1998.02.15 Daily News (New York) p. 7 "Serge in popularity"

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  • Publication: 1998.02.15 country us.gif Daily News (New York) p. 7

Serge in popularity

The late, legendary Gainsbourg gains cult status

Suicide, murder, incest: These were a few of the late Serge Gainsbourg's favorite things. He sang about them in a smoky croak, full of world-weary wit and flip contempt.

No wonder the French regard him as their Frank Sinatra, and why cynical hipsters the world over worship him. These days, the cult of Gainsbourg has been growing faster than grapes in a French vineyard. Walk into any attitudenizing coffee bar or snooty clothing store and you're likely to hear one of his songs tinkling in their original French, or covered by any number of stars out to elevate their avant status by association. Just like Leonard Cohen earlier in this decade, Gainsbourg has become the cool reference point of the minute, inspiring a tribute album from John Zorn's label featuring groovy types like Cibo Matto, Steve Wynn and Luscious Jackson. The band Luna enjoyed an underground hit with Gainsbourg's bloodthirsty salute to "Bonnie and Clyde", while Mick Harvey of the Bad Seeds has devoted two entire albums to Gainsbourg covers, including the new Pink elephants (following up 1995's Intoxicated man). Meaning it can't be long before Billy Joel offers his take on a Gainsbourg classic and claims to have been a fan for decades.

Gainsbourg, who died in 1991 at age 63, enjoyed a spicy and unorthodox life. Born Lucien Ginzberg on April 2, 1928, he was the child of Russian Jews who had fled during the 1917 Bolshevik uprising. Cursed with protruding ears and a massive honker, he meant to work as a composer rather than a performer. But his evocative voice thrust him into the limelight starting with his 1958 debut, cut at age 30. Gainsbourg's songs bridged the gap between the arty chansons of the Left Bank and the emerging "ye-ye" singers, who aped American and British pop. Gainsbourg's songs embraced everything from mambo and cha-chas to disco and folk-rock. The result mingled the deadpan delivery of Bob Dylan, the zany lounge arrangements of a Martin Denny and the classic pop sense of Burt Bacharach.

Gainsbourg earned equal attention for his personal life. He married an actress less than half his age, Jane Birkin, with whom he cut the hit "Je t'aime... moi non plus", which featured the sounds of the two singers simulating sex in the studio. This didn't stop him from cheating on Birkin with Brigitte Bardot, who accompanied him on some of his biggest European hits. He also had a daughter, Charlotte, with whom he cut a ditty called "Lemon Incest." In one performance, he burned money.

To catch up with Gainsbourg's music, check out a trio of recent compilations on Mercury: Couleur café (featuring a wide range of songs recorded between 1959 and '64), Du jazz dans le ravin (emphasizing his most musically sophisticated work) and Comic strip (corralling his brightest pop and rock recordings from '66 to '69).