On March 2, 1991, the French singer, songwriter and celebrity provocateur Serge Gainsbourg died, at the age of 62. Gainsbourg is legendary in France for his prodigious talent and lengthy career, for the many beautiful women he was involved with – though he himself was far from handsome in any standard sense – and for a lifetime of bad behavior in public.
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Lucien Ginsburg, as he was named by his parents, was born in Paris on April 2, 1928. His parents, Joseph Ginsburg and the former Olga Bessman, were both born in the Russian Empire and had fled west to France at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. Joseph was a classically trained musician who played piano in cabarets and casinos after arriving in Paris, and he trained his children to play as well.
Lucien was 12 when the Germans occupied Paris, and as a Jew the period of World War II weighed heavily on him throughout his life. His 1975 song “Yellow Star,” for example, recounted the painful memory of having to wear a symbol marking him as a Jew in the streets of Paris. Eventually, Joseph got himself to Limoges – which was marginally safer for Jews than the occupied zone – found work, and, using false papers, brought the family there.
After the war, Gainsbourg got a job teaching arts at a Jewish school outside Paris, for children whose parents did not return to France after being deported during the war. He himself studied painting at the Ecole Superieure Des Beaux Art, and later began music school as well. After an obligatory year of service in the French military, and, frustrated that he wasn’t an artistic genius, Gainsbourg began accepting music gigs from his father, and changed his name. Because he thought it sounded like a hairdresser, he switched “Lucien” to the more Russian-sounding “Serge”; “Ginsburg” became “Gainsbourg” in homage to the painter Thomas Gainsborough.
During his 40-year career as a songwriter, Gainsbourg went through nearly every style of popular music possible. After initially mocking the “ye-ye” (“yeah-yeah”) pop ditty that hit France in the late 1950s, he became one of its top proponents. He also wrote in the styles of jazz, funk, reggae and even electronic, toward the end of his life. His lyrics were famously clever and punny, and often had sexual or morbid elements to them.
Gainsbourg was married twice, and also had two long-term relationships with women who bore him children – most notably with the British actress Jane Birkin, who spent a decade with Gainsbourg and is the mother of Charlotte Gainsbourg, today a popular French actress. He was also famously involved with Brigitte Bardot, who was the first to record the song “Je t’aime... moi non plus” with him, in 1967. When Bardot’s husband became angry about the song, in which she and Gainsbourg are heard simulating the sounds of mutual orgasms over a romantic melody, she begged him not to release it. Gainsbourg consented and, two years later, rerecorded the song with Jane Birkin. The song, banned from broadcast in a number of countries, and condemned by the Vatican, naturally became an international hit.
Gainsbourg’s final decades were plagued by alcoholism, and embarrassing public appearances that were sometimes fueled by drink. Appearing on a French TV show in 1986 with singer Whitney Houston, and irritated that the host was not accurately translating his words for Houston, Gainsbourg corrected him and said, in English, “I said, I want to f*** her.”
Gainsbourg told an interviewer at one point, “There’s a trilogy in my life,” said Gainsbourg, “an equilateral triangle, shall we say, of Gitanes, alcoholism and girls – and I didn’t say isosceles, I said equilateral. But it all comes from the background of a man whose initiation in beauty was art.”
He directed four films, and wrote the soundtracks for 10 times that number.
When Gainsbourg died, on this date in 1991, he was praised by French president François Mitterrand as “Our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire ... He elevated the song to the level of art.” He was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery, in the Jewish section.