I was asked to write this piece on ten of my favourite Gainsbourg lyrics for a music site but it fell off their radar and mine. Given Gainsbourg was born 86 years ago today, it seems an opportune time to post it. Enjoy…
PS I’ll be reading and doing a Q & A on Gainsbourg & 33 1/3 books with Pete Astor (The Loft, The Weather Prophets and Ellis Island Sound) and Alex Niven (Folk Opposition) at Rough Trade East, Brick Lane, London on the 26th of June. Come along.
The last poète maudit
Over the past twenty years, there’s been a growing appreciation of the music of Serge Gainsbourg outside France, particularly his masterpiece Histoire de Melody Nelson. This has come about largely through tributes by musicians (Portishead, Beck, Air and so on), word of mouth amongst record collectors and the quality of his work. Despite nods from the likes of Momus, Mick Harvey and Jarvis Cocker, Gainsbourg’s genius as a lyricist however has largely been lost in translation and goes relatively unacknowledged in Anglocentric music circles. Whilst the melodies and orchestration of Histoire de Melody Nelson are central to its magic, one of my aims in writing the 33 1/3 book on the album was to explore this overlooked lyrical side and place the album in its literary context; for, as well as being an exceptional songwriter and provocateur, Serge Gainsbourg was a poet.
It’s entirely possible of course to enjoy an album as atmospheric as Melody Nelson without understanding the lyrics but to do so with Gainsbourg is to miss out on many of his games, stories and sleight of hand. Translation is treason as the saying goes and a great deal of Gainsbourg’s lyrical flourishes are untranslatable manipulations of the French language and a revelling in the contradictions and ambiguities therein. If we accept the inherent flaws and delve though (Alex Chabot’s translations are a great shortcut), there are many different layers to explore in an artist who was singing of suicidal ennui-wracked ticket-inspectors four years before The Beatles were threatening to hold your hand.
10. ‘La Javanaise’ – Single, 1963
Though it’s one of his most exquisite melodies, the otherwise straight-forward love song ‘La Javanaise’ deserves inclusion for two reasons. One is the melancholy of the refrain, written for Juliette Gréco with whom Gainsbourg was enamoured, in which the two figures dancing together are in love for the length of the song. The second is the use of language not only in the wordplay (a javanais is a trick, teasingly alluded to here, in French slang where ‘av’ is placed in the middle of a word) but also in the staccato rhythm of the syllables which compliments and contradicts the waltz of the music. The java was a sexualised form of the waltz in France meaning the song has an extra meta element, and is a nod to his recently-departed mentor Boris Vian. In many of his songs, it seems as if Gainsbourg set himself a challenge in the vein of the ‘inspiration through restriction’ approach of the Oulipo group: it’s there, for example, in the recurring and suggestive use of –ex as a rhyme in Françoise Hardy’s ‘Comment te dire adieu?’ The simpler a Gainsbourg song seems, the more deceptive it is.
9. ‘Le claqueur des doigts’ – N° 2, 1959
From his predecessors the Surrealists, Gainsbourg inherited a love of the double-meaning often in Freudian terms: the notoriously phallic ‘Les sucettes’ offered to an unwitting France Gall, seduction being synonymous with being shot in ‘Douze belles dans la peau’ or the juvenile Soramimi of lake ’Titicaca’ for example. In ‘Le claqueur des doigts’, Gainsbourg plays on variant meanings of the word ‘claque’. At first, it’s simply a young man snapping his fingers in front of a jukebox but, as if led by the word itself, he burns through his money, loses his patience and promises to smack the mouth of a bystander. Even in English, there is the threat of violence from the ‘finger-snapper’. The song is a throwaway one but the lyrics show a side to narrative song-writing that was under-explored then in the mainstream as it is now. Some critics and listeners make the infantile mistake of thinking Gainsbourg somehow advocates the occasionally-degenerate things he sings about, as if singing means doing or as if we should instead sing of a pleasing hologram of the world rather than the way things really are. There is a sophistication to writing about how unsophisticated we can be, as Gainsbourg realised.
8. ‘Du jazz dans le ravin’ – Du chant à la une!… 1958
In a similar strain, here we have Gainsbourg at his most mischievously cynical. It’s also an early precursor to the cinematic aspect of Melody Nelson. Here the misogynist monologue cuts, with a drum-fill replicating a car toppling down the ravine, to a disaster scene. In most popular songs of the time, insufferable couples fawned over each over in increasingly glutinous terms. In Gainsbourg’s version, such a couple die in agony in the wreckage of their Jaguar with the radio still blaring. Far from living happily ever after, “Tomorrow, we’ll scrape them up with a spoon.”
7. ‘La chanson de Prévert’ – L’Étonnant Serge Gainsbourg, 1961
What sounds on first listen like one of Gainsbourg’s most sincere, simple and beautiful chansons is a little trickier than that. It’s a song about itself, without any of the postmodern frippery that might suggest. It also references Prévert and Kosma’s classic ‘Les feuilles mortes’ (performed here by Mark Lanegan). The atmosphere conjured up is one of autumnal regret and nostalgia but there’s something intriguingly hollow about the self-awareness involved. There may be genuine heartache and longing but there is a dislocation too.
An avid reader, Gainsbourg often referenced writers in his songs including Verlaine (a number of times), Baudelaire, Robert Louis Stevenson, Chatterton, Nabokov, Victor Hugo, even Bonnie Parker, whose self-mythologizing poem formed the basis of his and Bardot’s masterful ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. Lesser artists attempt greatness by association (you see Bono doing this all the time) but in Gainsbourg’s case it was justified by his willingness to push the boundaries and create something new from the old, just as earlier poètes maudits had. With Prévert, Gainsbourg went nervously to his door one morning to ask his permission to use the song and was greeted enthusiastically by the roaring drunk poet. A torch, or at least a bottle, was passed on.
6. ‘En relisant ta lettre’ – L’Étonnant Serge Gainsbourg, 1961
The last of Gainsbourg’s odes to misanthropy is his funniest. Pre-empting internet grammar police, a heartless narrator reads a bereft, possible suicide letter from his girlfriend. Rather than show concern, he pedantically corrects her spelling and syntax. The juxtaposition of the terminally-sincere with the sophistic spoken asides is hilarious (for an amusing/unnerving companion piece to the video above, see his video for ‘Chez les yé-yé’). It’s notable that Gainsbourg’s bitterness (“I became cynical through contact with others” he once said) wasn’t always directed outwards. In ‘Requiem pour un con’
he’s fairly scathing towards himself (‘con’ being one of those untranslatable multi-faceted French words that is, at the very least, not complimentary). In a lot of ways a misanthrope isn’t just a disappointed romantic, he or she is a realist. None of this will end well for any of us. It’s a great infernal joke at our expense but it is nevertheless quite funny. You laugh because what other choice is there?
5. ‘Initials B.B.’ – Initials B.B., 1968
Rarely has heartbreak sounded so euphoric. Gainsbourg’s use of an orchestra to sample Dvořák before samplers were available might seem the most arresting aspect to ‘Initials B.B.’ but the initially-understated lyrics are intriguing. It’s the tale of a man in state of damnation, washed up in an English pub with a copy of Louis Pauwel’s L’Amour monstre. Staring into his drink, he sees a vision from his past, the source of his ruin, wearing nothing but thigh-high boots and perfume in her hair. For Gainsbourg, the song is a lovelorn tribute to Brigitte Bardot who had just left him to film in Almería (the last mysterious word voiced in the song like some enchanted curse) and return to her husband after her and Gainsbourg’s affair. As so often happens though, this end was a beginning in disguise.
4. ‘L’alcool’ – Du chant à la une!… 1958
As with his excellent ‘Intoxicated Man’, there’s something unsettling about hearing someone sing a tribute, however appealingly-decadent, to the thing that would eventually help to kill him. We should save our stinking bourgeois sympathy however for Gainsbourg did not want it and we’re not qualified to give it. The narrator of ‘L’alcool’ begins as a deflated inert everyman-loser along the lines of Eliot’s Prufrock or Larkin’s Mr Bleaney (“In my rags the colour of the walls / I play at being a scarecrow”). In the illusory promise of alcohol, he finds temporary escape and greatness,
“I forget my room in the back of the court
The commuter train at dawn
And in the vapours of alcohol
I see my castles in the air
My harems and all my duchesses”
Unable to live in a chimera, the narrator comes crashing back to earth each time. Yet in the final verse, we find a startling admission by Gainsbourg, “when the bars turn off their neon… the god of drunks guides my steps.” It suggests as sad and wasteful as his later alcoholic decline was, Gainsbourg was well-aware of what he was doing.
3. ‘La noyée’ – unreleased, 1971.
Gainsbourg didn’t release his most tragic song, at least on record, in his lifetime. He performed it in the film Romance of a Horse Thief and with the co-creator of Melody Nelson Jean-Claude Vannier accompanying him on French television. He had offered the waltz to Yves Montand who initially accepted and then declined, worrying what the philistine press would’ve made of the dirge-like sentiment. The drowned female subject of the song has become associated, in my head and the book at least, with the mysterious l’Inconnue de la Seine, whose death-mask haunted artists and fashion for decades. It also speaks of Gainsbourg’s own sadness, the loss of the women he loved and the solitude that he chose or chose him,
On the river of memory
And I, running on the shore,
Call to you to return
But slowly you drift away…”
2. ‘Cargo Culte’- Histoire de Melody Nelson, 1971.
Every love story needs a touch of tragedy. Having watched Mondo Cane, Gainsbourg decided to use the Cargo Cults of Oceania as his deus ex machina for Melody and the narrator’s doomed romance. The lyrics are Gainsbourg at his most baroque, influenced deeply by the poem ‘The Conquerors’ by José-Maria de Heredia.
“I know of magicians who invoke jets
In the jungles of New Guinea
They scrutinize the zenith coveting the guineas
That plundering the cargo would bring them…
They dream of hijacks and bird accidents.”
The lyrics contain his trademark repetition of words with multiple meanings (guinea, sirens, void/cloud). It is the combination of the thrillingly exotic with the devastatingly empty that gives them their power,
“Where are you Melody and your shattered body?
Are you haunting the archipelago where the sirens live…
The bright coral coasts of Guinea?”
Though known more for his mastery of the erotic and the disposable, the song has at its heart, like all Gainsbourg’s best work, a sense of loss and isolation. The narrator is left devastated and alone, yet it seems somehow necessary, as if poets crave heartache more than satisfaction. It may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy by Gainsbourg given Jane Birkin, the model for Melody Nelson, eventually left him as perhaps he expected she would.
“Having nothing more to lose or a God to believe in,
So that they might give me back my ridiculous love,
like they, I prayed to the cargo planes at night
And I hold onto that hope of a disaster
in the air that would return Melody to me,
A minor lured away from the gravity of the stars.”
1. Le poinçonneur des Lilas – Du chant à la une!.. 1958
The closest pop music ever came to Existentialism, Gainsbourg was inspired to write the song by a ticket-puncher at the Lilas Métro station, who he’d see every day. Noticing an air of abject depression and pensiveness, Gainsbourg asked him what he was dreaming about. “Seeing the sky” came the reply.
“I am the ticket puncher at Lilas
For Invalides transfer at Opéra
I live in the heart of the planet
I have in my head
A carnival of confetti.”
The images of being underground and wanting to be under the sun are curious recurring ones in Gainsbourg’s work, often in the more melancholy songs such as ‘Valse de Melody’ and ‘Sous le soleil exactement’. The fear of mortality they hint at is confirmed by the thoughts of the inspector,
“Sometimes I dream and ramble
I see waves
And in the mist at the end of the dock
I see a boat that’s come for me”
His conclusion to this Sisyphean nightmare is just as bleak but less serene. You punch holes all day until it drives you mad, until you take a gun and punch a hole in your head and then they’ll sling you into another hole in the ground. It’s not Mamma Mia. ‘Le poinçonneur des Lilas’ was the first song on Gainsbourg’s first album and his first masterpiece. It would be far from his last.