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Cocktails and other Stories


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Serge Gainsbourg

Couleur cafe

Du jazz dans le ravin

Comic Strip


By Roni Sarig

Every cultural movement needs an enfant terrible, even a fad as innocuous and transparent as the current lounge revival. Given that the return of soothing sounds from a more innocent time belies (or perhaps proves) that we're living in a rather cynical age, who could be a more appropriate antihero than a lecherous cabaret singer who shocked his audience like a punk rocker and yawned ennui like a studied slacker?

While his obscurity in the United States is no doubt due to the fact he sang in French, Gainsbourg enjoyed a fair amount of commercial success and celebrity in his native land from the late 50s until his death of a heart attack in 1991. As a Jew who grew up in Vichy France, he knew the value of personal liberty and flaunted it in his songs. He fancied himself an heir to young and restless French poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud--a Dylan of the Left Bank, who played both the ugly-duckling sex symbol and the intellectual pop star. At the same time, he was the archetypal sleazy lounge singer, the stereotypical French smoothie, an aging playboy who bedded young beauties (most notably Brigitte Bardot). He continued to cause a stir well into his late 50s and 60s, recording a song called "Lemon Incest" with his young daughter (actress Charlotte Gainsbourg) and staring into Whitney Houston's eyes on live French television and telling her, "I want to fuck you."

Forty years after he first recorded, Gainsbourg's music is gaining newfound recognition with English speakers. Mick Harvey of Nick Cave's Bad Seeds recorded an entire album of Gainsbourg songs in English translation, 1995's Intoxicated Man, and Luscious Jackson recently covered his "Soixante neuf annee erotique" ("69 Erotic Year") for a benefit album; members of the bands Luna and Stereolab have cited him as an influence and collaborated on a version of "Bonnie and Clyde." Still, for most Americans, three recent compilations are a first chance to hear Gainsbourg's own recordings.

Both Couleur cafe and Du jazz dans le ravin cover the late 50s and early 60s, when Gainsbourg leaned toward jazz, both the mellow lounge variety captured on Du jazz and the Latin flavor heard on Couleur cafe. By the late 60s, Gainsbourg had shifted to a mod pop style closer to Burt Bacharach or Nancy Sinatra; Comic Strip covers this era. (He would later go on to record in just about every fashionable style, from reggae to funk to disco.) While each album has its charms--and more than enough Parisian swagger--none are likely to set the modern world on fire. Gainsbourg's music never ventures far enough from well-worn American, Latin, and African styles to assert personality of its own, and his much-admired/much-disdained lyrics are, well, in French.

Du jazz's light jazz pop has some nice guitar and horn arrangements and a few memorable melodies ("Black Trombone" stands out)--but the record is notable mainly as a document of Gainsbourg's earliest expressions of boredom ("Ce mortel ennui"), drunkenness ("Intoxicated Man"), and violence ("Quand mon 6.35 me fait les yeux doux," which translates as "When My 6.35 Makes Eyes at Me"). Musically, it's clear Gainsbourg was more of a jazz fan than a committed composer.

Couleur cafe is more characteristically French--at least in a colonial sense. There are the Latin rhythms of "Cha Cha Cha du Loup" and "Mambo Miam Miam" and the calypso of "Tatoue Jeremie"; the title tune and "New York USA" flirt with meringue and Afro-pop, respectively. "L'ami Caouette" ("My Pal Peanut"), a 1975 single included despite chronological inconsistency because it fits in stylistically, employs the rhythms of zouk, the pulse-quickening Afro-pop fusion of the French Antilles.

The most worthwhile of the three compilations is Comic Strip. Here Gainsbourg finally distills his obsessions with American culture into a style that comes closest to being his own--and a sound that would earn him his greatest commercial success. "Bonnie and Clyde" is Morricone-esque gangster pop, while "Comic Strip" blends French chanson with onomatopoeic Batman noises ("Sh-bam, blop, whizz!" sings Bardot). The record features rock arrangements (electric guitar, Hammond organ) and orchestral pop touches (muted horns, backing vocals), plus Gainsbourg's vocals at their most sneering and cynical on songs whose titles translate as "Requiem for a Jerk," "Who's In and Who's Out," and "A Violent Poison, That's What Love Is."

Gainsbourg is most Gainsbourgian when he gets down and dirty. Comic Strip's second side contains his signature duets with his sultry mistress, Jane Birken: the aforementioned "Soixante neuf" and the orgasmic "Je t' non plus" ("I Love You...Neither Do I"). The latter was explicit enough to get banned throughout Europe in 1969, though it landed on the American chart at (where else?) number 69. Gainsbourg thrives as the pervert and the provocateur--the perfect dead pop star for the end of the millennium.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.

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