Last month saw the release of Jeremy Allen's excellent new book, Relax Baby Be Cool: The Artistry and Audacity of Serge Gainsbourg, which explores the life of the provocative entertainer through the lens of his work from Jawbone Press. Our review of the book is still forthcoming (I promise), but this week marked the 30th anniversary of the French chanteur's death, which led to a deluge of social media posts and articles, as well as a pair of virtual events organised by the Institut français du Royaume-Uni.
The evening started on Tuesday, March 2 (the actual anniversary of Gainsbourg's death) with a live discussion between French music expert David McKenna and author Jeremy Allen, which took place at the Institut français and was introduced by the Institut's new director, Bertrand Buchwalter. This was followed by a screening of the rare 2012 documentary, Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg: An Intimate Self-Portrait, which uses interviews and home movie footage to shed a little more light on this enigmatic figure and the many characters he portrays. Both events were broadcast to viewers via The 25th Hour cinema platform, which is a wonderful place to discover other French films and events.
It's interesting when you approach Gainsbourg through his characters, as it's one of the points highlighted in the talk last night. While McKenna drew comparisons between Gainsbourg and Prince, especially in the way both artists tend to express their kinks and proclivities through music; Allen saw him as more of a Bowie-like figure, who embraced and took on other roles, such as their Gainsbarre or Ziggy Stardust personas. Both viewpoints are valid - and I think there's a lot to be explored on either front - but the documentary definitely shone a light on the evolution and expansion of his character/s.
Returning to the discussion, I'm still amazed by Gainsbourg's relativeness newness and obscurity in the eyes of so many people. This is something that was highlighted by the book, but it's also something Allen and McKenna touched on as they discussed his posthumous appeal to the UK and international audiences. Admittedly I came to his work late as well - stumbling across it soon after moving to the UK in 2007 - but I had always assumed this was more a by-product of growing up in Australia than a universal thing. I say that despite the fact our (by which I mean Australia's) very own Mick Harvey is one of the greatest proponents of Gainsbourg in the English-speaking world.
Once I discovered Gainsbourg, however, I never looked back; and that has resulted in an obsession which has led me from music to film to books and beyond. It's also led me to follow the work of his collaborators and contemporaries - as well as, indeed, his partners and progeny - which is one of the key elements of his continuing legacy. Not only was Gainsbourg a prolific creator in his own right but, much like Prince, he had an enormous impact on the musicians he wrote for and who covered his work, as well as the many offshoots and performers who came later.
In a similar way to 'The Purple One' (that's Prince not the Quality Street chocolate), Gainsbourg worked extensively with a number of female artists - reductively referred to as 'muses' - who were incredible talents in their own right. Many, like Juliette Gréco and Brigitte Bardot, were already well established when Gainsbourg came on the scene; and he tells a nice story in the documentary about meeting Edith Piaf in her final days. She saw him perform in a nightclub and thought he came across as a sensitive young man, so she asked him to write a song for her before her untimely death in 1963. Like Gainsbourg, Piaf had been determined to live life the way she wanted - which included a number of indulgent vices - and her last words were said to be: "Every damn fool thing you do in this life, you have to pay for."
Another recurring theme in the discussion (and, by default, the documentary) was the problematic nature of Gainsbourg's relationships with women - especially younger ones. Jane Birkin was 22 when she started dating Gainsbourg in 1968; which was the same age as Caroline Von Paulus (a.k.a. Bambou) when they got together in 1981. This, and his much talked about Lolita complex, are well-covered in the course of Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg, so I'd highly recommend watching that if you get the chance. I can understand people not wanting to invest their time in that way, but I would argue it's worth the extra consideration and context based on Gainsbourg's significant oeuvre. Fortunately it seems the people now discovering his work are the same people who would be asking such questions - and quite rightly as well - so it looks as though he's in good hands.
One final key moment that stood out to me came early in the discussion when McKenna asked if Allen considered himself to be a 'francophile'. I've seen him talk about this before - most notably in a piece he wrote for The Guardian back in 2014 - so I'll quote that rather than attempt to remember exactly what he said last night:
"The thing that puzzles me about French culture and the UK’s relationship with it is that it’s right on our doorstep and yet we roundly ignore it. Is it just the language barrier or are there other issues at play? As the crow flies, Paris is only 50 miles further from London than Manchester in the other direction, and yet if you spent all day listening to the Smiths, Joy Division and the Fall you wouldn’t get accused of being a mancophile, because that word doesn’t exist."
When you consider this was written two years before the word 'Brexit' was even part of the vernacular, it's interesting to look back on. Expanding on that last night, Allen explained that he didn't feel comfortable with the term 'francophile' because it implied a love of all things French. While he came to appreciate a lot from his time living in Paris (a Paris-ophile would be more applicable) saying he was a francophile might be overstating it. I can certainly relate as it's something I've wrestled with (and still do) over the naming of this site. I would hate to be seen as a fan of someone like Marine Le Pen, based purely on her Frenchness, but I think it's an appropriate moniker given the broad scope of my interests outside of right-wing nationalists and other dangerous parties.
Ultimately there was a lot covered, or at least touched upon, in the course of Allen and McKenna's conversation, which neatly served as an extended teaser (and proof of concept) for Relax Baby Be Cool. There's no way you could approach a full discussion of Serge Gainsbourg's life and legacy in one short hour, but hopefully it piqued enough people's interest to pick up the book and explore it in greater detail over the course of 300 or so pages. If you're interested in buying a copy then I'd suggest checking out your local independent bookshop or finding one you can support via the excellent Bookshop.org website. You can also stay up-to-date with events and screenings such as this through the Institut français du Royaume-Uni.