with his self-cultivated lecherous persona; this biography, though breezy, offers a welcome corrective, showing the artist’s lesser-known facets. Most necessary now in the field of Serge studies is a complete English-language translation of his lyrics, a definitive guide to such playful profundities as “L’amour physique est sans issue.”