1997.04.06 The Scotsman "Love is all you need"

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  • Author: Douglas Stewart
  • Publication: 1997.04.06 country gb.gif The Scotsman

Love is all you need

Jane Birkin will not thank you for not thanking the late Serge

One thing you do not do when meeting Jane Birkin is suggest that her deceased husband, Serge Gainsbourg, was a dirty old man. Yes, he and she may have sung "Je t'aime" all those years ago, and yes, he did record a rather steamy number with his 13-year-old daughter, Charlotte (and yes, it was called "Lemon Incest"). But these details were misunderstood by a philistine, prudish British public. Birkin bristles defensively whenever the subject comes up.

After 30 years of being a superstar in France, Jane Birkin still sounds like the Chelsea girl of yesterday. She says things like "jolly", and poses for pictures in a style reminiscent of Blow up, the film that captured the Swinging Sixties, in which Birkin - wearing only a pair of lime green tights - chased her friend in cherry pink tights round the studio of a hip young photographer. The tights don't stay on for very long.

She also found herself in a short-lived and unfulfilling marriage to Britain's greatest soundtrack composer John Barry. "I met John when we did a rather jolly musical called Passion Flower Hotel that also starred Pauline Collins and Franscesca Annis. He got me to sing a song called I must, I must improve my bust", remembers Jane. "After that he only got me to do things like run his bath and heat his turtle soup." Then her voice brightens: "Thank God he left." Had he not, Birkin may never have made the fateful ferry-boat journey to France with her daughter Fate, where she was destined to find Gainsbourg. Along with his infamous duet with Jane, which carries the distinction of being the first UK number one to be banned on national radio, Gainsbourg is also remembered for shocking Whitney Houston with a frank admission on prime time French television that he would like to sleep with her.

Serge's death in March 1991, followed three days later by the death of her father, was a devastating blow for Jane who was left handling idiot journalists. One, who effectively accused her of being a slapper - that's to say, she was asked if she was working on any more "dirty" records - put her on the warpath. I thought, he's talking about a man who's regarded as a national hero in France. His funeral brought the whole of Paris to a standstill.

Birkin contacted people she knew the press could not ignore and asked them to send fares eulogising the inimitable Serge. The impressive list of people who complied included Catherine Deneuve, Yves Saint Laurent, Claudia Cardinale, Jacques Chirac and Brigitte Bardot, which just goes to show that you can fool most of the people most of the time. Most impressive however was the fax from President Mitterrand who described Gainsbourg as "our Apollinaire", a tad over the top but then the man who commissioned the Louvre pyramid could hardly be accused of understatement.

Although it's been responsible for a rather narrow view of Gainsbourg and his muse, Birkin remains proud of "Je t'aime". "I was recently told by a taxi driver in London that he'd had three children to that record. So if you are going to be famous for just one thing it's a pretty nice thing to be famous for." Not that it would be fair to blame the world population explosion on Birkin - but she played her part. Legend says she also played her part in the recording of "Je t'aime", in which she and Serge were really "doing it". So, is it true? "No, no, no," replies Jane in her "silly boy" voice, which is to say the sort of voice you fantasized over as a child.

"It was recorded in a studio near Marble Arch and during the take Serge kept giving me sign language to calm down the huffing and puffing. He was frightened I wasn't going to make the highest note."

Serge was to utilize some real Jane noises on a couple of later tracks. "We were on holiday in Yugoslavia. Serge hid a tape recorder under the bed and got my brother Andrew to tickle me. He was so naughty." Jane's uncontrollable hysterical laughter was then added to funky guitar-led psychedelic backing and became part of what many regard as his greatest masterpiece, 1971's Histoire du Melody Nelson. On Jane's "Best of" album is a heartbreaking live reading of one of Gainsbourg's most beautiful songs "Je suis venu te dire que je m'en vais" (I have come to tell you I'm going) performed a short time after Serge's death. The lyric now has gained an added poignancy. "The song was recorded at Le Casino de Paris and after I finished singing it I just put the mike down and walked off stage. I did no encore. I felt like I was saying goodbye."

Birkin also featured on Serge's own 1973 original version, but she was sobbing, not singing. "My daughter Fate had just left to visit England and taken my favourite cuddly monkey that I used to take everywhere with me. So I was sitting about the studio crying, and Serge asked if I would mind going into this little room and he stood there handing me Kleenex while they recorded me. When Serge died I put my monkey in his coffin and it was buried with him."

After more than a decade together Birkin and Gainsbourg split up. "About a year later", Birkin recalls, "Serge phoned me up and said: I suppose I better write a new album for you. He was under no contractual obligation to do it. You would think it would have been more difficult to work together after we split up but it was quite the opposite. When we were together he always wrote me rather light songs. I would be a sweet Lolita character, sometimes a little like a prostitute or a naughty hitch-hiker picking up lorry drivers.

Afterwards the songs became darker and had more depth. I was singing the real him in songs he would never record himself because they revealed too much about him. He would be so funny and cheeky as only he could but inside was this shy and sad man."