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Paris: In search of Serge Gainsbourg

Never meet your heroes, they say, but there’s no harm in following them. Our associate editor steps out in his favourite city, Paris, on the trail of treasured French troublemaker and musician

Paris: In search of Serge Gainsbourg
Portrait of Serge Gainsbourg outside 5 Rue de Verneui, Paris. Image: Alamy

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Serge Gainsbourg’s commitment to alcohol was absolute. It dictated his approach to almost everything. For example, he never learned to drive, fearing it would interfere with his drinking. His Rolls Royce Phantom was kept as an expensive ashtray — a place to simply sit and smoke.

It follows that any attempt to retrace Gainsbourg’s steps really ought to involve booze. So it is I find myself in the opulent bar of L’Hôtel, in Montparnasse — where Serge and the English actress Jane Birkin spent the first few months of their relationship.

During this period, the golden couple of 1970s France lived in the hotel room in which Oscar Wilde died — and while there’s nothing here to mark Gainsbourg’s stay, there are plenty of references to Wilde. On the menu I spy two commemorative cocktails — a Dorian Grey and a Born to be Wilde. I order the latter — a wonderfully potent variation on a mojito — and as I sip it I contemplate my mission.

My plan is to indulge my passion for Serge Gainsbourg and his city, and in doing so to somehow get under the skin of both. I’ve visited Paris many times, but on recent trips I’ve been conscious of a need to do something different and to somehow get beyond its touristy veneer. Who better to show me around than Gainsbourg, a man who kept the same Parisian address for 23 years, and led an almost nocturnal existence, haunting the hippest venues of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, his crumpled, nonchalant form an enduring symbol of the city during this period. I may not find any museums or plaques devoted to the man — instead, there are countless bars, hotels and clubs, each with a strong Gainsbourg association, and many, mercifully, remain just as he left them.

Outside of France, Gainsbourg is known primarily for Je t’aime… moi non plus, his raunchy 1969 duet with Birkin, which was banned by both the Vatican and the BBC. In France, however, he’s a big deal, his colossal fame achieved on the back of high-profile love affairs with the likes of Birkin and Brigitte Bardot, and a career’s worth of headlines and provocations. Yet underpinning all of this is a staggering body of work.

My own fascination began with the music, which seemed so original and varied. Then, as my French slowly improved, I became dimly aware of both his lyrics and also his highly distinct taste in subject matter. Songs I’d at first assumed to be throwaway proved anything but. For example, I’d always imagined that in the moody song Ford Mustang, Gainsbourg was merely boasting about being driven around town by a beautiful woman. In fact, he was itemising the objects found scattered on the ground after a couple had crashed while kissing at the wheel.

Back at L’Hôtel, I try to imagine him seated at the bar, losing himself in drink and scribbling out his macabre ideas on a napkin. After a second Born to be Wilde, I put some Gainsbourg on my MP3 player and head out towards the Seine, passing Quai Voltaire, the riverbank from where Birkin once threw herself following a late-night lovers’ tiff (she was saved from drowning by passing firemen).

It’s a lovely spring evening and down by the riverside Paris is looking its elegant best. It pains me to have to go underground, but I find the Metro pleasantly full of music: first a young female chanteuse in a rhinestone-studded dress; then on old man in tweed coaxing mournful melodies from a battered violin. I emerge at Pigalle, into the neon glare of the Moulin Rouge and its surrounding litter of garish clubs and sex shops. On this seedy strip I find Les Trois Baudets (‘The Three Donkeys’), a promising-looking art deco building housing a sumptuous underground concert hall. Gainsbourg was a regular — in fact, he gave his very first recorded performance here in 1959.

As I settle at a table with a glass of red, I’m struck by the intimacy of the venue. The all-seat arrangement doesn’t lend itself to dancing. Instead, it encourages the audience to sit in judgement, scrutinising the performers like reality show judges. I throw myself into this part, silently critiquing the first two acts. The third, the oddly named MmMmM, is a nice surprise. They’re dynamic and wonderfully experimental — the lead singer tackles one number in a high-pitched child’s voice — although their pleas for the crowd to get to their feet fall on deaf ears, as we all sit, poker-faced, occasionally nodding approval.

Afterwards, exhilarated, I finish a second glass of red in the upstairs bar, as the bands sit and dissect their performances with friends and fans. Then, on my way back to my hotel, I cut down a dimly-lit side road and happen upon the bright-red facade of Madame Arthur, the transvestite cabaret club where a young Gainsbourg learnt his trade. Here, as resident pianist, he wrote music to accompany a bizarre retinue of acts, from burlesque dancers to jugglers and trapeze artists. If anywhere can take credit for Gainsbourg’s distinct style, it’s Madame Arthur — and I’ve found it quite by chance. Paris, it seems, is co-operating.

Le Temps de fumer

Gainsbourg’s commitment to smoking was as unwavering as his adherence to alcohol. He saw cigarettes as essential to his creativity and would work through the night writing on his piano, getting through up to five packets before emerging at dawn with finished songs.

It seems to me any attempt to retrace his steps ought to involve tobacco. Hence I find myself merrily puffing a Cuban miniature as I make my way to the Metro the next morning. I’m only an occasional cigar smoker, but it’s really helping me get into the spirit of this particular adventure.

It’s for similar reasons that today I’m in a smart black suit — Gainsbourg, after all, was a man of some style. Not that he was conventionally attractive — in fact, during his early years the French media were very unkind about his looks. But this didn’t deny him great success with women — success he would partly attribute to his own brand of Gallic nonchalance.

In so many ways, Gainsbourg plays up to a certain French stereotype — the louche, vice-ridden aesthete who always puts his art first. It is, of course, a crude caricature, but as an ardent Francophile it’s one I’ve always found appealing, and in my mind it’s why Gainsbourg feels so inseparable from Paris, a city so intensely cerebral and bohemian at its core.

Few things demonstrate Gainsbourg’s commitment to his art better than his bizarre decision to take up residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts . This most wonderfully French of institutions provides lodgings for artists seeking a sympathetic environment in which to work. Despite already being a big star in France, Gainsbourg stayed here between 1966 and 1967, to hone his song writing.

On the morning I arrive, exhibitions are being held over six floors of the building, with two floors devoted to some of the most stunning travel photography I’ve seen in a long while. In the basement, there’s a series of unusual posters, and as I sit on a sofa to admire them I can hear piano chords and a chorus of operatic voices from behind a closed door. I settle into my chair, close my eyes, and tune into the music. Half an hour slips past in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Serge Gainsbourg’s grave, Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris. Image: Superstock

Serge Gainsbourg’s grave, Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris. Image: Superstock

My next stop is the similarly tranquil Cimetière du Montparnasse, the final resting place of Baudelaire, de Beauvoir, Sartre and — buried with his Russian parents — Gainsbourg. His grave is unmistakable, covered with framed portraits and fresh flowers, plus countless train tickets — an affectionate reference to his breakthrough hit, Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a Metro worker driven to suicide by the monotony of his job.

It’s a wonderfully peaceful space, as cemeteries so often are, and I seem to have the whole place to myself. Then on my way out, I see a tombstone that stops me in my tracks — it belongs to four people who all died in 1942, and I realise with a jolt that it’s the grave of a Jewish family who perished in Auschwitz. Serge was luckier. A young Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied Paris, he’d pretend the yellow star he was forced to wear was merely a sheriff’s badge. As the persecution grew, his family fled south to Limoges. There, in the woods of Haute-Vienne, a terrified Serge was forced to hide out alone for several nights to avoid a Nazi raid on his boarding school.

Gainsbourg would later turn his war years into a source of creativity, even writing a Nazi-themed concept album. Writer Darran Anderson, an authority on Gainsbourg, suggests this period also fuelled his hunger for the spotlight; having been pushed so close to extinction, Anderson speculates, Gainsbourg was determined to make himself ‘impossible to ignore’. But by the end of his life, having been impossible to ignore for several decades, Gainsbourg had become an alcoholic pastiche of himself, staggering like George Best from one disastrous TV appearance to the other. In 1992, he died of a heart attack in the house he’d lived in for 23 years.

That house, 5 Rue de Verneuil, remains just as he left it. When I arrive, the quiet, narrow street is empty. Gainsbourg’s building is impossible to miss, as every inch of its white facade is covered with scrawled lyrics and messages, plus several murals and portraits. The graffiti has even spilled out onto the pavement, and when I look into the small, gated porch, I see it’s strewn with empty cigarette packets and used Metro tickets. It’s an oddly affecting spectacle, given a sombre edge by both my solitude and the gathering clouds. And while I’ve certainly no wish to contribute any words of my own to this sea of heartfelt scribble, I add my own Metro ticket to the pile as I depart. Around the corner I seek shelter from a sudden downpour in Le Bistrot de Paris, Gainsbourg’s favourite restaurant. And, over a sumptuous, if boozy lunch, I reflect on my adventures. It’s been a short visit but a rewarding one. And if my itinerary has been a bit off the wall (and somewhat under the table), it’s been all the better for it. Having indulged so heavily in Gainsbourg over the past 48 hours, I imagine it’ll be a while before I listen to him again. But I’m hugely grateful to his ghost for plotting my route.

I finish proceedings the way I started them — in the bar of a plush hotel. This time it’s Hotel Raphael Paris, off the Champs-Elysées, where Gainsbourg stayed towards the end of his life in one last search for creative inspiration. Ignoring the cocktail list, I chose a glass of Chablis. It’s expensive but delicious, and when it’s finished, I order a second — but, for the first time on this trip, it feels like one too many. Perhaps it’s time to emerge from Gainsbourg’s shadow. His commitment to booze may well have been absolute but mine, it appears, is fleeting.

Five to try: Gainsbourg’s finest

1. Le Poinçonneur des Lilas: Gainsborug’s breakthrough hit about a Metro worker driven to depression by his job, punching holes in ticket stubs.

2. Je t’aime… moi non plus: His biggest hit — a sexually explicit duet, recorded first with Brigitte Bardot and then, famously, with Jane Birkin.

3. Bonnie & Clyde: Written for Bardot as an apology for a bad date, this duet is based on poem written by fugitive Bonnie Parker, a few weeks before she was shot dead.

4. Ballade de Melody Nelson: The standout track from Gainsbourg’s masterpiece: the concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson.

5. Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais: Here, Gainsbourg plays merciless heartbreaker. The title — ‘I came to tell you that I’m going’ — says it all.

Top Five: Gainsbourg’s provocations

1. Eurovision: As part of his mid-1960s reinvention, Gainsbourg penned Luxembourg’s wining entry for the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. It was sung by a clean-cut, 18-year-old starlet called France Gall, whom Gainsbourg would go on to write more songs for — although their relationship soured when she realised he’d been sneaking double entendres into her lyrics.

2. Bardot & Birkin: Serge’s high-profile affair with Brigitte Bardot ended in 1967 when she returned to husband Gunter Sachs. Distraught, he consoled himself by entering into a relationship with English actress Jane Birkin, 18 years his junior.

3. Upsetting the establishment: He may have been a national treasure, but Gainsbourg was fond of enraging his countrymen. In 1979, he recorded a reggae version of the French national anthem, Le Marseillaise, which lead to death threats. Five years later, he caused another stir by burning a 500-franc note on live TV — an illegal act in France.

4. Lemon Incest: In 1984, Gainsbourg recorded a controversial duet with his 13-year-old daughter, actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. The song, entitled Lemon Incest, was about the pure love of a father and a daughter. But the title, deliberately ambiguous chorus, and accompanying — provocative — video ensured it caused scandal.

5. Whitney Houston: Serge’s most infamous moment came in 1986, during a drunk appearance on a French chat show, when he expressed his romantic intentions towards fellow guest Whitney Houston in a way that can’t be reprinted here. The clip has since become a YouTube sensation.  

Published in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)