French pop provocateur Serge Gainsbourg had to die before he could make a dent in the Anglo-Saxon consciousness. It remains a pretty rarefied dent, though, even compared with that left by Jacques Brel, the last musical Frog (Belgian, actually, but let's not get technical) to earn name recognition in America. And Gainsbourg was no mere song stylist but a huge, many-sided talent, given to constant self-reinvention and capable of making news as well as hits. You might point out that Gainsbourg not only sang in French, but, like many of his compatriots, engaged in obsessive wordplayówell, so what? Johnny Foreigner has been known to study English just to appreciate the nuances of, uh, Steely Dan or something. Americans could similarly get off their duffs, no? And only those ignorant of Gainsbourg can maintain that the French are unable to shake booty.
Gainsbourg in fact charted in the US in 1969 with "Je t'aime, moi non plus," his hypnotic duet with Jane Birkin's orgasmic moans and a church organ, a number that earned the coveted distinction of being denounced by the Vatican, although here it could pass for a freakish novelty and allow its author into the ranks of Nervous Norvus and Napoleon XIV. But the song was anomalous for Gainsbourg only in that its lyrics are few and simple ("I come and I go between your kidneys" is the substance). The humor, the provocation, the freakishness, and the rather un-French dance-floor credibility all are of a piece with the rest of Gainsbourg's career, which began in the mid-1950s and ended with his death in 1991. In some ways Gainsbourg's work juts out oddly from the body of French pop of his timeóit's hard to think of anyone else who in 1979 would have hired a top Jamaican band to back a spoken recital of the bloodthirsty words of "La Marseillaise"óbut it's even harder to think of another country that could have produced a Gainsbourg. He was as French as Alfred Jarry or Ravachol or Le Pétomane, the laureate of the fart.
He was born Lucien Ginsburg in 1928, the son of Russian Jewish emigré parents. His father was a café pianist who worked constantly, in venues high and (mostly) low, and at first Serge wanted to escape such a fate and become a painter. But it quickly became clear where his true talents layóhe copyrighted his first songs in 1954 and began recording four years later. His songs were immediately covered by some of the most famous singers in France, but his own performing career languished. He looked funny; his songs were too complex for the hit parade; his voice was thin; his stage presence was saturnine. After a disastrous 1965 tour as an opening act, he didn't appear on stage again for thirteen years. But in the meantime he had discovered the aesthetic and financial benefits of putting his scabrous, lyrical, tender, corrosive words in the mouths of othersówomen mostly, poppets and divas.