Serge Gainsbourg – France’s Provocative Singer/Songwriter Who Lives On

What would you think of someone who made the following statement in public?  “Si j’avais à choisir  entre une dernière  femme et une dernière  cigarette, je choisirais  la cigarette : on la jette plus facilement !” (if I had to choose between a last woman and a last cigarette, I would choose the cigarette: it’s easier to throw away). Or how about this one? “L’homme a créé des dieux ; l’inverse reste à prouver” (man created gods: the contrary has yet to be proved). Serge Gainsbourg, musical avant-gardist, womanizer, master of provocation and the “double entendre” (double meaning), was in many ways ahead of his time, which may be why he still impresses the French (and others) so much. In a sense, his admirers are still catching up with him.

Born in 1928, Gainsbourg first aspired to be an artist, but switched to music, following in the footsteps of his father. In 1958 his record “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas” (literally, the ticket inspector of “Les Lilas”, a French metro station) won him the Académie Charles-Cros prize. He toured with Jacques Brel, wrote a song that won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965, sampled beats for his music in 1968, and mixed pop and orchestral classical music with flair, as well as reggae and funk.

Among other creations, he re-did the French national hymn, “La Marseillaise”, and in doing so caused yet another in a series of scandals: “Je connais  mes limites. C’est pourquoi  je vais au-delà” (I know what my limits are, that’s why I go beyond them). He had a brief love affair with Brigitte Bardot and a rather longer one with Jane Birkin, the two of them working together on a number of musical creations. Yet as he also said, “J’ai pris les femmes pour ce qu’elles n’étaient pas, je les laisse pour ce qu’elles sont” (I took women because of what they were not, and I left them because of what they are).

He died in 1991, after his quotable “Jusqu’à la décomposition, je composerai” (I will compose until I decompose). However, his influence continued to grow in the 1990’s, not least in English-speaking countries. In 2010, the French cinema paid him tribute with director Joann Sfar’s film “Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque” (Gainsbourg, a heroic life), a film that covered his tumultuous creativity, relationships with women and many-faceted career. Despite his success, Gainsbourg considered music to be of a lesser priority in the arts, but then he also made fun of his Jewish origins (his name was originally Lucien Ginsburg, before he adopted the pseudonym of Serge Gainsbourg), his life partners, himself and even of death itself: “Rendre l’âme? D’accord, mais à qui ?” (give up the ghost? OK, but to whom?)