Well, we ought to have. He was the big seer, the unstoppable poet, the loud voice of French pop. His parents were emigrants from a Russia in chaos. He himself grew up monumentally ugly in glamorous Paris. Yet he became an entertainer.
There was precedent for ugliness on stage in beautiful Paris: Edith Piaf. Gainsbourg’s music in no way resembled Piaf’s. He had a different idea, one made by World War II, in which the American world of movies, molls, jazz, and cash had conquered all and was fast imposing itself on France. Gainsbourg’s idea was to sing a French response to America’s music. His songs ranged from jazz to Motown to bedroom ballads and funk, and he sang them in a braised baritone halfway between a monologue and a cough. Still later, when he had long since made his point, Gainsbourg ingested the music of Africa and Brazil. His 1964 CD Gainsbourg percussions has it all: tribal beats, merengue, African chanting, samba carnival. It would amaze disco-goers even now, 33 years later.
Wine, women, and song intoxicated him. Baudelaire wrote, “Il faut être toujours ivre. . . . De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise. . . . enivrez-vous sans cesse. (In short: write poetry and don’t stop drinking.) Gainsbourg was of that faith. He was as drunk a drunk as he was a poet. He wrote witty semi-American songs for all kinds of glamorous French actresses — Brigitte Bardot and Isabelle Adjani among them — and entered into love affairs with many. He knew no bounds. He sang “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus,” his one US hit, in 1969 with Jane Birkin. The song was a soundtrack to sex. Most shocking was the coldness of Birkin’s yearning and Gainsbourg’s indifference in response: their own affair was breaking up at the time, and there it was, the break-up re-enacted like a kiss-and-tell in a supermarket tabloid.
It is easy to see the performance as Gainsbourg’s deadliest attack on the dehumanizing effects of America’s in-your-face customs. But with Gainsbourg you couldn’t be sure about intentions. He’d already sung the song, in 1967, with Brigitte Bardot. Only because of her reluctance to approve its release had he turned to La Birkin for a reprise. Eventually he made young girls his singing partners. In the late ’80s he sang “Lemon Incest” in duet with Charlotte, his 13-year-old daughter. He wrote the equally young actress Vanessa Paradis her most superb CD, 1990’s Variations sur le même t’aime, punning bilingually as only he could pun. Paris had never heard anything like his music nor seen any face like his face. He was a satyr. A troubadour. He was Peire Vidal and François Villon, he was Jean Cocteau and commedia dell’arte, he was Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter, Elvis Presley. The ancient city of rebels and courtiers loved him.
So should we. The three-CD Gainsbourg sample from Mercury can’t compare with the 11-CD, $130 De Gainsbourg à Gainsbarre box available in Montreal, but the three CDs’ 60 songs spend useful time with most of his many musical personalities. Comic Strip includes the hit version of “Je t’aime” and a Birkin-and-Serge follow-up, “Soixante-neuf année érotique.” It’s amusing to compare these duets with the marvelously spooky “Bonnie and Clyde,” in which he and Brigitte Bardot alternate telling the famous story in voices as disoriented as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s in “I Put a Spell on You.” Comic Strip also includes the cleverest of Gainsbourg’s mischief versions of Motown, funk, and the Beatles as well as the Brazilian “Sous le soleil exactement,” “Les sucettes,” and a song in praise of suicide (“Chatterton”). Couleur café features nine tracks from Gainsbourg percussions and several songs from Gainsbourg’s earliest recording dates, when he was still dancing the mambo and cha-cha and imbibing the coolly romantic swing style of Frank Sinatra. Of these songs, “L’anthracite” and “Les amours perdues” get closest to the mature Gainsbourg’s fascination with the brief duration of love immortal.
Lastly, Du jazz dans le ravin takes you back to Gainsbourg’s jazz roots. Here, from 1958 to 1964, he wrote his own version of the blues, songs like “Requiem pour un twisteur,” “Chez les yé yé,” “Intoxicated Man,” “La fille au rasoir,” and “Negative Blues.” In these songs, his fascination with teenage America — its dances, its slang, and its hard poses — darkens his lyrics and bops his melodies without ever casting a pall over that brusque but velvety baritone not yet leathered by liquor or grayed by lost love. In Du jazz dans le ravin the youthful, most Presleyan aspect of Gainsbourg’s singing does its hip wiggle and plays the lovely world of America-the-conqueror back at it. For fun, or spite, or because he was so cardinally ugly? Maybe for all three reasons.
— Michael Freedberg / Boston Phoenix