• Book Review: Serge Gainsbourg - A Fistful Of Gitanes By Sylvie Simmons

    Written by Sylvie Simmons
    Published by: Da Capo Press
    Released on: 9/18/2002
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    Serge Gainsbourg passed away in 1991. He wasn’t really that old, but a lifetime of drinking and smoking his beloved Gitanes inevitably caught up with him. Like similar musicians and poets who went before their time, Jim Morrison being a prime example, Gainsbourg left behind a legacy that was, in a way, bigger than he’d ever know. His influence spread far and wide but much of that happened posthumously. That said, it’s doubtful he would have been all that impressed, even if he’s been covered by the likes of Nick Cave, Mike Patton, Jarvis Cocker, Mick Harvey and countless others, all respected artists in their own right.

    Sylvia Simmons’ biography is a great read. While it’s far too short at 139 pages (not counting the discography and index section that takes up another forty) to be definitive it manages to cut right to the ‘essence of Gainsbourg’ and explain why his music meant so much to so many and why he’s still celebrated as a national treasure in France.

    Born Lucien Ginsberg in 1928 to Russian Jewish parents, his family, who had left Russia for France after the Russian Revolution, managed to do alright for themselves. His father was a pianist and an artist and he was obviously a huge influence on his son, who would later change his name but not before trying his hand as a painter. It didn’t pan out for him and he’d eventually find work as a pianist in various night clubs. It was here that his penchant for songwriting and composition started to flourish and if he was a rather ugly man to look at with a slightly sour sounding voice, there were those who early on saw through this to the talent that lay beneath the surface.

    As he continued to write more, he’d sign a recording contract with Phillips though record sales would be poor for the first few years until some interesting collaborations would not only see his star rise but show him the benefits of controversy. Collaborations with Bridget Bardotte, who he was fucking on the side much to her husband’s dismay, landed him in the papers and his later relationship with British actress Jane Birkin would result in their infamous single Je T’Aime being officially rebuked by the Vatican. Dabbling in jazz, rock, reggae and the purest form of pop you could possibly imagine, Gainsbourg’s later life would fall victim to drink. His marriage to Birkin would crash and he’d never quite get over it even if he hardly stopped chasing women. He’d invent an alter ego for himself that would allow him to do things like tell Whitney Houston he wanted to fuck her live on national television, somehow justifying his drunken rants to himself as actions belonging to someone else. And yet he continued to experiment musically, his back catalogue now selling at a brisk pace thanks to all of the media attention he’d receive.

    Following Gainsbourg from his birth to his passing, Simmons writes with passion that is nothing if not infectious. She has an obvious love for her subject and it shines through on each page which ensures that not only is it an interesting read but a completely enjoyable one as well. Through input from Birkin and the daughter she bore him, Charlotte Gainsbourg (now an accomplished recording artist and actress herself), we’re given a fairly intimate portrait of his ups and downs as we learn about his esteem issues, his refusal to be seen naked even by his many female lovers, his drive to be accepted as a filmmaker and his dealings with his family. Birkin’s words bring us inside the strange house they shared together, which she describes as a museum and a place where no one was to move anything lest they incur Gainsbourg’s ire. This, in turn, provides us with a very personal firsthand account of their entire affair (which began when they met on the set of Slogan).

    Whether you see him as a genius, a pervert, a hopeless drunk or all of the above, if you have an interest in the man, his work, and his enduringly popular legacy (he was recently the subject of a major studio bio-pic through Universal in France), Simmons’ book is well informed, well written, and entirely fascinating.