Serge Gainsbourg biographer: Whitney should have said ‘yes’
Last year, Belgian rock journalist Gilles Verlant wrote and published a biography on Serge Gainsbourg on Tosh Berman’s TamTam Books (purveyor of Boris Vian’s fiction in English). Titled “Gainsbourg: The Biography,” Verlant’s book is an impressionistic window into the abrasive and excessively horny but always creatively adventurous French singer. It’s the result of decades of interviews, notes and full access to the Gainsbourg archives.
Verlant cut his journalistic teeth covering music in his native Belgium. Over the years he’s interviewed everyone from Bob Marley and David Bowie to Genesis, Simple Minds and Talking Heads. A resident of France for the past 30 years, he writes, edits and also appears as a TV personality.
I had a chance to speak with Verlant recently about Gainbsourg being a sort of proto-punk, how he first met the singer, and the influence of Boris Vian on Serge Gainsbourg.
Early in your career you covered punk rock for some Belgian publications—do you think that Gainsbourg was a proto-punk?
He definitely was, in his own way. Long before punk happened he would appear on TV unshaven, smoking Gitane after Gitane, pretending to do his lipsync but not giving a fuck. In a word, uncompromising and not playing the game expected of a star of french “chanson” or “variété”. TV producers who dared invite him often received hate mail from viewers, some even saying that Gainsbourg smelled bad, as if their TV set was in Odorama. [Laughs]
How did you first meet Gainsbourg?
I was a kid, maybe seven years old, in a TV studio (my father was a TV director and producer in Belgium). Can’t remember a thing, but I know he signed me a card with his picture! Second time was in January 1980. I was producing his reggae concerts (two in a row, same evening) at Le Cirque Royal in Brussels—one of the greatest days of my life. My hero on stage. I’m the producer. The audience is crazy. The money is good. The third time was three months later in our first interview for his short novel “Evguenie Sokolov”.
What was the impetus or the reason behind writing a biography on Gainsbourg?
I had two absolute heroes when I was an adolescent: Bowie and Gainsbourg. I wrote a book on Bowie in 1981 (the first ever in French, but certainly not the best one), and on Gainsbourg four years later, which I worked on again and again, until the last version, which three times bigger and a hundred times better that the first one, in 2000. There was almost nothing written on Serge when I started. He intrigued me, I loved his attitude, his songs, his character.
Let’s talk about Boris Vian’s influence on Gainsbourg. Was he enamored with Vian’s novels, persona or music?
With his persona, for sure, and with his songs. Vian, the jazzman, had a short career as a singer (a longer one as a songwriter). He had absolutely no success and created a scandal with a song called “Le Déserteur”. Published around the time the French army was chased out of Indochine (Vietnam), it said (from the point of view of a young man who is drafted) “I’m not going”. How very anti-patriotic! Boris was singing—petrified by stage fear—about modern society, the atomic bomb, cruelty, etc. Gainsbourg, who didn’t know what to do with his life and approaching 30, thought when seeing him onstage, “Alright, I can do that — I won’t be better, but certainly not worse!”
What was the greatest challenge in writing the book?
Trying not to be too much of a fan. Telling the real story of his life and work, his giant influence on French Chanson, without hiding some of the embarrassing truth, which is sometimes unbearable. When drunk, he would sometimes hit his girlfriends, Jane or Bambou. Rarely, but he did.
Can you talk about how Gainsbourg met and began collaborating with Jean-Claude Vannier?
Serge badly needed arrangers for his songs and he used quite a few. Their work was sometimes more than just arranging. They would actually co-compose and not necessarily be credited for it. (Officially, I mean. Serge was honest and generous with the people he worked with.) Jean-Claude Vannier is one of the best, with Alain Goraguer and Michel Colombier. And of course his name is linked with one of Serge’s masterpieces, “Histoire de Melody Nelson”.
What is it about Gainsbourg’s music and persona that endures?
Gainsbourg is so typically French to start with (although he was Russian & Jewish), and even the French public at-large used to hate him. It’s true, basically, he did not sell anything under his name until he was 50 (apart from “Je t’aime moi non plus”, a one-hit-wonder) with his reggae version of France’s national anthem, “La Marseillaise (Aux armes et caetera)”.
When I bought “L’Homme à tête de chou” back in december 1976, he was selling 12-15,000 albums, which for France in those days was nothing. But the kids who saw him on TV in the ’70s understood. And when he found the right rhythm, Reggae, it clicked. Then nothing would stop him, even if his funky stuff from the second half of the ’80s is not very good. And then, after his death, shazam, the English-speaking public in some “branché” cities (London, New York, Los Angeles, etc.) suddenly discovered what a pop genius he was. And what a great poet and provocateur. It’s quite normal that he is in the DNA of French Chanson (almost any would-be starlet claims his influence, even if elusive). It’s quite amazing that some English or American rock stars do the same—he would be proud, or laugh about it, or both.
What did he like about Reggae? The musical form was a big influence on UK punk and post-punk bands, but one never really hears about its influence on French musicians, except with Gainsbourg.
Reggae could fit, perfectly so, his way of talking, instead of singing, on a rhythm track. Before and after him, French singers used it as a novelty. He went all the way to Kingston to record with the right guys, who were outsiders back then, too. He was doing in France what “toasters” (rap’s ancestors) were doing in Jamaica. His producer Philippe Lerichomme had the right idea at the right time.
What was a conversation like with Gainsbourg?
Er… slow and sometimes tedious. Or hilarious. He would speak slowly, leaving long silences, searching for the right word. Not drunk—he was actually very shy. You had to “tendre l’oreille” and be very attentive. You had to have a whole lot of questions. Most of the time, the first half hour he would repeat what he had said a thousand times to others—be on “automatic pilot”. Then a crack would appear.
Let’s talk about his efforts to woo Leo Tolstoy’s granddaughter. Did he ever go into detail about this with you?
We all went throught that, right? Boy meets girl. Boy wants to fuck the girl. Girl says “Yes”, then hesitates and says “No”. Boy is angry. Boy masturbates. Boy goes to prostitutes. Boy is rejected because he’s ugly, or thinks he is. Boy goes misogynist. Then boy fucks Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin. All is forgotten.
Do you think Gainsbourg was into transgression for transgression’s sake, like a prankster? Or did he really believe that French culture, which can be quite conservative, needed a shock to the system from time to time?
Both. He was a traditionalist for quite a number of things: education, being polite, being gallant with ladies (he was!). He believed in reading books, listening to classical music, etc. But at the same time, he always was “à la marge”, or on the margin. It was not role-playing.
Coming from other cultures played a part. Wearing the yellow star at age 13, too. He was attracted by outsiders, be they painters, writers or musicians. He felt like one. He showed his contemporaries, and the next generations, that you can be one, that you actually have to be one. And he was very funny. Sometimes he would provoke just to amuse himself, because he was bored.
What are a few things that Gainsbourg fans might not know about him?
That he was very kind, very sweet, very attentive, and very careful with his guests, be they journalists, young fans wanting an autograph, etc. In private he was not at all like the persona he played on TV, saying “I want to fuck her” in front of poor Whitney Houston, who should have said “Yes”—maybe she would have received a good song as a reward.
What is the most absurd experience you had with Gainsbourg when in his company?
The whole biography thing was absurd. I was too young—him 56, me 28 when we started working on the book’s first edition in France, back in 1985. But then, until his death and after, I did my best. I have like 200 questions to ask him. What a shame.
Do you feel like artists like Sebastien Tellier and Air have helped fill the void left by Gainsbourg?
Oh, non! Please! They’re OK, but definitely not in the same league. Listen to Benjamin Biolay or Jacques Duvall instead. They are excellent and transcend his influence.