Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Gilles Verlant (June 11, 1957 - September 20, 2013)

Gilles Verlant and his subject matter Serge Gainsbourg

I would like to think that Gilles Verlant was my best friend, but the fact is I only met him face-to-face maybe half-a-dozen times in a short period of time.  The first time I met him was in Paris January 2012.  I and Paul Knobloch, the translator of Gilles’ magnificent biography on Serge Gainsbourg, was putting the final touches of this project which took us a long time to complete.  There were health issues involved on the American side, and just basic life stuff that delayed this book for a year or so. Also it was a major undertaking for the press due to the size of the book moreover being so detailed in information regarding the French pop music and its culture.  I needed to finish everything in 2012 due to production and distribution deadlines.   I was nervous at the thought of meeting the author of “Gainsbourg” because I felt so close to the book, that I almost forgot that there was a living author behind it.  I was so used to working with Paul mostly on the Boris Vian titles I publish, that I was totally not aware of working with a living author - until he wrote to me.  A very wonderful charming e-mail letting us know that’s he’s around to help, and that was a great help to our production of this book.   Over various e-mails to Paul, Gilles was very helpful and a great supporter of getting this “Gainsbourg” published in English.

So when I finally met him at a Paris restaurant, I was anxious.  On top of that he was late and i didn’t have a cell phone on me for this trip.  But I waited, and I dared not to move from our agreed spot to meet.  From a distance I saw a gentleman walking towards me and just by his walk there was a certain amount of character - I thought to myself “that has to be Gilles!”  It was and he was perfectly charming about being late and then for the next three hours over a meal we talked about Gainsbourg and his life.  I remember that I had so many endless questions to ask him about Serge, but not only that I was deeply curious about Gilles life as well. 

 From the very beginning he brought up the fact that he has two sons, and this I gather right away was a very important fact to him.  I know nothing about his parents but to him family meant his two sons.  Gilles appeared to be young, so I was kind of surprised to learn his two sons were around 19 to 21 years old because Gilles seemed ageless to me.  I think people who love rock n’ roll are ageless in a sense.  They are dealing with a passion that they picked up when they were young, and if it stays with you, it becomes an appearance of youth.  Gilles and I were from the same generation, so we shared that, but also a love of the pop music world and all the off-shoots of it.

Reading the “Gainsbourg” biography I was so impressed that Gilles met every leading figure in the French entertainment world.  Serge Gainsbourg is not only a pop artist, but also an entrance to the complex and wonderful world of the French pop world.  On one level, Gilles served as a tour guide to that world, where non-speaking French language people have an inside view of that fascinating planet known as the French entertainment world.  Gilles really conveys the importance of Gainsbourg, but also gives the bigger picture of what is French pop music as well as its cinema world.  So I was impressed that this man across the table from me interviewed almost every major iconic French star for his book.  As an American I couldn’t imagine being in the same room with these people, yet Gilles managed to talk to them and I just wanted to know what Juliette Gréco was like in person - but I was too shy to ask such a fan-type question. 

That summer he came to Los Angeles to promote the newly published edition of “Gainsbourg” as well as taking an old-fashioned tourist trip with his two sons.  It appeared to me that this journey was very important to Gilles.  One, because his book is being published in the States, but two, and even more important to him, he was with his sons.  Gilles strikes me as someone who likes U.S. culture a lot.  In that sense he reminds me of Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French filmmaker, who had an obsession with U.S. pop culture.   The fact he even took the name “Melville” as a nod to the great American author, that somewhat represented America to the iconic film artist.   With a short time it seemed Gilles and his sons went to every major tourist spot in Los Angeles as well as San Francisco.  The last time I saw him he was a shade of red, due to the sun from the desert. 

I think what really impressed him was doing an event for the book at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.  Gilles couldn’t get over the fact that he was part of the City Lights world due to it being the most iconic American bookstore in the country.  It was like the filmmaker Melville actually met the writer Melville!  For both events, one at the D.A.P. space in Los Angeles and the other at City Lights was a total success.  The memory of it now makes me happy, because god anything can go wrong in the book world.  But alas, it was a series of perfect moments with the perfect guy. 

A couple of days ago I heard about Gilles’ death,either from a heart attack or falling down a staircase, which at  this moment, seems unbelievable.  For one, he was such a happy figure in my mind.  He really enjoyed life as it was happening.  Serge Gainsbourg had the perfect biographer, and Oscar and Victor, his two sons, I think had a great Dad.

Paul Knobloch, Tosh Berman & Gilles Verlant

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