Serge Gainsbourg

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Serge Gainsbourg

Singer, songwriter

For the Record

Scandalous Romances

Je TAime Sparked Outrage

Albums Stirred More Controversy

Declining Years, Posthumous Acclaim

Selected discography


In France, the unexpected death of singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg in 1991 sparked days of national mourning. One of Frances most enduring cultural icons of the twentieth century, the perpetually controversial Gainsbourg was best known abroad for his breathy, salacious 1969 duet with the actress Jane Birkin, Je TAime Moi Non Plus. In his own recordings, Gainsbourg was a clever provocateur who relished any chance to shock the haute bourgeoisie, and it was only in later years that critics and fellow musicians came to hail these often avant-garde solo works as masterpieces. Yet Gainsbourg was also a prolific songwriter who crafted pop tunes and torchy ballads for an array of attractive chanteuses over his 30-plus-year career. Independent journalist Robert Chalmers called him the greatest popular musician France has ever produced, and the best of his recordings rank with those of Lennon and McCartney and Bob Dylan. Echoes of his favourite technique, of murmuring profanities against a delicate and beautiful harmony, can be heard in many contemporary records, not least the later work of Leonard Cohen. When Gainsbourg died, no less a personage than French president François Mitterand commented upon the loss, comparing him to nineteenth-century poet Charles Baudelaire.

Gainsbourg was one of twins, named Lucien and Liliane, born in Paris in 1928 to Joseph and Olia Gins-burg. His parents were Russian Jews from the Ukraine who had settled in France after Russias revolutionary upheavals a decade earlier. Nicknamed Lulu from an early age, Gainsbourgs artistic talents were encouraged during his childhood, and he was enrolled in a Montmartre art school at the age of 13. His adolescence proved a difficult one, however, as France was under Nazi German occupation between 1940 and 1944, and as Jews the Ginsburgs were subject to persecution. They were compelled by law to wear a Jewish star on their clothing in public. Gainsbourgs father worked as a piano player in Paris nightclubs, but an 8 p.m. curfew for Jews curtailed the familys income severely. Joseph soon fled to southwest Frances free zone, and several months later was able to obtain forged travel papers for the rest of the family. Thus the teenaged Gainsbourg escaped the terrible fate of thousands of Frances Jews, spending the remainder of the war years living quietly in Limoges.

Back in Paris after the war, Gainsbourg began studying art in earnest at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in 1945. There he met his first wife, Elisabeth Levitsky, who was a part-time model and acquaintance to some noted artists of the era. They were married in 1951. Soon after, Gainsbourg abandoned the bohemian art scene for music. Taking up his fathers profession, he joined Frances official songwriterssociety, and when he registered his first songs in 1954, he changed his first name to Serge and altered Ginsburg to Gainsbourg, after the celebrated British painter. By 1958 he had a regular slot playing piano at Milord LArsoille, a famed nightclub on Paris Left Bank. There he came to

For the Record

Born Luden Ginsburg on April 2, 1928, in Paris, France; died of a heart attack on March 2, 1991, in Paris, France; son of Joseph (a musician) and Olia (Besman) Ginsburg; married Elisabeth Levitsky (a secretary and model), 1951; divorced, 1957; married Beatrice Pancrazzi, 1964; children: Natacha, Paul (with Pancrazzi); Charlotte (with actress and singer Jane Birkin); Lucien (with Bambou, his companion before death). Education: Studied painting at the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1945-51.

Began music career as piano player in Paris nightclubs; passed examination for French songwriterssociety, Société des Auteurs-Compositeurs (SACEM), 1954; began writing and performing songs on stage of Milord LArsoille, Paris; discovered by singer Michele Arnaud; signed with Philips label, released first record, Du Chant A la Une!, 1958; wrote songs for performers including Arnaud, Juliette Greco, Francoise Hardy, France Gall, Petula Clark, Vanessa Paradis; duet with Jane Birkin, Je TAime Moi Non Plus, became first-ever foreign-language song to reach number one on U.K. charts, 1969.

know Michele Arnaud, an established singer with a certain Parisian cool to her style, and she began performing his songs elsewhere. Soon Gainsbourg was offered a contract by the Polygram division of Philips, and he released his first LP, Du Chant A la Une!, in 1958. Its songs were a combination of elegant cocktail jazz, cool, existentialist beatnik-jazz-pop, and French chanson, noted Sylvie Simmons, author of a 2001 biography, Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes.

Scandalous Romances

Gainsbourg went on to release a string of similar worksjazz-styled songs with arch, sometimes even caustic lyricsand while they enjoyed modest sales, they failed to make him a star. He had better luck writing for singers like Arnaud, Juliette Greco, and Françgoise Hardy, among others. As times changed, he moved away from jazz and into a more rock style. In 1965 he won the Eurovision Song Contest with a bubblegum-pop song he wrote for teen singer France Gall, Poupée de Ciré, Poupée de Son (A Lonely Singing Doll). Meanwhile, he was also acting in films such as Estouffade A La Caraibe alongside Jean Se-berg, and he was writing film scores as well. By 1967 his first marriage and a subsequent one to Beatrice Pancrazzi, with whom he had two children, had both ended, and in October of that year he met film star Brigitte Bardot on a French television program. A renowned bombshell for more than a decade by then, the sultry Bardot was married to a millionaire playboy at the time.

Bardot and Gainsbourg became romantically involved, and he began writing songs for her. Their first duet together, Bonnie and Clyde, displayed the new, sexier sound to his style, and the resulting publicity over their far-from-secret romance boosted his profile immensely. The track appeared on his 1968 release Bonnie and Clyde, which was quickly followed by Bardots own record, Initials B.B. Then Gainsbourg wrote a steamy, sexually suggestive duet, Je TAime Moi Non Plus, and the duo recorded it in a Paris studio in late 1967; word leaked to the press that it had been an audio verité recording, and journalists sought out Bardots husband for comment. Outraged, he demanded it be withdrawn. Bardot was slated to begin a film soon and, worried about the adverse publicity, asked Gainsbourg not to release it. Their romanceand professional collaborationended shortly thereafter.

Je TAime Sparked Outrage

Within a few months Gainsbourg had met a young English actress, Jane Birkin, on the set of the film Slogan. Best known at that point for her appearance in the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film Blow Up in the first full-frontal nude scene to appear on a British cinema screen, Birkin was barely out of her teens and married to film composer James Barry, who scored the memorable James Bond 007 films of the era. The marriage was disintegrating by the time she and Gainsbourg met in Paris in mid-1968. Gainsbourg and Birkin became inseparable, and Gainsbourg asked her to record Je TAime Moi Non Plus with him. Released in 1969, it became the most successful song of his career. The duet featured heavy breathing, racy innuendo, and nonsensical French lyrics, including the amusing line that translates, I come and go between your kidneys. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) refused to air the song, as Simmons recalls, with a spokesperson stating that it was not considered suitable for play. It was also forcefully condemned by the Vatican as obscene, and the head of Fontanas Italian division was briefly jailed and fined.

Je TAime reached number two on the British charts when released on the Fontana label. Then the labels parent company became nervous; Philips, the Dutch electronics giant, was owned in part by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, who requested that the record be taken off the market. It was reissued on a small independent label and went on to hit number one on October 11, 1969, making it the first foreign-language song to achieve that distinction in the United Kingdom. In the end, the record sold six million copies and even charted again when rereleased. It also did moderately well in the United States, entering the top 100 and peaking at number 69, but it would prove Gainsbourgs only international hit. Propelled by its inbuilt shock value, Je TAime gave Gainsbourg a taste for the inestimable powers of bad publicity which he was later to explore to the full, noted Jerome Maunsell in the Observer. The song had another major thing going for ityou didnt have to be French to understand it.

Albums Stirred More Controversy

Gainsbourgs next record, Histoire de Melody Nelson, was released in 1971. It was a concept album, the tale of a tragic love affair between a middle-aged French lothario and a delicate English beauty many years his junior. To accompany the album, he and Birkin filmed a half-hour television special that was shot on video, a rarity when it aired on French television at Christmastime in 1971. The record came to be considered an avant-garde classic, with some parts later sampled by the French band Air. American alternative songster Beck also used a sample from it in his work. Theres an ambition, a conceptual depth to Melody Nelson thats incredibly hard to pull off but which Gainsbourg does completely, Beck told Simmons. Its very cool and its dynamic is genius.

After 1973s Vu de IExterieur, Gainsbourgwho by then had had a daughter with Birkin they had named Charlottemade the controversial Rock around the Bunker. The 1975 LP featured rockabilly-style songs about Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, his mistress Eva Braun, and assorted World War ll-era Nazi atrocities, and it naturally ignited a great deal of media attention. But Simmons points out that Gainsbourg, recalling his own narrow escapes from Nazi scrutiny in occupied France, wrote underneath a self-portrait on its cover, I have never forgotten that I ought to have died in 1941, 42, 43, or 44. In 1976 he released LHomme A Tete de Chou (The Man with the Cabbage Head), another concept album; this one recounted the story of a mans passion for a shampoo girl named Marilou, but the tryst ends in violence. Gainsbourgs 1979 album, Aux Armes et Caetera, also proved somewhat scandalous, though critics have hailed it as one of his masterpieces. Recorded in Jamaica, it features guest appearances by reggae stars Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, and Rita Marley. The furor erupted over its reggae version of Frances sacrosanct national anthem, La Marseillaise. Newspapers like Le Figaro excoriated Gainsbourg for his audacity, and he even received death threats.

Declining Years, Posthumous Acclaim

Gainsbourg and Birkin split in 1980, at the onset of a decade in which the singers public and private behavior grew increasingly erratic. In 1984 he appeared on a live television program alongside a rising American R&B singer, Whitney Houston, and said something obscene to the host about her. By that time his latest record, Love on the Beat, was also being condemned in certain quarters for its sly references to male prostitution. He reportedly drank heavily during its recording sessions in New York City and appeared on its cover in drag. The next year, yet another public furor erupted over a single he recorded with his 13-year-old daughter Charlotte, Lemon Incest. A reworking of Chopins Etude No. 3 in E Major, the pop song contains the line The love we will never make is the purest, the most tender, and the video, in which both appeared, was suggestive, but not graphic. Critics saw the move as an attempt by Gainsbourg to regain, in a more free-thinking era, some of the notoriety he had first enjoyed with Je TAime Moi Non Plus. There may have been stars who became more completely the prisoner of their own myth than Gainsbourg, but few survived to serve so long a sentence, declared Chalmers in the Independent newspaper. With time, his career as a provocateur had become increasingly hampered by public tolerance.

Gainsbourg continued to transgress boundaries with his final few releases, including a mildly obscene rap effort from 1987, Youre Under Arrest. Two years later, Philips released the 207-song boxed set, De Gainsbourg a Gainsbarre, a retrospective of his career. A heavy smoker for much of his life, he died of a heart attack in his sleep at his home on the Rue de Verneuil on March 2, 1991. The news of his death sparked an outpouring of national grief in France: flags flew at half-mast, television stations aired his videos and films, and the media eulogized him. President Mitterand called him our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire.

Well into the 1990s, Birkin was still performing the songs Gainsbourg had written for her. His other works were rediscovered by a new generation of fans after his death as well: the British pop acts Suede and the Pet Shop Boys, American hip-hoppers De La Soul, and even the industrial hard-core act Psychic TV have all recorded covers of their favorite Gainsbourg tracks. The chanteuse Hardy, who worked with Gainsbourg in the late 1960s, told Simmons that his inspiration has been so rich that it cuts the grass from underneath the feet of all the songwriters who have followed on from him. It is impossible to undo his influence; he found everything before everyone else.

Selected discography

Du Chant A la Une!, Polygram, 1958.

No. 2, Polygram, 1959.

LEtonnant Serge Gainsbourg, Polygram, 1961.

No. 4, polygram, 1962.

Gainsbourg Confidentiel, Philips, 1963.

Gainsbourg Percussions, Philips, 1964.

Anna, Philips, 1967.

Bonnnie and Clyde, philips, 1968.

Jane BirkinSerge Gainsbourg, Fontana, 1969.

Histoire de Melody Nelson, philips, 1971.

Vu de IExterieur, philips, 1973.

Rock around the Bunker, philips, 1975.

LHomme A Tete de Chou, philips, 1976.

Aux Armes et Caetera, philips, 1979.

Love on the Beat, Philips, 1984.

Gainsbourg Live, Philips, 1986.

Youre Under a Arrest, philips, 1987.

De Gainsbourg a Gainsbarre, philips, 1989.

Jazz and Cinema, Vol. 3, Sunnyside, 2002.



Simmons, Sylvie, Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes, Da Capo Press, 2001.


Esquire, February 1998, p. 26.

Independent (London), February 15, 1997, p. 3; January 4, 2000, p. 1.

New Statesman, April 11, 1997, p. 43.

Observer (London), May 20, 2001, p. 16.

Sunday Times (London), May 20, 2001, p. 16.

Carol Brennan

views updated

Serge Gainsbourg

Serge Gainsbourg (1928–1991), the greatest French songwriter of the 1960s and 1970s, was as famous for his decadent life and cynical wit as for the songs he sang. He made a career out of writing clever, provocative lyrics, recording many of them himself and giving others to his many famous friends and lovers to sing. His theatrical rudeness and outrageous provocations made him infamous and beloved in France.

The outsider

Gainsbourg was born at the Hoôtel Dieu hospital in Paris, along with his twin sister Liliane, on April 2, 1928. His birth name was Lucien Ginsburg. His parents, Joseph and Olia Ginsburg, were Jewish immigrants who had fled the Ukraine around the time of the Russian Revolution. Joseph was a talented pianist in theaters and clubs in Paris, well-versed in both classical music such as Chopin and American pop composers such as Cole Porter and George Gershwin. He taught his son and daughter piano, beginning when they were four years old. Lucien became interested in painting, so his parents sent him to art school in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris.

World War II began when Gainsbourg was 11 years old, and he spent his early teens in Paris during the German occupation. A 1942 law required Jews to wear yellow stars with the word "Jew" written on them, an experience that hurt and scarred him. "It was like you were a bull, branded with a red-hot iron," he said in an interview quoted in Sylvie Simmons's biography, Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes. The racist shaming magnified his feelings of adolescent alienation. "Even at 13, 14 years old, I had already become an outsider, because the tough guy thing wasn't me." He took refuge in reading books and smoking cheap cigarettes. Soon, an 8 p.m. curfew for Jews made it impossible for Joseph Ginsburg to work in nightclubs, so he sneaked away illegally to Limoges in southern France, where he found work with an orchestra and quietly sent money home. A year and a half later the rest of the family, using false identification, traveled to Limoges to join him. Limoges was in southern France, which was not directly occupied by Germany but controlled by the French government based in Vichy, so it was slightly less dangerous for Jews, though not safe. One day the headmaster of Gainsbourg's school had the young man hide in nearby woods for a night to avoid a military documents check. When Paris was liberated in 1944, the family returned home.

In 1945 Gainsbourg enrolled in the prestigious art school École Supérieure Des Beaux Arts, to pursue painting. Two years later he also enrolled in a music school while continuing his art studies. He started dating Elisabeth Levitsky, secretary to poet Georges Hugnet and a part-time model, and she began supporting him financially. His father, wanting him to provide for himself, paid for him to take lessons from a gypsy guitar player so he could make money performing. While Gainsbourg spent a year in the military (as required of all French men), he developed a drinking habit that stuck with him the rest of his life. In 1951 he and Levitsky married.

The Astonishing Gainsbourg

Joseph Ginsburg began passing some of his piano playing gigs on to his son. As the young Gainsbourg got more work in nightclubs, he gave up painting, frustrated that he was not a genius at it, as he explained decades later. He joined France's songwriters' society in 1954 and registered his first six songs. For his new career, he renamed himself. He had never liked his first name. "He thought it was a loser's name," his longtime girlfriend Jane Birkin said in Simmons's book. "He said it reminded him of hairdressers—they were always called Lucien. Serge, he thought, sounded more Russian. And he chose Gainsbourg because he loved the English painter Gainsborough." Performing in nightclubs, Gainsbourg attracted a lot of female attention, and his womanizing caused Elizabeth to divorce him in 1957.

Gainsbourg began performing at the Milord L'Arsouille nightclub on Paris's Left Bank, he where he gained two important supporters: popular singer Michèle Arnaud, who worked two of Gainsbourg's songs into her act, and Boris Vian, a novelist and composer of songs full of biting humor. Word spread about Gainsbourg's talent. He was signed to the Philips record label and recorded the 1958 album "Du Chant à la une!" (Songs on Page One). A mix of jazz and ballads in the French chanson style, the album was filled with lyrics that were cynical and bitter, especially toward women. It did not sell well, but Boris Vian wrote an article praising it, and it won the grand prize of L'Académie Charles Cros, a songwriting award. One song from the album, "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas" (The Ticket-Puncher), about a lonely subway ticket-taker who becomes suicidal, eventually became a classic of French songwriting. The next year, the acclaimed French singer Juliette Gréco released a four-song album of his songs, including one of his first compositions, "Les Amours Perdues" (The Lost Loves). His 1961 album, "L'Étonnant Serge Gainsbourg" (The Astonishing Serge Gainsbourg), made his literary influences clear; one song, "La Chanson De Prévert," paid tribute to French poet Jacques Prévert.

For a few years, it seemed that Gainsbourg would never attract more than a cult following of jazz intellectuals and bohemians. Several French singers recorded his songs, but French chanson fell out of vogue starting around 1962, as French youth embraced American and British rock 'n' roll and French imitations known as yé-yé. Gainsbourg recorded a few songs mocking yé-yé fans and defied the trends by recording the experimental Gainsbourg Percussions, influenced by African and Caribbean percussion styles. Later, determined to write a hit song, he began writing material for 16-year-old yé-yé star France Gall, including the hit "Les Sucettes" (Lollipops) and "Poupée de cire, poupée de son" (Wax Doll, Singing Doll), which won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965. Soon, Gainsbourg's songs were more popular than ever among female French singers, and he spent the next two years focusing on his songwriting.

Gainsbourg married his second wife, Béatrice, whose given name was Françoise-Antoinette Pancrazzi, in early 1964. They soon had a daughter, Natacha. The marriage was doomed from the start, since she was extremely possessive, jealous of his singer friends and his fans. They divorced two years later, reuniting temporarily in 1967 and conceiving another child, Paul, born in 1968. But by then Gainsbourg had left Beatrice permanently. He had fallen in love with one of France's most beautiful and most famous actresses, Brigitte Bardot.

Bardot and Birkin

Gainsbourg was not a conventionally attractive man. In fact, he was often described as ugly; one French fanzine said he resembled a drowsy turtle. Yet one famous sex symbol after another became either his friend or his lover. "He attributed his appeal to women to a charmed sense of vulnerability, as well as his baggy eyes, three-day stubble and perpetual halo of smoke from five daily packs of Gitanes," William Drozdiak wrote in the Washington Post. Accordng to Drozdiak, Gainsbourg often said that "ugliness is superior to beauty because it lasts longer."

Bardot, a singer as well as an actress, had already recorded a few of Gainsbourg's songs before they appeared together on a prime time TV show together in late 1967. Bardot's second marriage was in trouble, and she and Gainsbourg discovered a mutual attraction. She invited him to appear on her own TV show, and he began writing new songs for her. Soon they became lovers, meeting discreetly at first, then going out to trendy nightclubs. They sang Gainsbourg's new songs, playful and full of abandon, on her show amid sets wild with pop psychedelia. "Comic Strip" was pop art as song, with Gainsbourg singing lead and Bardot intoning cartoon sound effects: "Shebam! Pow! Blop! Wizz!" To perform "Bonnie and Clyde," they styled themselves as flashy crooks. Next, they recorded "Je T'Aime … Moi Non Plus" (I Love You … Me Neither), a clever duet punctuated by erotic groans and sighs. According to Simmons's biography, rumor spread that Gainsbourg and Bardot had been engaged in "heavy petting" while recording it. Enraged, Bardot's husband demanded that the record company cancel the single. Worried he would hurt Bardot's image, Gainsbourg complied, and the Bardot recording was not released until 1986.

Bardot returned to her husband, and Gainsbourg found a new lover, Jane Birkin, a beautiful 22-year-old British actress whose looks evoked the Swinging London fashion scene of the time. They met while acting in the film Slogan, and Gainsbourg swept her off her feet with a passionate, all-night trip through the nightclubs of Paris. Gainsbourg rerecorded "Je T'Aime … Moi Non Plus" with Birkin and released the new recording as a single. The lyrics were a clever interplay of cynicism and sentiment, but the suggestive vocal effects caught more listeners' attention. The Vatican called the song obscene and the BBC banned it, but it hit the top of the British singles charts anyway, Gainsbourg's only hit outside France. It sold 6 million copies worldwide.

Gainsbourg and Birkin quickly became one of the most famous celebrity couples in Europe. According to some accounts, they secretly married sometime in the 1970s, but other accounts say they never did. Either way, they stayed together for more than a decade. In 1971 Birkin gave birth to their daughter, Charlotte. The same year, Gainsbourg and Birkin released their next musical collaboration, Histoire de Melody Nelson (Story of Melody Nelson), a concept album about a middle-aged man in a forbidden romance with a 15-year-old girl. The music included an orchestra and a choir. Some critics considered the 1971 album to be Gainsbourg's masterpiece. "The story is silly," wrote New York Times critic Jody Rosen, but "it has real-life emotional resonance and actually holds together like a literary work: Gainsbourg's lyrics are filled with wonderful details and moments of genuine pathos."

Throughout the 1970s Gainsbourg continued writing songs, though a heart attack in 1973 slowed him down for a while. Birkin convinced him to adopt a more casual style, including an unshaven, stubbly look that became his visual trademark. Gainsbourg had enjoyed the scandal around "Je T'Aime … Moi Non Plus," and his 1970s output and public appearances seemed increasingly calculated to shock. For instance, his 1975 album Rock Around the Bunker was a caustically funny song series about Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany set to 1950s-style American rock. One song was named after the yellow star the Nazis had forced him to wear as a boy.

Again seeking to innovate and surprise, Gainsbourg traveled to Jamaica and recorded a reggae album in 1978, at a time when reggae was just becoming popular in Western Europe. He booked a session in a Kingston recording studio with accomplished reggae musicians Sly and Robbie. Their meeting was awkward—the musicians were in no mood to record French music—until Sly declared that the only French song he knew was "Je T'Aime … Moi Non Plus." Once Gainsbourg told them it was his song, they got along well. Their 1979 album Aux Armes et cetera (To Arms, Etc.) included the title track, Gainsbourg's reggae version of the French national anthem, "La Marseillaise." Instead of singing some of the bloodiest lines of the anthem, Gainsbourg sang, "Aux armes, et cetera," and let the lyrics trail off. The radical transformation of the anthem "was, for the French, the equivalent of the Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen' and Jimi Hendrix's 'Star-Spangled Banner' rolled into one," Simmons wrote in her biography. The conservative national newspaper Le Figaro called it an outrage and declared that Gainsbourg's French citizenship should be revoked. Gainsbourg embarked on a tour of France with the reggae musicians, and the shows sold out, but they were plagued by bomb threats from the extreme right. Before Gainsbourg's show in Strasbourg, a band of paratroopers warned the city's mayor that they would stop the show by force if necessary. Gainsbourg took the stage alone, though several of the paratroopers were in the audience, and sang the national anthem solo, then directed a disrespectful hand gesture at the paratroopers. His defiance made him a hero to much of the younger generation in France.


In the 1980s Gainsbourg's life began to turn tragic. Birkin left him in 1980, upset that he had begun drinking more heavily and acting outrageously. They remained friends, however, and Gainsbourg continued to write songs for her albums. A year later, Gainsbourg began a new relationship with the young singer Caroline Von Paulus, better known by her stage name, Bambou. They had a son, Lucien, in 1986.

In his own songs, Gainsbourg began to include references to an alter ego, "Gainsbarre," a character hobbled by alcohol and depression. "His excessive indulgence in booze, tobacco and women seemed to nurture his commercial success, as the French public became more fascinated by him with every outrageous piece of music or behavior," wrote Drozdiak. Once he burned a 500-franc note on live TV to protest high taxes. In 1986, also on live TV, he vulgarly propositioned the American singer Whitney Houston. He did, however, find one taboo the French did not want broken. In 1984 he recorded the song "Lemon Incest" as a duet with his daughter Charlotte, then 13. The video showed them lying near each other on a bed, and the lyrics "come close to extolling carnal relations," as Drozdiak put it. Three years later Gainsbourg directed an entire film, Charlotte Forever, as an homage to her. He also continued recording, experimenting with funk and hip-hop, and writing songs for others, including Bambou, Birkin, and the young French singer Vanessa Paradis, mostly known in the United States for later marrying American actor Johnny Depp.

Publicly indulging in too much alcohol and too many cigarettes, Gainsbourg spent 10 years committing suicide, as one friend of his put it. He endured heart problems and a liver operation before dying on March 2, 1991, of a heart attack at his apartment in Paris. Much of France mourned. French President François Mitterand declared that Gainsbourg, "through his love for the language and his musical genius, lifted the song to the level of an art" (as quoted in the Chicago Tribune). He was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, the final resting place of many of France's greatest writers and artists. Since his death, Gainsbourg's legend has grown. Many young French, American and British singers acknowledge his influence, and fans still leave huge collections of art and gifts, including packs of Gitanes, outside his old apartment.


Simmons, Sylvie, Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes, Da Capo Press, 2001.


Chicago Tribune, March 5, 1991.

Guardian (London, England), February 2, 2001; April 14, 2006.

New York Times, August 26, 2001.

Washington Post, March 8, 1991.


"Serge Gainsbourg," Radio France Internationale, (December 31, 2006).