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’ 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 (in Joann Sfar’s biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, he’s represented by a golem-like puppet that resembles the Count from Sesame Street), he wrote songs for and had affairs with some of the era’s most beautiful women, including Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Gréco, and Catherine Deneuve. He thought nothing of marrying high and low culture, adapting the romantic sweep of a Chopin etude, say, for a song about the joys of sex on an ocean liner, or in the cabin of a truck, or just about anywhere. He was a punctiliously tax-paying prude (“I never saw him completely naked,” said Birkin, despite the fact they had a daughter, Charlotte, together) whose most famous hit, the orgasmo-tastic Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus, was banned by the BBC and the Vatican. 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”.