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All Music Guide:
Serge Gainsbourg was the dirty old man of popular music; a French singer/songwriter and provocateur notorious for his voracious appetite for alcohol, cigarettes, and women, his scandalous, taboo-shattering output made him a legend in Europe but only a cult figure in America, where his lone hit "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" stalled on the pop charts -- fittingly enough -- at number 69.
Born Lucien Ginzberg in Paris on April 2, 1928, his parents were Russian Jews who fled to France following the events of the 1917 Bolshevik uprising. After studying art and teaching, he turned to painting before working as a bar pianist on the local cabaret circuit. Soon he was tapped to join the cast of the musical Milord L'Arsoille, where he reluctantly assumed a singing role; self-conscious about his rather homely appearance, Gainsbourg initially wanted only to carve out a niche as a composer and producer, not as a performer.
Still, he made his recording debut in 1958 with the album Du Chant a la Une; while strong efforts like 1961's L'Etonnant Serge Gainsbourg and 1964's Gainsbourg Confidentiel followed, his jazz-inflected solo work performed poorly on the charts, although compositions for vocalists ranging from Petula Clark to Juliette Greco to Dionne Warwick proved much more successful. In the late '60s, he befriended the actress Brigitte Bardot, and later became her lover; with Bardot as his muse, Gainsbourg's lushly arranged music suddenly became erotic and delirious, and together, they performed a series of duets -- including "Bonnie and Clyde," "Harley Davidson," and "Comic Strip" -- celebrating pop culture icons.
Gainsbourg's affair with Bardot was brief, but its effects were irrevocable: after he became involved with constant companion Jane Birkin, they recorded the 1969 duet "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus," a song he originally penned for Bardot complete with steamy lyrics and explicit heavy breathing. Although banned in many corners of the globe, it reached the top of the charts throughout Europe, and grew in stature to become an underground classic later covered by performers ranging from Donna Summer to Ray Conniff.
Gainsbourg returned in 1971 with Histoire de Melody Nelson, a dark, complex song cycle which signalled his increasing alienation from modern culture: drugs, disease, suicide and misanthropy became thematic fixtures of his work, which grew more esoteric, inflammatory, and outrageous with each passing release. Although Gainsbourg never again reached the commercial success of his late-'60s peak, he remained an imposing and controversial figure throughout Europe, where he was both vilified and celebrated for his shocking behavior, which included burning 500 francs on a live television broadcast and recording a reggae version of the sacred "La Marseillaise."
Gainsbourg also created a furor with the single "Lemon Incest," a duet with his daughter, the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. In addition, he posed in drag for the cover of 1984's Love on the Beat, a collection of songs about male hustlers, and made sexual advances towards Whitney Houston on a live TV broadcast. Along with his pop music oeuvre, Gainsbourg scored a number of films, and also directed and appeared in a handful of features, most notably 1976's Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus, which starred Birkin and Andy Warhol mainstay Joe Dallesandro. He died on March 2, 1991.
Serge Gainsbourg (born Lucien Ginsburg; French pronunciation: [sɛʁʒ ɡɛ̃sbuʁ]; 2 April 1928 – 2 March 1991) was a French singer, songwriter, poet, composer, artist, actor and director. Regarded as one of the most important figures in French popular music, he was renowned for his often provocative and scandalous releases, as well as his diverse artistic output, which embodied genres ranging from jazz, chanson, pop and yé-yé, to reggae, funk, rock, electronic and disco music. Gainsbourg's varied musical style and individuality make him difficult to categorize although his legacy has been firmly established and he is often regarded as one of the world's most influential popular musicians.
His lyrical work incorporated a vast amount of clever word play to hoodwink the listener, often for humorous, provocative, satirical or subversive reasons. Common types of word play in his songs include mondegreen, onomatopoeia, rhyme, spoonerism, dysphemism, paraprosdokian and pun. A well known example is the song Les sucettes written for France Gall in which a teenage Gall was under the impression she was singing about lollipops, unaware for many years that the song had a double-meaning; the enjoyment of giving someone fellatio.
Personal life 
He was born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris, France, the son of Russian-Jewish emigrants, Joseph Ginsburg (28 December 1898, Kharkov (Ukraine) – 22 April 1971) and Olga (née Bessman; 1894 – 16 March 1985), who fled to Paris after the 1917 Russian Revolution. He had a twin sister, Liliane. Joseph Ginsburg was a classically trained musician whose profession was playing the piano in cabarets and casinos; he taught his children to play the piano.
Gainsbourg's childhood was profoundly affected by the occupation of France by Nazi Germany. The identifying “yellow star” Jews were mandated to wear, became a symbol which haunted Gainsbourg and which in later years he was able to transmute into creative inspiration. During the Nazi occupation of World War II, the Jewish Ginsburg family was able to make their way from Paris to Limoges, traveling under false papers. Limoges was an unoccupied city, but under the administration of the collaborationist Vichy government and still a perilous refuge for Jews. At war’s end, Gainsbourg obtained work teaching music and drawing in a school outside of Paris, in Mesnil-Le-Roi. The school was set up under the auspices of local rabbis for the orphaned children of murdered deportees. Here Gainsbourg heard the accounts of Nazi persecution and genocide, stories that resonated for Gainsbourg far into the future. Before he was 30 years old, Gainsbourg was a disillusioned painter, but earned his living as a piano player in bars.
Gainsbourg changed his first name to Serge feeling that this was representative of his Russian background and because, as Jane Birkin relates: “Lucien reminded him of a hairdresser's assistant.” He chose Gainsbourg as his last name in homage to the English painter Thomas Gainsborough whom he admired.
He first married Elisabeth "Lize" Levitsky on 3 November 1951, and divorced her in 1957. He married a second time on 7 January 1964, to Françoise-Antoinette "Béatrice" Pancrazzi (b. 28 July 1931), with whom he had two children: a daughter named Natacha (b. 8 August 1964) and a son, Paul (born in spring 1968). He divorced Béatrice in February 1966.
In late-1967, he had a short but ardent love affair with Brigitte Bardot to whom he dedicated the song and album Initials BB.
In mid-1968, Gainsbourg fell in love with the younger English singer and actress Jane Birkin, whom he met during the shooting of the film Slogan. Their relationship lasted over a decade. In 1971 they had a daughter, the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. Although many sources state that they were married, according to their daughter Charlotte this was not the case. Birkin left Gainsbourg in 1980.
Birkin remembers the beginning of her affair with Gainsbourg: he first took her to a nightclub, then to a transvestite club and afterwards to the Hilton hotel, where he passed out in a drunken stupor. Birkin left Gainsbourg when pregnant with her third daughter, Lou, by the film director Jacques Doillon.
His last partner was Bambou (Caroline Paulus, grandniece of Field marshal Friedrich Paulus). In 1986 they had a son, Lucien (known as Lulu).
Early work 
His early songs were influenced by Boris Vian and were largely in the vein of old-fashioned chanson. Very early, however, Gainsbourg began to move beyond this and experiment with a succession of musical styles: jazz early on, pop in the 1960s, funk, rock and reggae in the 1970s, and electronica in the 1980s.
Many of his songs contained themes with a morbid or sexual twist in them. An early success, "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas", describes the day in the life of a Paris Métro ticket man whose job it is to stamp holes in passengers' tickets. Gainsbourg describes this chore as so monotonous that the man eventually thinks of putting a hole into his own head and being buried in another.
More success began to arrive when, in 1965, his song "Poupée de cire, poupée de son" was the Luxembourg entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. Performed by French teen and charming singer France Gall, it won first prize. The song was recorded in English as "A Lonely Singing Doll" by British teen idol Twinkle.
His next song for Gall, "Les Sucettes" ("Lollipops"), caused a scandal in France: Gainsbourg had written the song with double-meanings and strong sexual innuendo, of which the singer was apparently unaware when she recorded it. Whereas Gall thought that the song was about a girl enjoying lollipops, it was really about oral sex. The controversy arising from the song, although a big hit for Gall, threw her career off-track in France for several years.
Gainsbourg arranged other Gall songs and LPs that were characteristic of the late 1960s psychedelic styles, among them Gall's 1968 album. Another of Serge's songs "Boum Bada Boum" was entered in by Monaco in the 1967 contest, sung by Minouche Barelli; it came fifth. He also wrote hit songs for other artists, such as "Comment Te Dire Adieu" for Françoise Hardy.
In 1969, he released "Je t'aime... moi non plus", which featured explicit lyrics and simulated sounds of female orgasm. The song appeared that year on an LP, Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg. Originally recorded with Brigitte Bardot, it was released with future girlfriend Birkin when Bardot backed out. While Gainsbourg declared it the "ultimate love song," it was considered too "hot"; the song was censored or banned from public broadcast in numerous countries, and in France even the toned-down version was suppressed. The Vatican made a public statement citing the song as offensive. However, despite or perhaps because of all the controversy, it sold well and charted within the top ten in many European countries.
The 1970s 
Histoire de Melody Nelson was released in 1971. This concept album, produced and arranged by Jean-Claude Vannier, tells the story of a Lolita-esque affair, with Gainsbourg as the narrator. It features prominent string arrangements and even a massed choir at its tragic climax. The album has proven influential with artists such as Air, David Holmes, Jarvis Cocker, Beck and Dan the Automator.
In 1975, he released the album Rock Around the Bunker, a rock album written entirely on the subject of the Nazis. Gainsbourg used black comedy, as he and his family suffered during World War II. While a child in Paris, Gainsbourg had worn the yellow badge as the mark of a Jew. Rock Around the Bunker belonged in the mid-1970s "retro" trend.
The next year saw the release of another major work, L'Homme à tête de chou (Cabbage-Head Man), featuring the new character Marilou and sumptuous orchestral themes. Cabbage-Head Man is one of his nicknames, as it refers to his ears. Musically, L'homme à tête de chou turned out to be Gainsbourg's last LP in the English rock style he had favoured since the late 1960s. He would go on to produce two reggae albums recorded in Jamaica (1979 and 1981) and two electronic funk albums recorded in New York (1984 and 1987).
In Jamaica in 1978 he recorded "Aux Armes et cetera", a reggae version of the French national anthem "La Marseillaise", with Robbie Shakespeare, Sly Dunbar, and Rita Marley. This song earned him death threats from right-wing veterans of the Algerian War of Independence who were opposed to certain lyrics. Bob Marley was furious when he discovered that Gainsbourg made his wife Rita sing erotic lyrics. Shortly afterward, Gainsbourg bought the original manuscript of "La Marseillaise". He replied to his critics that his version was, in fact, closer to the original as the manuscript clearly shows the words "Aux armes et cætera..." for the chorus.
Final years 
In 1982, Gainsbourg wrote an album for French rocker Alain Bashung, Play blessures. The album, although now considered a masterpiece by French critics, was a commercial failure.
After a turbulent 13-year-long relationship, Jane Birkin left Gainsbourg. In the 1980s, near the end of his life, Gainsbourg became a regular figure on French TV. His appearances seemed devoted to his controversial sense of humour and provocation. In March 1984, he burned a 500 French franc bill on television to protest against heavy taxation.
He would show up drunk and unshaven on stage: in April 1986, in Michel Drucker's live Saturday evening show with the American singer Whitney Houston, he objected to Drucker's translating his comments to Whitney Houston and in English stated: "I said, I want to fuck her" - Drucker insisted this meant "He says you are great..." The same year, in another talk show interview, he appeared alongside Catherine Ringer, a well known singer who had appeared in pornographic films. Gainsbourg spat out at her, "You're nothing but a filthy whore, a filthy, fucking whore". Ringer scolded back, "Look at you, you're just a bitter old alcoholic. I used to admire you but these days you've become a disgusting old parasite".
By December 1988, while a judge at a film festival in Val d'Isère, he was extremely intoxicated at a local theatre where he was to do a presentation. While on stage he began to tell an obscene story about Brigitte Bardot and a champagne bottle, only to stagger offstage and collapse in a nearby seat. Subsequent years saw his health deteriorate. He had to undergo liver surgery, but denied any connection to cancer or cirrhosis. His appearances and releases became sparser as he had to rest and recover in Vezelay. During these final years, he released Love on the Beat, a controversial electronic album with mostly sexual themes in the lyrics, and his last studio album, You're Under Arrest, presented more synth-driven songs.
His songs became increasingly eccentric during this period, ranging from the anti-drug "Aux Enfants de la Chance" to the highly controversial duet with his daughter Charlotte named "Lemon Incest". This translates as "Inceste de citron", a wordplay on "un zeste de citron" (a lemon zest). The title demonstrates Gainsbourg's love for puns – another example of which is Beau oui comme Bowie, a song he gave to Isabelle Adjani.
Film work Acting
In 1960, Gainsbourg co-starred with Rhonda Fleming in the Italian film La Rivolta Degli Schiavi (The Revolt of the Slaves) as Corvino, the Roman Emperor Massimiano's evil henchman. In 1969, he appeared in William Klein's pop art satire Mister Freedom, and in the same year he starred with Jane Birkin in Les Chemins de Katmandou (The Pleasure Pit). He also made a brief appearance with Birkin in Herbert Vesely's 1980 film, Egon Schiele Exzess und Bestrafung. He co-starred alongside Birkin in the french movie "Slogan", for which he wrote the title song "La chanson de slogan". Also with Birkin, he acted in the french-yugoslavian film "Devetnaest djevojaka i jedan mornar" (19 girls and one sailor), where he had a role of a partisan man.Directing
Gainsbourg directed four movies: Je t'aime ... moi non plus, Équateur, Charlotte for Ever, and Stan the Flasher.Composing
Throughout his career, Gainsbourg wrote the soundtracks for more than forty films. In 1996, he received a posthumous César Award for Best Music Written for a Film for Élisa, along with Zbigniew Preisner and Michel Colombier.
Gainsbourg wrote a novel entitled Evguénie Sokolov.
Death and legacy 
Gainsbourg died on 2 March 1991 of a heart attack. He was buried in the Jewish lot of the Montparnasse Cemetery, in Paris. His funeral brought Paris to a standstill, and French President François Mitterrand said of him, "He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire... He elevated the song to the level of art." His home at the well-known address 5bis rue de Verneuil is still covered in graffiti and poems.
Since his death, Gainsbourg's music has reached legendary stature in France. His lyrical brilliance in French has left an extraordinary legacy. His music, always progressive, covered many styles: jazz, ballads, mambo, lounge, reggae, pop (including adult contemporary pop, kitsch pop, yé-yé pop, '80s pop, pop-art pop, prog pop, space-age pop, psychedelic pop, and erotic pop), funk, disco, calypso, Africana, bossa nova, and rock and roll. He has gained a following in the English-speaking world with many non-mainstream artists finding his arrangements highly influential.
One of the most frequent interpreters of Gainsbourg's songs was British singer Petula Clark, whose success in France was propelled by her recordings of his tunes. In 2003, she wrote and recorded La Chanson de Gainsbourg as a tribute to the composer of some of her biggest hits.
His lyrics are collected in the volume Dernières nouvelles des étoiles.
Film biopic 
A feature film titled Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) was released in France in January 2010, which is based on the graphic novel by the writer-director of the film, Joann Sfar. Gainsbourg is portrayed by Eric Elmosnino and Kacey Mottet Klein.