In a recent interview, Jane Birkin described her first date with Serge Gainsbourg. They met on the set of the 1969 movie Slogan; he was 40, she was 22. “He barely spoke to me and I thought him terribly arrogant and unkind,” she recalled, “so the director suggested we go out for the night. We went to dinner, then to a club, where I dragged him onto the dancefloor. He trod all over my toes, and I realised that under the rashness and the mauve shirt, he was devastatingly unsure of himself, and that made him terribly intriguing. Then he whizzed me off to the Rasputin club, where he made all the musicians play Sibelius’s Valse Triste while he threw 100-franc notes at them, saying, ‘C’est des putes, comme moi’ — ‘They’re prostitutes, like me’. Then we went off to another club where all the men were dressed up as ladies, to my amazement, kissing Serge on the forehead and saying, ‘Ooh, petit chou-chou’. His father had been a cabaret musician, and they’d all known him since he was tiny, and obviously thought he was a darling. By then it was 4am, and we went back to the Hilton hotel, where the desk clerk said, ‘Your usual room, M. Gainsbourg?’ I thought, Uh-oh, but luckily Serge immediately fell asleep.”
This picaresque tale sums up Gainsbourg’s many facets: louche, naturally; goading, of course; a boulevardier, no doubt; but also oddly artless and innocent. This Gallic colossus of the second half of the 20th century — singer, songwriter, musician, painter, actor, director, smoker, alcoholic, romantic, ladies’ man, and revered national treasure — exploited his contradictions triumphantly. A self-confessed “freakishly ugly” man, with his jug ears, turtle eyes and huge hooked nose, he wrote songs for, and had affairs with, some of the era’s most beautiful women. He thought nothing of marrying high and low culture, adapting the romantic sweep of a Chopin étude, say, for a song about the joys of sex on an ocean liner. He was equal parts Baudelaire, Byron, Johnny Rotten, Stephen Sondheim and Benny Hill. He said things like “I am incapable of mediocrity” alongside “I’ve succeeded at everything except my life”.
Gainsbourg had been born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris in 1928; his parents had escaped czarist Russia in 1919. His classically trained father played piano in clubs and casinos. “We were raised in a culture of beauty,” said Gainsbourg’s elder sister, Jacqueline. “Painting, music, literature, and the avant-garde — we heard Chopin, Stravinsky, Ravel.” Gainsbourg, conscious of his looks, ping-ponged between wanting to look like the American movie star Robert Taylor and declaring, “I prefer ugliness to beauty, because ugliness endures”. He started to smoke and drink at 20, when he went into the army; on his discharge, he attended the Academie des Beaux-Arts, but dismissed “the bohemian life of the painter” in favour of songwriting. The jazz chanteuse and actress Gréco was the first to record an E.P. of his songs — including the smoky snap of La Javanaise — in 1959, but fame came to him via the unlikely route of the Eurovision song contest.