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 …