Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Juan Rodriguez's review of "Gainsbourg the Biography" by Gilles Verlant

Serge Gainsbourg’s place in French music was thoroughly investigated by Gilles Verlant, whose biography of the singer is now available in an English translation. (Photo: Les Francofolies de Montréal)

Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/entertainment/music/Juan+Rodriguez+Serge+Gainsbourg+genius+lost/7677345/story.html
By Juan Rodriguez, special to The Gazette

Serge Gainsbourg was short, had elephantine ears, a large nose, bug eyes, a foul mouth, and a motto: “For me, provocation is oxygen.” He smoked like a chimney. He was also as successful a skirt-chaser (Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, France Gall and Jane Birkin were among his most well-known conquests) as he was a brilliant songwriter (a majority of his interpreters were women), master of the double entendre.

He was loaded with anti-charisma — his first words to Whitney Houston on a TV show were “I want to f--- you” — yet he was a perverse charmer. “Women adore misogynists,” he claimed; one of his preferred pickup lines was “Mind if I sit down, you little tart?” French president François Mitterrand characterized him as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire,” but his various musical periods also qualified him as the Picasso of pop. (He stole liberally from Chopin.)

Apart from the admirable but hardly complete A Fistful of Gitanes, by Sylvie Simmons (author of the recent excellent Leonard Cohen biography I’m Your Man), there’s not much in English on the great iconoclast of French pop. Now comes the English translation of Serge Gainsbourg by Gilles Verlant (under the title Gainsbourg: The Biography, from Tam Tam Books), the French journalist who spent more time interviewing Gainsbourg than any other.
The depth of his investigation into the agent provocateur’s place in French music is abundant throughout this hefty 575-page tome, originally published in 2000. Without indulging into too much armchair psychology, we come away with plenty of raison d’être for the man who was forced to wear a yellow Jewish star as an adolescent during the Nazi occupation. He boomeranged the anti-Semitism of those times with perverse irony on the 1975 album Rock Around the Bunker.

He was born Lucien Ginsburg to parents who fled the Russian Revolution and anti-Semitism; his father, Joseph, was a classical pianist who played nightclub gigs to get by; his mother, Olia, was a mezzo-soprano.

The household was cultured (attuned to André Breton, Man Ray et al), something overlooked in Gainsbourg’s penchant for scandal. At the beginning of his career, he suffered from stage fright and was discouraged because of his apparent “ugliness.” He was hardly in the league of Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour, Georges Brassens or Yves Montand as a romantic hero, yet his power to shock — in either a disquieting sense or with inimitable irreverence (setting La Marseillaise to a stoned reggae beat) — set him apart, and was somehow more profound than his more genteel contemporaries. When some suggested that his biggest international hit, Je t’aime ... moi non plus, was simply a tape of Gainsbourg and Birkin engaged in sex, he quipped: “Thank goodness it wasn’t, otherwise I hope it would have been a long-player.”

Despite being littered with typos, the book is a page-turner. Although translator Paul Knobloch has drawn some heat for supposedly taking liberties, his adaptation of Gainsbourg’s lyrics is pure genius; most of the translations rhyme — an extraordinarily difficult creative act.

Alongside Simmons’s tome on Cohen, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by R.J. Smith, and Gustav Mahler by Jens Malte Fischer, this is among the very best musical biographies I’ve read this year.

Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/entertainment/music/Juan+Rodriguez+Serge+Gainsbourg+genius+lost/7677345/story.html
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