I was interviewed in Glasgow a while ago about the forthcoming Gainsbourg book (via Nabokov and De Sade) for The Quietus by the transplendent Christiana Spens. The interview can be read here. It’s a shortened version of the full conversation, which was long (there was a lot of drink taken) but the full version, for any gluttons for punishment out there, is included below.
It has just stopped raining when we settle in a beer garden in Glasgow, some time in the middle of the day, and catching the only sunshine of that whole week. There is a middle-aged crowd at the table near us, half of them ignoring a small, yapping dog, and the other half indulging it’s neurotic attention seeking. We order beers and gin and tonics, and eventually get to talking about Anderson’s latest book, after he has a faux nervous breakdown about the writing of Histoire de Melody Nelson, and Gainsbourg’s ghost, “chipping away at my whole fucking personality”. He is not really falling apart at all, of course – though perhaps some of Gainsbourg’s comedy and melodramatic charm have rubbed off on him during the writing process. Or perhaps that similarity of sensibility drew him to write about Gainsbourg in the first place…
What drew you to write about Gainsbourg, and Histoire de Melody Nelson?
I think I heard something like ‘Lemon Incest’ or ‘Sea, Sex and Sun’ or one of those later tunes he made when he was drink-sodden and casually abusing people on chat-shows and I remember just having this initial revulsion that I thought was kind of interesting. It’s like those people who put their boots through their TV screens in outrage at the Sex Pistols. The reaction says more about you than the thing that provoked it. There’s a thin line between being disgusted and intrigued. There’s a revelation moment when you listen to Gainsbourg’s music, having been led to believe he was just an old soak or a novelty act and you realize, Jesus, this guy has the most mind-blowing body of work, easily the equal of someone like David Axelrod, sustained from the 50s to the early 80s at least. The French knew better of course but for the rest of us he was hiding in clear sight after ‘Je t’aime…’ and we were too busy smirking at them across the Channel while we bought our Phil Collins albums or whatever.
Then there’s his story; his folks fleeing Russia, narrowly avoiding being murdered during the Holocaust, Gainsbourg becoming an artist then burning his paintings, playing piano in late-night cabarets and working his way up himself, seducing some of the world’s most beautiful women despite looking like his own caricature and winding up the moral majority for several decades, which is an admirable vocation. Plus he made a concept album about a man with a cabbage for a head and one about the Nazis called Rock Around the Bunker, who could resist?
What do you think of his other albums?
His first four or five albums are chanson LPs, with a bit of jazz thrown in. They sound the way you’d imagine Parisian music to sound in the Fifties; cool, intellectual, Left Bank. They sound black and white. You can pick out some stunning songs from each – ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’, ‘L’eau à la bouche’, ‘La Javanaise’, ‘La chanson de Prévert’. And the lyrics are way beyond the teenage-heartthrob drivel we had here. I mean when The Beatles were singing, “She loves you yeah yeah yeah”, Gainsbourg’s version would’ve been more, “Maybe, but who’s she fucking behind your back?” He was more like a novelist. Instead of inane love songs, you get really cynical tales of morbid ticket-punchers, teeny-boppers getting their fingers broken and lovers ending up in pieces at the bottom of ravines. A lot of them are really funny but it’s a pretty dark form of humour. He wrote about boredom. He saw the mechanics of relationships maybe a bit too clearly for his own good. Love wasn’t an insipid thing for Gainsbourg. Instead it could be deranged, treacherous, destructive. And songs were Trojan horses.
He might have carried on like this and made a respectable career for himself but something interesting happened; no-one bought his albums. So he was forced to break away from the chanson tradition and try other things to survive. So you get these really catchy yé-yé pop songs written for juveniles but with really bitter and twisted lyrics because he felt they were beneath him. Despite himself, he found he was really good at it. He’d write really good songs for cretins to dance to. He sort of won the Eurovision by mistake. After a few years, he was writing masterpieces for Bardot, Françoise Hardy, Anna Karina. With the success of those, he was able to branch out and take more risks with his own albums. There’s Percussions where he mixes early Afrobeat and Caribbean music with French song. ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Initials B.B.’ are pretty much perfect collections of pop songs but ones where he’s using orchestras to sample before samplers were available. I talked to Momus and he said his personal favourite Gainsbourg album is Vu de l’extérieur, which is a mix of the ridiculous (‘L’hippopodame’) and the sublime (‘Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais’). There’s some great tunes on L’Homme à tête de chou. His reggae albums are pretty good too, mainly due to Sly and Robbie’s participation. He had a real talent for anticipating where music was heading.
I used to think that it was a shame that a lot of Gainsbourg’s best music is either uncollected or hidden away on obscure box-sets but that’s why he’s cult and a dream artist for crate-digging scum like myself. In the years just prior to Histoire de Melody Nelson, he worked on some incredible music, often with Jean-Claude Vannier, for b-movie soundtracks and detective shows. It was as if he was given free rein to try anything, like a mad scientist, and, though it was hit and miss, when it was good it was exceptional. The beat of ‘Requiem pour un con’ and ‘Évelyne’. The production of ‘La horse’, La chanson de Slogan’ and ‘Breakdown Suite.’ They’re ridiculously far ahead of their time. He gave a lot of his compositions away to female artists and you can hear him trying out new arrangements and techniques on songs like Michele Mercier’s ‘La fille qui fait tchic ti tchic’, Michèle Arnaud’s ‘Les papillons noirs’ and Bardot’s ‘Contact!’. It’d be interesting to see what lies in the vaults given a song as exquisite as ‘La noyée’ went unreleased. People have built entire careers decades later on the scraps Gainsbourg threw away. There’s a quote by William Gibson that “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” Well there was a lot of the future hidden away in Gainsbourg’s music and there still is, if you look for it.
You are also a poet and you’re in a band; how do you explain the connections between writing lyrics and poetry? Is the process similar? What makes you wake up one day and write a poem rather than a song?
I can’t really say I’m a poet. Michael Longley said once that “calling yourself a poet is like calling yourself a saint.” I’ve written poetry but I don’t think I’m any good at it and it had diminishing returns. I started off having a chapbook published that a few people kindly bought but not many. I printed the second collection on the backs of ‘Death’ tarot cards and slipped them inside the worst books I could find in bookshops (anything with a Richard & Judy sticker on it). The third I ended up putting as messages in bottles and dumping them in rivers. I’ve never heard anything back so they’re presumably at the bottom of ocean where they belong. Unless I can find a way of firing them into space, I’ll probably not write a fourth one.
The band is an enjoyable atrocity. I play the guitar and a bit of drums and now bass. Probably the flugelhorn next. It’s really a backing band for my friend Matt’s music and my mate Joe (who was in Kling Klang) as a side-project. I keep trying to sabotage it and turn us into a Krautrock band or Talking Heads without telling the others. Hopefully they don’t read this. We only exist in my friend’s shed and our imaginations but there’s talk of recording something at some stage. The band’s called The Terror of Trent D’Arby. I had nothing to do with the name. I wanted to call it Zardoz. It’s a magnificently stupid venture from start to finish but good fun.
I suppose lyrics are constrained by the music, unless you’re Richey Edwards, but I don’t think that’s particularly a difference with the poetry I was writing. I always liked having a structure, some strange rhythm or rhyme, to work within. A lot of spoken-word poetry is just abysmal bollocks because the people doing it have thrown everything that came before overboard, all the innovations of the past, and just opted for free verse which is probably the most conservative route these days. And a lot of spoken-word rewards the immediate and the vapid, a sort of unfunny stand-up. Knowing what the rules are makes it much more satisfying when you then break them. A poet like Adelle Stripe, who writes about the modern world in sestinas and pantoums, is worth a thousand spoken word poets to me.
I think William Blake believed that lyrics and poetry should never have been separated, that they were one and the same once and he died singing so he’d have known. You hear it in Leonard Cohen, Rennie Sparks, Rakim, Nick Cave and Gainsbourg of course, who has wordplay that would put John Donne or César Vallejo to shame, much of it lost in translation. There has to be a music in the poetry and a poetry in the music and if there isn’t, why bother?
So is the band a way to move on from the Gainsbourg book?
It is… To steal my energy back.
You begin your book talking about fairytales – the dark and frightening versions, rather than consoling Happy Ever Afters – and then go on the explain that the album is a sort of Beauty and the Beast (Gainsbourg’s words)… What did this all have to do with previously writing pop songs for teenage starlets?
Like Nabokov’s Lolita on which it’s partially based, Melody Nelson’s all about the Beast whilst letting on to be all about the Beauty. It’s a study in male neurosis and delusion. In terms of sound, it’s sublime but it’s a pretty ugly subject lyrically. That’s why I love it. There’s a tension there, an electricity. Gainsbourg was as clever as Nabokov. He implies much more than you think and Melody Nelson is a cipher not just for the narrator’s twisted fantasies and skewed concept of love but also the audience’s. You can be outraged by it or seduced or both. Gainsbourg doesn’t care. He remains elusive. He lets you fill in the blanks.
In terms of starlets, the traditional view is that Gainsbourg was embittered because he had tried to be a painter and then a serious songwriter, slogging away in transsexual cabarets and nightclubs, and was disgusted when he finally made it as a writer of . So he took out his bitterness primarily on France Gall, who he’d won the Eurovision with, having her unwittingly sing the phallic ‘Les Succettes’ and she never forgave him. That’s a somewhat rewritten history though; he actually continued writing for her but her star was on the wane. According to the female artists he wrote for (Petula Clark, Juliette Gréco and so on), Gainsbourg was nothing but a gentleman and an endearingly nervous one at that. The cynicism was an act and an armour and it’s there in the songs that he wrote for young male idols too incidentally. Perhaps it was the medium he hated. Or how easily Gall had gotten famous with a pretty face and a well-connected father. But there’s no denying there’s a sneer in some of the tracks he wrote and he pushed it as far as he could and beyond with her. Yet it’s a sneer that gives the songs an edge, otherwise it’s all treacle. Sometimes you need the Beast.
Is Histoire de Melody Nelson a “tale… intended to scare children away from venturing into the woods and getting lost”? (3) If so, then is the cautionary tale directed at those who identify with “the driver”, or Melody?
I think so but it’s also an encouragement to go into the woods and get lost. Especially if Melody Nelson, or something like it, is what you come back with. You’re right there’s a cautionary aspect to the tale but I don’t think it’s entirely a morality tale, it’s much too voyeuristic for that. Like Nabokov’s book, there’s a degree of complicity involved; he very shrewdly implicates the audience. You’re never quite sure to what extent Gainsbourg’s playing a role and that ambiguity is quite deliberate. He’s not condemning and he’s not condoning but he’s definitely not sitting on the fence either. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, “He may look like a pervert and talk like a pervert but don’t let that fool you. He really is a pervert.”
Gainsbourg had no driving license, despite enjoying the possession of beautiful cars, and placing them prominently in his work, often as a symbol of sexuality. I wonder what his analyst would say?
They’d have had a field day no doubt, though given there were so many masks and projections involved, he’d have made them work for it. You’re never entirely sure if there’s a triple bluff going on with him or no bluff at all. That’s what makes him so intriguing. He was a dedicated family man, a libertine, an artist, a timid romantic, a degenerate, a moralist and none of these things are mutually exclusive, though we’d like them to be.
The driving theme is fascinating though. There are plenty of early videos where Gainsbourg is driving around country lanes, looking dapper, but Jane Birkin has said he didn’t have a license and would buy a luxury car just to sit in it and smoke, use it as an expensive ash-tray. Maybe he was a dreamer rather than a doer. If you think of the automobile as a symbol of freedom, especially then at the height of the road movie, Gainsbourg’s take on it was sexually suggestive but it also hinted that this freedom could end in damnation, if we think of the narrator of Melody Nelson perpetually driving with no destination. It leads you to think of those bodies of criminals who were buried at crossroads in medieval times so their ghosts would wander around, lost forever. He subverts a symbol of liberty into being a symbol of perdition. The promise it brings is still so tantalizing though. The narrator is damned and his muse dead but there’s little doubt that given the same choice, he’d commit the same sins over again. It’s a ring road around one of the circles of Dante’s Inferno.
On a side-note, J.G. Ballard once chose Sylvie Simmons’ excellent biography of Gainsbourg A Fistful of Gitanes as his book of the year, calling Gainsbourg an “all-round scallywag.” He could see the trickster element to the singer. The parallels with Ballard’s book Crash, in terms of fetishism, seem obvious and bit too trite to make but it’s interesting to consider that Ballard once said interviewers would come to his house, having read his books, and expect to find some kind of degenerate monster living there in a sex dungeon and what they found, to their horror, instead was a quiet, dignified family man raising his children. Beyond his albums and his talk-show appearances, there’s something of Gainsbourg in that sentiment too. We believe in the image. We insist on idiotic and paralyzing degrees of accountability for everyone but ourselves and especially those in the public eye. I mean we’re all adults with the capability of looking at the world the way a Socrates or Derrida did but instead we have this inane cloying desire for sincerity and authenticity. “He writes that so he must be that.”
For me an artist like Gainsbourg or Ballard or Nabokov for that matter is labelled a deviant for having the audacity to articulate and examine the filth we all have in our minds, to voice what we’re all thinking but dare not say. We’re all perverts of some kind in the privacy of our own skulls. If you’re not, you lack imagination. Gainsbourg might have been the one who released ‘Je t’aime’ and was damned for it by the Vatican amongst others but we were the ones who bought it by the million and started a baby boom with that as the soundtrack (don’t get me started on what the Vatican were up to). In the sense of being a pioneer or even a scapegoat, there was something approaching the heroic about that. These people transgress in their art so that most of us don’t have to. It’s a valuable public service.
Of course, Melody Nelson pushes all this to an extreme by having an underage girl at its centre. Gainsbourg was quite deliberately courting controversy. This is a man whose most successful single was the sounds of a woman having an orgasm, a man who released rockabilly albums about the Nazis, a book about an artist who turns bowel movements into art, who covered the French national anthem as a reggae tune leading to death threats and bomb scares. To use some horrible modern parlance, he was a troll, perhaps the king of them. He raised it to high art. But it’s one thing to write about something and another to advocate it, to say nothing about actually doing it. To casually make that assumption is a pretty lunk-headed way of looking at art or even morality. Yet people do it all the time. If there’s been any irritation in writing this book, which was a joy to write otherwise, it’s been the occasional friend who’s dismissive and says, “Oh but he was sexist or an old creep.” My response is always, “Of course but you’re saying that as if such a person wouldn’t be interesting to write about.” If you throw away a record because the person who made it might’ve been a bellpiece, you’ll be left with a lot of space for your Coldplay albums. Niceness isn’t the primary consideration.
You say that Gainsbourg, previously a painter, approached pop music, “with the conceptual eye of an artist”. Bowie also combined elements of visual art practise, Surrealism, and pop culture into his own music, and was involved in films such as Christiane F and Labyrinth that explored similar themes to Histoire de Melody Nelson. Do you think they inspired one another (or rather, did Gainsbourg inspire Bowie?)
They did have some parallels. Both were painters and actors as you say. They both made concept albums that weren’t prog rock and therefore were ok to like. They both, kind of, paved the way to punk. They played around with fashion, sexuality, taboo. And they played roles; toying with ideas of where personas began and ended. That was much more costly for Gainsbourg. Increasingly he became a character of his own invention – Gainsbarre, this dreadful combustible letch, which was his attempt to absolve himself of responsibility for his own slow, sad and public obliteration. That mask unfortunately had replaced his face by the end. Bowie was much more theatrical, and astute in an almost sociopathic sense (I mean that as a compliment). He seems to have enjoyed being those characters and would shift to something else when it went too far and he seemed to be losing the plot, during the Thin White Duke phase for example. With Gainsbourg, it was more a survival mechanism because he was cripplingly shy as a performer. When you get that mix of role-playing combined with a dependence on alcohol, it rarely ends well given that alcoholics are hopeless sentimentalists.
Gainsbourg did mention Bowie in a song as it happens; one that he wrote for Isabelle Adjani with a characteristic pun in the title, ‘Beau Oui Comme Bowie.’ In it, he simultaneously celebrated and ridiculed androgynous fashion but he acknowledged two common ancestors they had, both of whom serve as inspiring but cautionary tales – Oscar Wilde and his fictional creation Dorian Gray. Whether Bowie knew of Gainsbourg to any great depth, I’m not sure. He was certainly aware of Gainsbourg’s old drinking partner Jacques Brel, covering his glorious song ‘Amsterdam’, via Scott Walker. They did come from that same decadent aesthete tradition but they also shared an art school beginning, bringing conceptual ideas into popular music like many others. The frustration for Gainsbourg, being a generation older, was that he was he’d been too young to have been part of his beloved Surrealists and too old for Bowie’s generation. He was stuck between the artists and their students. A no man’s land that he had to make his own.
Who else did Gainsbourg inspire?
So many artists and increasingly more and more. The real compliment for Gainsbourg is how different his descendants all sound from each other. You can hear the influence lyrically in Pulp, Momus, Arab Strap, musically in Air, Portishead, Sébastien Tellier, Blonde Redhead, Beck. I hear him in Stereolab sometimes and Belle and Sebastian. The latest traces I heard of Melody Nelson was on Connan Mockasin’s incredible Forever Dolphin Love. It doesn’t even have to be the same genre of music. He’s been sampled by so many hip-hop artists and electronic producers; MC Solaar, De La Soul, David Holmes, Massive Attack, Method Man, which is fitting given he pioneered the use of sampling (so early on he was sampling the likes of Chopin and Dvořák with orchestras). It’s a list that will grow because through some alchemy or witchcraft Gainsbourg at his best sounded not just ahead of his time but always a fraction ahead of ours.
You say something about Melody Nelson symbolising Jane Birkin without a past – so in a way Melody Nelson is a fantasy version of Birkin, where Gainsbourg’s alter ego need not feel intimidated by her first husband. And yet this fantasy is still the dark side of a fairy-tale – if the past does not take a leading role in its presence, perhaps it does in its absence? What do you think explains that haunting quality?
The past is always with us but it doesn’t exist either. That’s the haunting thing; we remember it happening but it’s completely ephemeral. We only ever exist in the present. As we can’t grasp it or relive it, we start changing it, fabricating it. Memory becomes partly a fiction. John Lennon used to say he envied Yoko Ono for being able to speak Japanese, having a whole language that he couldn’t understand. It was like a world, which she was part of, that was closed off to him. For some obsessive people, I think the past has the same effect. It was bad luck for Serge that his great love Birkin had been previously married to the highly-respected composer John Barry, especially when he was feeling vulnerable about being perceived as a song-writing hack. So he started to rewrite history. It’s a control thing but I’m glad he did it given he created great art from his insecurities. What it was like for those involved is a different story.
“Perversion is in the eye of the beholder.” (14) Explain…
Haha dear god, is that my line or his? I suppose what I meant was some kind of relativism (that’s a bad word); the idea that, outside of universal taboos, perversion is not an objective thing. In many cases, it’s a question of taste, opinion, context and how permissive or restrictive the dominant religion or ideology is. We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that we’re naturally ultra-permissive but that’s more constructed and changeable than we imagine and the progress that we’ve made can be reversed. In fact, it has been reversed in the past. Compare how smutty Chaucer’s writing could be compared to the prevailing Victorian morality centuries later. Compare the sexuality of the jazz age or the Weimar cabarets compared to what was to follow in the 40’s and 50’s. Permissiveness has its constraints, its no-go areas even now. You don’t even need to live under religious fundamentalism. Consider being outwardly gay in hip-hop circles or as a footballer. In certain environments and groups, what we deem acceptable or perverted is exposed as unstable and prejudiced as it really is.
As well as pushing things forward with ‘Je t’aime’ and admirably facing down the backlash it provoked, Gainsbourg could see the cracks in the permissive society, its limits and contradictions, and he took great delight in focusing in on them. So having played a part in getting us to the stage where anything goes between consenting adults, Gainsbourg decided consensus wasn’t to his liking and, being a contrarian, began to incite. “Provocation is my oxygen” he was fond of saying. The way he did it was at once blatant and subtle; Melody is made to be a teenage girl but the listener is seduced into accepting the tale as a doomed love affair (or the subversion of one) in the Romeo and Juliet/Tristan and Isolde tradition, a logical consequence of our cult of youth, rather than what it actually is, which is statutory rape. The audience becomes either complicit or outraged, both being compromised positions. In the same way, people read tabloid accounts of sex-crimes proclaiming disgust but lingering over every lurid detail. Gainsbourg knew this trait well, as Nabokov did and someone like Houellebecq continues to; that repulsion and compulsion are two sides of the same coin. It’s a clever trap in a sense. It’s important to remember that it’s also fiction and has purposes other than just provocation or titillation; one way of knowing what morality is, is to study what is taboo. In Lolita, Nabokov puts us inside the mind of a monster, leaving us with some very difficult questions if we should begin to empathise with him. That’s to give Nabokov and Gainsbourg the benefit of the doubt as provocateurs and moralists. They could equally just have been creeps. Or all of the above. The point is the perversion’s there if you want to find it and similarly you can tell yourself it’s just fiction. You bring your own perspective to it. Alternatively, you could just listen to the album because it’s got great tunes, especially if you don’t speak French, but then you miss the fun of getting sucked into some horrendous moral quagmire as I just have.
“In the first bloom of infatuation with Jane, Serge was blighted with the curse of happiness. The poet needs heartbreak at least as much as he or she needs love.” Is this really true?
Without a doubt. I don’t think you can appreciate the highest heights without the lowest lows and vice versa. It’s relativity. Gainsbourg admitted as much when he said he wrote desperate heartbroken songs when he was in love and joyous love songs when he was depressed and alone. It wasn’t just wish-fulfillment, it was a sort of depth-sounding or topography. If you listen to ‘Initials B.B.’, it’s the most uplifting song musically with these devastated lyrics after Bardot had left him. It’s melancholic, that mix of sadness and joy. You find that in all the best love songs, it’s in the note of doubt in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘Are You the One that I’ve Been Waiting For?’ and Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. Love will tear us apart as the man said but we do it anyway. We cant help ourselves. The myth of the tortured artist might be a cliché but it’s an attractive one. And there must be an attraction to think, well if I can channel this feeling into inspiration it’s worth it, not just as catharsis but as an engine of production. It’s dangerous going down that route. I imagine there’s sacrifices and thefts involved. James Joyce once tried to get his lover Nora Barnacle to cuckold him so he could write accurately about jealousy. It’s taking the idea of suffering for your art to the point of derangement but you can’t fault their dedication. You need to be sure there’s a masterpiece at the end of it all because your life will likely be a shambles.
“As Buñuel once claimed, ‘Sex without religion is like cooking an egg without salt. Sin gives more chances to desire.”” (45) Is this linked to the poet’s desire for pain?
You could say there’s a masochistic thrill to it I suppose. The whole flagellation thing. Rasputin was an interesting case, he was rumoured to belong to a heretical Russian sect called the Khlysty who believed they should commit extravagant sins, like throwing mass orgies, so that God’s forgiveness would be all the more miraculous at the end. It’s the only religion I’ve encountered that sounded even vaguely appealing. Gainsbourg’s folks were Russian émigrés it should be remembered. Maybe he was a secret convert.
Gainsbourg read a lot of Nabakov and the Marquis de Sade; “obsessed, like him, with what freedom really meant.” When I read them, and hear Histoire de Melody Nelson, they seem much more to be works about fear, rather than true explorations. They seem to be exploring what it is that people fear about freedom, more than actually being free. Given that all three artists were working under the pressure of censorship and social disapproval, this is fair enough. But do you think it meant that they failed at learning “what freedom really meant”? Is the “pursuit of freedom”, perhaps in each case, just an excuse to glorify perversion and insecurity? Rather than really pining for freedom, or being free, they seem to be celebrating bondage…?
I think they came pretty close, as close as we could hope or dread perhaps. There is fear in there no doubt about it, that’s inherent, it’s the relativity thing again. If you take individual freedom to its logical conclusion, if you were able to act freely and absolutely on every whim, without being seen or being held to account, you’d end in torture and slavery. That’s why you get those libertarians soiling the concept in America, with their little hard-ons for Ayn Rand bless them. It’s the liberty of the aspiring slave-trader. They’re only the most ludicrous and self-delusional example. None of us are immune. When we talk about freedom what we usually mean is freedom for me and my kind. It seems to be in us as a species or at least the male half of it (in the female half, there’s some hope left). “Every man is a tyrant when he fucks” De Sade wrote. It’s that idea that for someone to dominate someone has to be made to submit. An idea we should have left behind in the caves but haven’t.
We make the mistake though of shooting the messengers of this, Gainsbourg and the writers I mentioned earlier. As if we’d rather be blissfully unaware of our behaviours and the way the world is in favour of a hologram of the world as it should be. De Sade’s a crucial writer on freedom and slavery precisely because he knew its limits, he knew what would happen when you pushed it over the edge as he had and paid the price (as well as making others, namely women unfortunate enough to cross his path, pay a far worse price). To me personally, he was a vile specimen but he has much more to offer us in terms of postcards from the depths than today’s fortune cookie thinkers.
For what it’s worth, I think we’re not free enough. And the State and corporations are doing their utmost always to shut down freedoms we’ve fought to achieve. It’s in their nature. De Sade was dealing with a different level of freedom, the point where it is monopolized by one section of society and is raised to such a pitch it becomes something else, something unrecognizable. The point where we can get away with anything, excused by ideology or faith, when there is nothing reining us in. At that point, the suffering of others isn’t just a by-product, it’s almost a necessity. The key to it is evil for evil’s sake, the aestheticism involved. De Sade was proved right not just by the Terror in the French Revolution but by the added unnecessary cruelties that took place then. It wasn’t simply that they cut the head off nobles in guillotines, it was that they cheered an executioner who had sliced off the mons veneris of a beautiful duchess and wore it as a beard. That wasn’t a perversion of freedom as we’d like to think, it was a form of freedom. The executioner knew he was beyond restraint and he delighted in it, theatrically. Nabokov knew from escaping Soviet Russia and then Nazi Germany what horrors took place in those places when all restraints were lifted for those in charge (his own brother died in a concentration camp). Gainsbourg knew this as well as a Russo-French Jew, narrowly escaping the Holocaust with his family (his uncle was murdered in Auschwitz) and having to hide for several years. That’s the terrible unpalatable aspect beyond even Arendt’s banality of evil. These weren’t just brainwashed ideologues or demonic aberrations. These were intelligent cultured men given free rein. You see those trophy pictures of smiling Nazis at the edges of pits in the Ukraine or Japanese soldiers wielding bayonets during the Rape of Nanking, that’s what absolute freedom can look like. And we’ve yet to digest that, if we ever will. So we deny it and attack the people who tell us such things.
Where Gainsbourg fits in is that he saw that the free mind would soon turn to tyranny but also that such a person would be a slave to their desires, they’d be shackled in a way to their victims. The narrator of Melody Nelson is a love-struck poetic romantic like Humbert Humbert in Lolita. He is also, like Humbert Humbert, a fiend. Both of them think they are free men and the disturbing thing for us is the thought that they might well be, damned though they are.
Is it not the case that this ‘freedom’ – the most extreme sexual ‘freedom’ they (Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Gainsbourg’s character) can find – is still not free enough? That nothing can make them free enough? That perhaps being ‘free’ was the wrong crusade?
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, it’s never enough for people like that. Some critics might mistake Gainsbourg for the narrator of Melody Nelson. He partially is of course, as all fictional creations are, but he’s not an entirely accurate representation. Similarly for Nabokov. Those making that mistake have a misunderstanding of authorial distance and the games that are being played by the writer and on them as an audience. Melody Nelson and Lolita have very little to do with their female subjects other than as objects of desire to be ultimately destroyed but unknown and unexplored in any meaningful sense. The male characters have no empathy with the ones they supposedly love. There is a chasm between them. Like the old French folktale Bluebeard, their muses are required to die to attain some imaginary perfection. The nature of obsession is to breed obsession and it’s less a downward spiral as to be stuck in some purgatorial loop forever. This is the end result that those who embarked on complete freedom end up in. It’s why serial killers can’t stop. They’re slaves to it paradoxically. You see it in De Sade’s ritualistic orbits in 120 Days of Sodom and Humbert Humbert’s digressions (and later again in the form of the narrator of Gainsbourg’s L’Homme à tête de chou). They’re in a prison either physically or mentally, just as the driver is in Melody Nelson, a Rolls Royce transformed into a metal cage.
When shooting the cover of the album, Jane Birkin was four months pregnant with Gainsbourg’s child. If “Melody remains a cipher, a projection of his fantasies and hang-ups,” then what were Gainsbourg’s hang-ups? We have already mentioned the Lolita fantasy as a way to ignore Birkin’s ex-husband… Was the Lolita fantasy a way to ignore every other significant issue in their relationship?! Why do you think Birkin went along with it all?
I think she loved him, as he loved her but maybe in a different way. You can tell from interviews that he was immensely charming. He was funny, smart, witty. He would say things like “I’m not a misanthrope, I’m a romantic. I only became a misanthrope through contact with others.” He had no problems attracting women, despite being unconventional-looking. I imagine she was flattered. In his defence, Gainsbourg wrote many songs exhibiting many other aspects of her personality, or his interpretation of it. Entire albums. Melody Nelson isn’t really one of them. It’s not her story at all despite what the album suggests. It’s the narrator’s. But that absence becomes a presence. I used to think it was the black hole around which the narrator circled but it’s the opposite; she’s the light being sucked into it.
The first thing I did writing the book was to contact Jane Birkin to arrange an interview but it was never possible to conduct due to the fact I was living in Cambodia at the time and she was in tour in Europe. The more I thought about it the more it seemed somehow appropriate in an odd way. Melody Nelson was a cipher, an absence, a ghost and she remains so in my book. It forced me to make the book something a million miles away from a typical interview-based book (I’m not a music journalist anyway), so it had to become something different. A storybook of many stories – the Holocaust, Surrealism, Cargo Cults, the ghosts in the Seine…
“‘It’s Humbert Humbert who fascinates me, not Lolita. Lolita is just a silly little girl.’” (46) You quote Gainsbourg as saying that, before writing: “Perhaps he was a misogynist in the sense he hated how much he was infatuated with women, the power they wielded over him, in which case his songs are really all about him, his frustrations, desires, his hatreds, fetishes, all the weaknesses that better men and women would never dare publicly admit.” Could you say a little more about this…?
“Anything you do say may be used against you…” haha. Gainsbourg is often called a misogynist and he brought the term on himself. It’s a conversation I’ve had with feminist friends of mine, who’ve taken issue with him. Besides the fact that writing about someone isn’t a blanket endorsement of them, I don’t think he was particularly a misogynist. Certainly writing about the Beats at the same time put things into perspective about how liberal Gainsbourg actually was in comparison; Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, for all their strengths, were atrociously sexist. Serge fixated on women, which is no proof of egalitarianism (all haters are fixated on and defined by the subject of their hate), but it seemed to come from many perspectives and in the work he wrote specifically for women, it took multi-faceted forms. Sometimes cruel, sometimes kind. Like any artist, he used characters as ways of invariably and indirectly describing himself and his relationship to the world. You could see that as a denial of agency for those involved but what else can a man do if he chooses to write about women? For me, he was a classic misanthrope. An imploded romantic. It appeared to be misogyny at times because he didn’t consider men worth writing about. It was also a misanthropy that extended mercilessly to himself, a man who regards himself as having a cabbage for a head doesn’t suffer delusions of grandeur. Even in his unforgivable encounter with Catherine Ringer in which he hypocritically called her a whore (which she handled with class, dignity and a sad regret at facing a fallen hero of hers), you can see, from body language, that much of the loathing is a projection of self-disgust.
Melody is sacrificed and dies at the end of the album, with the typically French melodrama of great novels such as Madame Bovary. When interviewed about his own tragic heroine, Flaubert famously answered, “Madame Bovary – c’est moi.” Is not Melody, Serge? On the verge of fatherhood, perhaps Gainsbourg was singing a requiem for his own youth?
Christ, I wish I had thought of that when I was writing the thing haha. I think there’s something in that. The lover has to die is the oldest cop-out in literature. It’s the ‘happy ever after’ thing again. No-one believes it, it’s a disneyfied version of the original much more realistic Brothers Grimm ending “…and they lived happily until their deaths.” There’s pathos in both senses of the word; the tragedy of her premature death and his pathetic longing, always meeting her and losing her in some maddening circular dream as the record spins, ends and starts again.
The idea that Melody is Serge never occurred to me. Certainly he would have been aware of his age given the difference in years between Birkin and himself. He already had two children and two marriages behind him. People seemed older then. Perhaps he regretted not meeting Birkin when he was young, an impossibility of course. His declining health, through prodigious drinking and smoking, led to a heart attack shortly after Melody Nelson. So mortality was, at least subconsciously, rumbling away in the background. You could make a convincing case then for Melody as a symbol of eternal youth gone astray, wandering around the corals, never to return.
You have another book out early next year, on Jack Kerouac, and you worked on those books at the same time, when you were living in Cambodia. Did you many any connections between those men and their work, and the way they created books and songs?
You end up inevitably making links. They were both French-speakers but outsiders. They both drank themselves to death. They were both damned as misogynists. I think I became more aware of their differences though. I tried to write both by immersing myself in everything they wrote and recorded. With Kerouac, I went from loving him as a teenager to really hating him writing the book to being sympathetic again by the end of it. To pick one example, I read On the Road at 17 as everyone does and thought of travel and adventures and comrades and all that but when you come back to it past the age of around 30, it’s just sad as fuck, really bleak, the betrayals of friendship and the end of youth is all the way through it but you don’t pick up on that when you’re young because you got all that goodness ahead of you. The book changes as you do. There’s a lot of very valid criticisms of Kerouac but I just don’t know how he did that. With Gainsbourg, for some reason I stayed sympathetic even when looking at his more unsavory sides. I must have listened to Histoire de Melody Nelson a thousand times and I’ve never tired of it for a second. I was at a night recently and the DJ played ‘En Melody’ and I got this surge of stupid indescribable joy. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it at this stage. We’re wed now forever in an odd way. He had me too, the bastard haha.
How did writing about other artists impact on your own writing?
I think it always does explicitly or implicitly. If you read a book and it makes any definable impression it will inevitably influence the way you write, whether you realise it or not. The Butterfly Effect. Even if it’s just in terms of what you don’t write. When I first started writing I mimicked a lot of writers I liked – Camus, Joyce, Ballard, Henry Miller. As you get older that doesn’t cease, you just have a much larger and more diverse repository to steal from and you can mix it all up so it looks like it’s brand new. There is no new and the liberating thing is there never was. Ezra Pound stole the phrase ‘Make it new’ from a Chinese philosopher who lived centuries ago. No-one is an island and culture is an echo chamber. When I see writers apologize or start firing out lawsuits over copyright, I think, these fuckers just don’t get it. We’re all part of the chain. I’m too close to it, with a worm’s eye view, to know how anything directly influences my writing but it all does I’m sure and thank Christ it does otherwise it would be entire drivel. And the influences were there for Gainsbourg too, whether it was Nabokov or Sibelius or Boris Vian or a million other things we’ll never know of.
Who else would you like to write about?
Not really who but what. Everything. Libraries of stuff. It’s a disease. I’ve written a few unfinished books on the culture of night, death, the Spanish Civil War, dissociative drugs, literary theory, the devil in popular culture. Ridiculous things. About ten years-worth of books holding up shelves and lining the bottom of bird-cages. Ideas for ones are endless. I’ve never understood writer’s block, I’ve always had the opposite problem. At the minute I’m writing one on imaginary cities. I’d love to write critical studies on people who interest me: Werner Herzog, Chris Marker, Paul Klee, Borges, Anais Nin, an old Elizabethan writer no one remembers who I love called Thomas Nashe. I’d like to write about Cabinets of Curiosities and The Turk and Mad King Ludwig and the Voyager Gold Record. Who knows? That’s the joy of it, when you’re asked what’s next, no one really has any idea what they’re doing. At best, they’re like Laika the dog, fired up into space, not having a clue where they are or what they’re doing but somehow seen as heroic if they’re lucky.