1998.08.01 The Daily Telegraph "The Marquis de Sadness"

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  • Author: Ian Thommsen
  • Publication: 1998.08.01 country gb.gif The Daily Telegraph

The Marquis de Sadness

Alan Clayson: View from the exterior (Serge Gainsbourg) [Sanctuary] Pounds 12.99

Serge Gainsbourg, the louche genius of French pop, is best-known for his heavy-breathing anthem, "Je t'aime... moi non plus". The bestselling European single of 1969, it caused something of a rumpus: the actress Jane Birkin appeared to stimulate the sounds of coitus as she sang. The record was a risque gimmick, really, and Private Eye lampooned the Gallic composer as Surge Forward. "Je t'aime..." enjoyed a considerable revival after Gainsbourg's death in Paris in 1991. The Tricoleur was flown at half-mast and Jacques Chirac announced that "Harley Davidson" (one of Gainsbourg's worst tunes) was "engraved on my heart". Here was an unlikely pop star. With his jug-ears and dark, frog-like eyes, Gainsbourg suggested a saturnine Sid James. He did have an indefinable allure, however, and the gravelly voice was enhanced by five daily packets of Gitanes. Gainsbourg is fashionable again. Electronic bands like Stereolab and the French duo Air rate him very highly. The key Gainsbourg album, Histoire de Melody Nelson, crash-landed in 1971 as the "truest symphonic poem of the rock age". The lyrics describe a very rum sexual fantasy, but the music is heavenly. Gainsbourg scored for a 50-piece orchestra with swirling oriental strings, a floaty choir, kettle drums and tribal jamming. The songwriter's Ukrainian Jewish parents, Joseph and Olia Ginzburg, were unfortunate in naming a future pop star Lucien; as the French equivalent of Hilary, say, or Lindsey, it was a bit naff. When Lucien Ginzburg became Serge Gainsbourg in 1956, his alias hinted at a rather de-lure, camp heredity, as though the musician had been a back-street hairdresser. Certainly there was nothing Jewish about the pseudonym, while "Serge" was the only clue to a Russian background. View from the exterior, the first Life of Gainsbourg in English, is a thoroughly enjoyable read and often very funny. Alan Clayson deftly evokes postwar Paris with its ridenettes - France's bobby-soxers - and smoky jazz dives. The teenage Ginzburg had seen the wizard gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt at the Hot Club and jazz would be his lifelong delight. Even Gainsbourg's worst compositions - positions - the execrable "Teenie weenie boppie" - had a jazz-tinged groove. By the time Gainsbourg was courting Brigitte Bardot in the mid-Sixties, his renown as a cheezy Casanova had spread throughout France. The composer's more goatish habits certainly appealed to a French taste for Baudelairian waywardness. Indeed, Gainsbourg could outdo Oliver Reed for off-brand behaviour. In one infamous television chat-show he addressed a fabulously lewd remark to Whitney Houston. "What did he sad" the American singer said, breaking the shocked silence. (The Frenchman's words are too rude to report here.) Branded the "Marquis de Sadness" by The New Musical Express in 1989, Gainsbourg spent his last years in an alcoholic haze writing dire and tasteless songs about female masturbation, incest and Nazism. A scandalous version of the French national anthem was followed by a dubious reggae project with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, during which Gainsbourg nicknamed the legendary rastamen "mes chimpanzees". Ultimately the man the French called Gain-Gain was half mountebank and half divine talent; Alan Clayson's witty, well-researched biography is a fine introduction to the celebrity bad boy.