September 25, 2018

French music renegade is re-discovered

Although he is not widely known in the United States, the French-Jewish composer, lyricist, musician and singer Serge Gainsbourg is a legend in his native country. After Gainsbourg’s death from a heart attack, in 1991 at 62, French President François Mitterrand called him “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire,” adding,  “He elevated the song to the level of art.”

A “Serge Gainsbourg Tribute” concert will be staged at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 28 as part of the KCRW World Festival.  Johanna Rees, the Bowl’s senior programming manager for presentations and special concerts, said among the reasons for the tribute is to recognize Gainsbourg’s great influence on some of today’s popular musicians.

Special guests Beck, Sean Lennon, Charlotte Kemp Muhl, Ed Droste (Grizzly Bear), Victoria Legrand (Beach House), Mike Patton (Faith No More) and Nika Roza Danilova (Zola Jesus) will join the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra to perform Gainsbourg’s works.

“Beck, the top name on the roster of artists who will perform, has talked about being a fan of Serge Gainsbourg,”  Rees explains, “and so the idea to explore his music was exciting.  Also, it’s the 20th anniversary of his death.”

To provide context for the evening, KCRW host Anne Litt will give an overview of Gainsbourg’s life and achievements. The vocalists will sing in French and English and briefly discuss the numbers they are performing.

Gainsbourg was particularly noteworthy for the diversity of musical styles he mastered, among them jazz, ballads, pop, disco, rock ’n’ roll, African and reggae.

“He wanted to explore,” Rees said. “Take the reggae period. It didn’t matter if people liked it or didn’t like it. He was doing what he wanted to do. Maybe that was part of his excesses, including musical excesses.”

Many of Gainsbourg’s songs had blatantly sexual subjects. His singular album “L’histoire de Melody Nelson,” recorded with Jane Birkin, his wife at the time, tells the story of a middle-age man, somewhat like Gainsbourg himself, who accidentally runs his Rolls-Royce into the bicycle of Melody Nelson, a teenager. The episode is followed by a seduction, in a narrative reminiscent of “Lolita.”

A rendition of that entire composition will close the evening. Jean Claude Vannier, who did the original arrangements with Gainsbourg, is flying in from France for his first U.S. appearance and will conduct the orchestra in its performance of “Melody Nelson” on the work’s 40th anniversary.

Also appearing at the concert will be Gainsbourg’s 25-year-old son by his last partner, the French model and singer Bambou. Lucien Gainsbourg, or Lulu, as he is called, will perform two of his father’s songs that are also included in the tribute album he recorded, “From Gainsbourg to Lulu,” which is slated for a November release in France.  While Lulu is aware of the womanizing and other extreme behavior that characterized his father’s personal life, he wants the public outside of France to appreciate his father’s considerable accomplishments.

“People need to know who that man was, apart from the drugs and the drinking and the smoking. He was the greatest poet of his generation, and an amazing musician, and he painted. He did everything. I wish that everybody would admire him for what he did as an artist.”

Lulu Gainsbourg. Photo by Richard Aujard

Having recently graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston, Lulu, who was only 5 when his father died, is trying to forge his own creative path. 

“Since I already have a name that’s known, because of my dad, I realize that a lot of people are waiting for my work, waiting for me to show up. And this is great pressure, because I have one shot and cannot miss that shot. But, I’m doing my own stuff, and some people will like it; some won’t like it. This is life.”

As the product of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, Lulu said he has no particular religious affiliation, though he did have a bar mitzvah and last year visited Israel for the first time.

His father’s Jewish background, particularly his experiences as a child during the Nazi occupation of France, figures prominently in the upcoming biopic “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life,” scheduled to open Sept. 2.  In one segment, the main character’s defiant personality becomes evident when the young Gainsbourg demands that the French police, who are collaborating with the Nazis, give him the first yellow star, which Jews must wear.

Filmmaker Joann Sfar said that the most heavily documented period of Gainsbourg’s life is his childhood, and the episode is totally factual. In conducting his research, Sfar didn’t want to rely too much on the memories of Gainsbourg’s family members.

“I only wanted to work on Serge Gainsbourg’s real words. So I gathered all the words he said in songs, interviews, newspapers, books. All the things he said, even if he was drunk, were the basis for my script. The story is totally written with his words and, maybe, his words only.”

As a French Jew himself, Sfar said he feels a particular affinity for his cinematic hero.

“When I was a kid, I came from a wonderful, and wonderfully boring, Jewish family.  There was a lot of religion, and not so much fun. So, Gainsbourg provided the proof, to me, that a Jew could be cool.” 

“His relationship to religion is very interesting — his family was not religious at all. But the French police made Gainsbourg a Jew the day they gave him the star. ‘This is not my yellow star, officer, it is yours’ may be the most important sentence of the movie. It is a love story between a young Jewish boy and France.”

Sfar’s film portrays many of Gainsbourg’s excesses, which, in his later years, led to embarrassing public incidents. When asked if such a dissolute life, one that may well have contributed to Gainsbourg’s premature death, could be considered heroic, the filmmaker replied that herein lies one of the basic differences between Europe and the States.

“In the United States, the movie storytellers have taught the audience that the hero is the guy who solves problems. If there is an issue, don’t worry; the hero is here, and everything will be OK. In my perception, from Athens to Kafka, the European view of a hero is quite different: the hero is the guy facing the impossibility of living without tragedy. Sorry!  That definition isn’t fun. But I strongly feel that a hero, like Jesus, is the guy who opens his wound for us to drink his blood.”

“Serge Gainsbourg Tribute,” Sunday, Aug.  28 at 7 p.m., Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., (323) 850-2000. For additional information: