Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Histoire de Serge Gainsbourg

The surreal odyssey of the Jewish proto-rap star who invented the modern French song

Jeff Weiss
June 05, 2024
This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
See the full collection →︎

Half-smoked Gitanes stick out of the glass ashtray like limbs trying to escape quicksand. The bottle of Château Pétrus is drained. Three Snickers bars idle in a translucent refrigerator—the half-eaten one has tooth marks that resemble a 33-year-old petroglyph. An eerie anatomical model, looking somewhere between Vesalius and a horror film, glowers from the gloomy shadows. On a nearby shelf, a lifeless tarantula is suspended in glass. In the kitchen, the spices and sauces, cans of tomato juice and cocktail mixers are embalmed in pristine order, patiently waiting for Serge Gainsbourg to return home for a final nightcap.

Gainsbourg’s home at 5 bis rue de Verneuil is now an official shrine. The outside has been covered in graffiti tributes since his heart stopped in March 1991. But starting last September, the inside became an open-to-the-public mausoleum. The singer once described the lavishly decorated entry room as “a music room, a brothel [or] a museum.” It’s where he conducted interviews, entertained guests, and played a grand piano with a photo of Chopin watching over him. A velvet sofa still bears the lasting imprint of his flesh.

“For a very long time after he died, the mark on the sofa was the most painful thing,” says Serge’s daughter, the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose soothing prerecorded voice takes visitors on a guided tour through the Maison Gainsbourg—a claustrophobic jewel box of low ceilings, narrow hallways, and spidery light. “There was the image of his body, but the absence of his physical presence.”

Charlotte’s narration offers echoes of sustained grief and enduring love. As you wander the property, she recalls the days after Serge’s death, where the primary women in his life—Charlotte, her half-sister Kate Berry, Jane Birkin, and Serge’s last partner, Caroline “Bambou” Paulus—lay next to the body and communally mourned.

“Time stopped for days. I remember his icy skin as he was finally taken away,” Charlotte says in the narration. “I remember people passing through the bedroom to say goodbye and people singing outside in the street.”

Shortly afterward, Charlotte purchased the remaining shares of the town house from her siblings, but the task of turning it into an actual museum became overwhelming. She’d often come here alone to contemplate the gravity of the loss. To once again live inside the bespoke universe of “a solitary man who didn’t like solitude.”

“I’d had enough. It felt like everyone was trying to grab pieces of him,” Charlotte told me when we met recently at a hotel in Paris. “I almost sold the place. I moved to New York … it felt like I could have a life somewhere else and not think about him or that time. But then I returned to Paris and started the project anew about four years ago. It took a lot of work—mainly because we wanted to have another space so that people wouldn’t just visit the house and never leave.”

The residence’s alluring combination of occult charm and art dealer-chic lands somewhere between Lord Byron’s haunted tomb and the French Graceland. But the specific touches are quintessentially Gainsbourgian. Interiors draped in dark felt so that no natural light may trespass. He once quipped that he’d decided on it “because in psychiatric hospitals the walls are all white.” The priceless works that Gainsbourg owned—The Man With the Head of a Cabbage statue by Claude Lalanne, the original manuscript of “La Marseillaise,” and Dali’s “La Chasse aux Papillons”—are located in the official museum down the street. In this space are ashtrays stolen from five-star Parisian hotels, art deco lamps, bronze monkeys, cherub paintings, a patch that reads “101% rebel,” and dozens of medals and police badges cajoled from members of the armed forces and law enforcement.

These are the possessions of someone preternaturally sensitive and privately nostalgic, attempting to keep the memories close—not merely to vainly grasp at immortality, but also because of the latent awareness that everything could be arbitrarily stolen at any time. In his book, Pensées, provocs et autres volutes, Gainsbourg wrote that “I receive the beauty of objects, subconsciously … On rue de Verneuil, in my museum, I have given them a soul. But the most precious object of all is me, because I’m destructible.”

In The Genius of Judaism, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy highlights several historical examples that symbolize a Jewish essence of France. He evokes Rashi, the preeminent Talmudic scholar of the Middle Ages, whose Hebrew commentaries include thousands of French words drawn from the lexicon of 11th-century wine growers, lawyers, and members of the merchant class. In Lévy’s words, Rashi’s writing memorializes the language at its beginning: “the liquid nitrogen in which Old French was captured and saved from oblivion.”

Rashi presaged Chrétien de Troyes, the poet and trouvère who emerged from the same Jewish community of Troyes that the sage had led a century earlier. De Troyes invented the Arthurian romance and added the tales of Lancelot and the Holy Grail to its collective lore. His structural innovations in Yvain, the Knight of the Lion are considered an evolutionary step toward the modern novel. Then there’s Marcel Proust, the maternal descendent of Alsatian rabbis, whose sense of being outside the world helped him imagine the possibilities of 20th-century literature.

Gainsbourg belongs to this lineage: the alienated insider-outsider living in permanent self-exile, lacing cerebral allusions with a sordid frisson, outsmarting cliché with caustic wit, whose shocking scandals overshadowed his genius for combining the unpolluted sensitivities of a symbolist poet with the haunted nocturnes of a Romantic piano virtuoso. As François Mitterrand said at Gainsbourg’s funeral, he was our “Baudelaire, our Apollinaire.”

Born from the canonically photogenic union between Gainsbourg and the late English actress and singer Jane Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg is the figurative and literal heir of the Gainsbourg legacy. Revered in France as culture royalty, she’s been honored with the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the Ministry of Culture and achieved international renown for her spectral dreampop collaborations with Beck, Air, and Jarvis Cocker (Pulp)—all of whom were inspired in various ways by her father. As an actress, Charlotte has won multiple César awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and earned global avant-gardist acclaim for starring in Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s Depression trilogy.

We meet in the lobby bar of a luxury hotel in Saint-Germain-des-Prés on a cemetery gray Sunday. It’s a drizzling afternoon in late spring and Charlotte gracefully slips in through a side door, inconspicuous in a plain black Yves St. Laurent hat and a simple but stylish jacket. After several years in New York, she’s recently returned to Paris to live with her children and partner, the Israeli French director and actor Yvan Attal.

It’s a five-minute walk from the house where she lived with her older half-sister and parents until their separation in 1980. Throughout Charlotte’s adolescence, she spent most weekends with her father in this cozy two-story art salon—unless Serge felt like the wine dark walls were closing in and booked them a suite at the Ritz. Following his 1991 death, Charlotte purchased the home with the plan of turning it into a museum.

“Sometimes, people merely see him as a provocateur,” Charlotte Gainsbourg told me recently in Paris. “They know him for the big hits and drunken TV appearances—the boastful and shocking character at the end, rather than the subtle artist with finesse.”

Even before the consecration of the family home, memories of Gainsbourg and his daughter have always been intertwined. Charlotte made her musical debut on his 1984 single “Lemon Incest,” whose video featured Serge crooning about the “love we will never make together.” Most overlooked the delicate Chopin interpolation to recoil at the purposefully unsettling images of him lying shirtless in bed beside his 13-year-old daughter in her underwear.

“It was done to provoke and that was part of the fun,” Charlotte says, patiently explaining a question that she’s been routinely asked for the last four decades. “For me, it’s just a beautiful song about a father’s love for his daughter, and a daughter’s love for her father. It’s absolutely sincere and done with great beauty. Even the thing with Whitney Houston is just that: He’s very sincere.”

The “thing with Whitney Houston” references another viral video that often overshadows Gainsbourg’s discography in the post-YouTube, post-#MeToo era. During an appearance on the talk show Champs-Élysée, an aged and dissolute Serge told Whitney Houston that he wanted to fuck her on live TV. The desire wasn’t requited. And while he came off misogynistic and lecherous, Gainsbourg was nothing if not honest. New Puritans may blanche at his carnality, but he never attempted to disguise it.

Gainsbourg’s attempts to shock and rouse controversy now seem familiar in a cynical, self-promotional ouroboros of social media, where outlandish behavior is practically required to attract attention.

Outside of the Francophone world, Gainsbourg’s music may be best known for the pornographic stunt of “Je t’aime ... moi non plus,” a 1969 duet with Birkin, which culminated in her simulating an orgasm (which later inspired Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You”). Condemned by the Vatican, banned in Spain, Sweden, Brazil, and Italy, it became the first foreign language song to top the charts in the United Kingdom. But even at the height of the Aquarian era, American radio stations still considered it too erotic for airplay.

Otherwise, Gainsbourg’s modest stateside notoriety largely stems from his 1971 masterpiece, Histoire de Melody Nelson, a midnight seduction of psychedelic lounge funk, proto trip-hop, and orchestral ballads—a concept album about a forbidden love between a 40-year-old man and the 15-year-old girl that he accidentally hits with his Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Another reminder of why Lolita could only have been first published in Paris.

Through my provincial Los Angeles lens, Gainsbourg exists as a pre-foundational European Jewish gangsta rapper, a cunning aesthete with a fistful of Gitanes and unshaven contradictions, a born rebel obsessed with sex, material spoils, and dismantling the hypocrisies of bourgeois society. It is easy for me to imagine him in the boudoir of his home, which meets my expectations of the most carnally minded musician this side of Too $hort: blackout curtains, a mirrored wall, hanging Chinese tapestries, and a black double bed with black pillows draped in black mink. At its foot, there’s a bronze mermaid bench with pearls wrapped around their necks. Framed pictures of his female collaborators line the upstairs hallway. They include all the aforementioned singers, plus his later collaborators, including Birkin, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani, Marianne Faithfull, and Vanessa Paradis.

At the same time, though, I find myself constantly transfixed by a 40-year-old video of the singer sobbing from French television. Even those unaware of its significance understand the semiotics. A chorus of pre-adolescent boys in sport coats—wearing painted beards, dark sunglasses, and powdered gray hair—serenades a weeping middle-aged man. Clutching chocolate cigarettes and glasses of apple juice, the children’s choir pays homage to this swarthy iconoclast clad in all denim, who furiously chain-smokes as if each puff could quell his tears. The symbolic shorthand is that these are the most definitively Gallic images ever captured: decadent and impassioned, louche but oddly vulnerable, absurdist yet weirdly sincere.

The children sing a song called “Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais.” In English, it translates to “I came to tell you that I’m leaving.” Gainsbourg wrote it in 1973, shortly after suffering a near-fatal heart attack. Upon his release from the hospital, the 45-year-old confronted mortality by reinterpreting Verlaine’s poem “Chanson d’automne.” In this elegy of advance warning, Gainsbourg says “farewell forever” to the 26-year-old Birkin and their 2-year-old daughter (Charlotte). Birkin’s own tears add a foreboding doom to the track. His black tar baritone sounds like a last kiss goodnight. The melody sounds like the sun shining down on a funeral.

In their version, the children have “come to tell [Gainsbourg] that ‘we like you.’” His “provocations change nothing.” They harmonize about his gray hair, the furrows in his brow, and his genius. “You will always remain in our hearts.” It’s rare to see someone’s entire life flashing before them like a maudlin cinematic montage. But the raw emotion overwhelms Gainsbourg’s aversion to oversentimentality. The pouches under his eyes droop. His retinas become bloodshot. Even the terminally cool sometimes lose the battle.

He squints painfully, smokes some more, rubs his nose, and finally hangs his head, in a haggard attempt to dam the tears of the French proto-Biggie Smalls—who was once a little boy who wore a yellow star and narrowly escaped the Nazis by disguising himself in a rural Catholic school, and after that, a cabaret pianist turned chanson singer, mocked for his ungainly ears and Ashkenazi beak, who was told that he was too ugly to succeed until fame and fortune arrived in the autumn of his life. It is the sight of a man assessing the ash heap of existence, suddenly made aware of the affection that he has engendered in spite of all the sins and sneers. A man just beginning to understand what it all means, but who is not yet ready for final salvation.

“People didn’t see the other side of his character,” Charlotte says. “He was very shy, very close to his childhood, and very innocent in a way. And people who are often sickly shy go over the top. I don’t see many men with his charisma, charm, passion, or morals today. And he was an incredible father.”

In the spring of 1944, Lucien Ginsberg found himself hiding from the Gestapo in the primeval forests outside of Limoges. In a little over a decade, the 15-year-old would assume the alias that becomes a household name across France. But for now, to conceal their Jewish origins, his family had obtained fake paperwork under the name of Guimbard. Despite the subterfuge, the young Lucien’s cup-handle ears, aquiline profile, sickly frame, and sad prophetic black eyes, make him a dead ringer for the antisemitic propaganda that has flooded the nation since the Nazis paraded through Paris in June 1940.

A few months after assuming power, Petain’s government embraced the Nuremberg Laws, stripping Jews of civil rights and forbidding them to work as teachers, journalists, lawyers, entertainers, and artists. Within a year, it’s estimated that 50% of the roughly 300,000 French Jews are unable to legally work in their previous professions. This includes Gainsbourg’s father, Joseph, a cabaret pianist, who plies his craft in stealth up through 1942.

Anti-Semitic graffiti slogans cover the walls of Gainsbourg’s neighborhood: “When you’re a Jew, best hightail it to Palestine and make yourself scarce”; the Jews will soon be reduced to rubble, so pack your bag,” “What’s the matter, kike? Don’t you understand French?” One two, three … Bang! Watch your store explode.” The bombs technically don’t go off until October of 1941, when six explosions destroy six synagogues in Paris. The head of the Sicherheitspolizei, the Nazi occupying force, orders the attack.

By next summer, the stitched yellow star becomes mandatory. Jews are barred from traveling or being outside after 8 p.m. Their radios are confiscated and telephone lines snipped. All restaurants, movie theaters, music venues, museums, and libraries, ban them.

“What marked me as a child was the Second World War,” Gainsbourg later recalled. “I had a yellow star next to my heart. I asked my mother to sew it on neatly.”

Unable to support his wife and three children, Gainsbourg’s father hires a smuggler to sneak him into the zone libre. In the summer of 1942, the real raids began. Seventy-five thousand Jews are arrested and deported from France. Most of them are killed in concentration camps—including Gainsbourg’s maternal uncle Michel Besman, who died in Auschwitz. Serge’s sisters are stashed at a Catholic boarding school in Limoges, a small city in the center-west of France, about 250 miles from Paris, while the boy is hidden in a religious school about 10 miles outside of town. His parents attempt to blend in among the other 100,000 Limougeauds, while the French militias relentlessly hunt for “Israelites.”

The family quickly came under suspicion. Ten French Milice ransack the two-bedroom apartment of Joseph and Olia “Guimbard” searching for evidence. Their critical error is forgetting to ask Gainsbourg’s mother to stand up: She’s been sitting on the forged documents the entire time. But the investigation doesn’t appease the brownshirts. His parents are arrested and detained for two brutal days and nights. His mother swears that she’s the Ginsberg family’s maid. But her husband cracks under intense interrogation. After his boss intervenes, the couple are temporarily released on the condition that they remain in Limoges. The next morning, they flee to a safe house in the country near Versailles.

The schools aren’t safe either. One afternoon, Gainsbourg claims that the school headmaster warns him of an imminent visit from the Germans. They’re supposedly coming to verify whether the institution is protecting any Jews. He’s told to take an ax and hide out in the wilderness. If a stranger asks who he is, just tell them that he’s the son of a woodsman.

In Gainsbourg: The Biography, Serge describes his night hiding from the Storm Troopers.

I head off like Tom Thumb and build myself a little hut. It was a real adventure. Unfortunately, when night fell a storm broke out; in less than an hour I’m soaked to the bones. The next day, some of the smaller boys came and brought me some food. When all was clear, I made my way back.

He’s infinitely luckier than the inhabitants of the nearby village of Oradour-sur-Glane, which becomes the target of a Waffen-SS massacre that same summer. Four days after the D-Day landing in June 1944, the Nazis murder 643 civilians in retribution for the local activities of the French Resistance. Men and women are herded into churches and barns, doused with gasoline, and burned alive. Anyone who tries to jump out of the windows gets machine-gunned. All but six of the commune’s population are slain.

It’s impossible to ignore how profoundly these experiences marked him. Branded a literal enemy of the state as a child, he was forced to construct a web of disguises. From here, it’s a small step to become the artist-as-saboteur, the double agent raised on French soil, whose raison d’être is to strip away the false veneers of polite society.

“He was always talking about his experiences during the war, but not necessarily as something that traumatized him—even though he had family members killed,” Charlotte Gainsbourg says. “There was a sense of excitement that went along with that sense of being scared in the forest. It was one of his strongest memories.”

Serge Gainsbourg’s success was born from a sense of failure. Throughout his career, Gainsbourg claimed that “painting was my only love.” He considered painting to be a major art form that intellectually stabilizes him—a stark contrast to the corrosive fame of the singer’s life. Following the war, he attempted to become the French Francis Bacon at two separate art schools while earning a living as a musician-for-hire.

Having learned piano at home, Gainsbourg took guitar lessons from a French Romani teacher, and like everyone else in Paris, fell under Django Reinhardt’s spell. Nights were spent doing standards in wedding bands and at bar mitzvahs. In 1948, he was conscripted for a year of military service. What he calls “prison camp” is really the barracks of the 93rd Infantry, First Battalion, where he learns to drink and entertains his fellow draftees by drawing erotic sketches. Behind his back, a contingent of Alsatians calls him a “dirty Jew.”

By the early 1950s, Gainsbourg is halfway through his 20s and totally anonymous. He’s married to his first wife, a daughter of Russian aristocrats who works as a model and a secretary to a surrealist poet. There is a brief stint working as a counselor at a home for displaced Jewish orphans whose parents are Holocaust victims. Then he begins booking journeyman gigs at nightclubs and dance halls. Painting requires dawn wake-up calls to exploit the brilliant morning light, but the life of a working club musician requires vampire hours. He assumes the pseudonym Julien Grix and leans toward the steadier existence.

Reliable employment arrives when he replaces his father as the pianist and band director at a drag club in the 18th arrondissement. Around this time, he has an epiphany at a performance by Boris Vian. Gainsbourg will later describe the singer, trumpeter, novelist, and sometime existentialist as a “hallucinatory presence … stressed, pernicious caustic. I said to myself: ‘I can do something with this minor art.” In the summers, Gainsbourg hones his crooning at country resorts.

Shortly before his 30th birthday, Grix becomes Serge Gainsbourg, out of an admiration for Thomas Gainsborough and “nostalgia for a Russia that I never knew.” He’s now playing guitar in the house band at the same swanky Right Bank hotspot where he first saw Vian. The club’s star is a chanteuse named Michèle Arnaud. Despite constant indigence and a failing marriage—or perhaps because of it—Gainsbourg has begun writing original songs. But his painting ambitions haven’t been totally abandoned.

One night, Gainsbourg invites Arnaud and the cabaret’s director, the local radio and television host Francis Claude, to come to his apartment to see his canvasses. They aren’t very impressed. But on his piano, the visitors discover his sheet music, and declare the songs to be masterpieces.

In early 1958, Claude gives Gainsbourg his own nightclub act and convinces him to perform on television. It’s the zenith of the French pop boom and Phillips offers a solo recording contract. But despite winning a major songwriting award and being called the next “Cole Porter” by his idol, Vian, Gainsbourg’s first two albums are commercial and critical failures. The lone exception is the existentialist ode of despair “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas,” about a metro ticket puncher surrounded in a “circus of confetti,” who dreams of “leaving his monkey suit behind.” If you visit Gainsbourg’s grave at Montparnasse Cemetery today, it’s still littered with subway cards.

It’s not until Gainsbourg collaborates with the bohemian icon Juliette Greco that his fortunes shift. The legend goes that after a late night slow dancing and sipping champagne at Greco’s apartment, a smitten Serge pens the stardust waltz of “La Javanaise.” His own version becomes even bigger than hers, his most successful single yet. But the full lengths still flop.

With each release, Gainsbourg probes darker and more psychologically complex terrain. He submerges chanson into bebop and cool jazz, rock ’n’
roll and doo-wop, Latin, Caribbean, and African rhythms. To survive financially, he writes hits for the Yé-Yé’s—a teenage French pop phenomenon partially inspired by Beatlemania.

In 1965, Gainsbourg plays Cyrano for 16-year-old France Gall, writing the song that wins her the Eurovision contest. He also pens her “Les Sucettes,” which becomes the era’s “… Baby One More Time” by employing the world’s most scarcely disguised double entendre. (“Annie loves lollipops, aniseed lollipops, when the sweet liquid runs down Annie’s throat, she is in paradise.”)

When psychedelic chaos reaches France, everyone starts proclaiming that Chanson is a dead vestige of the suit-and-tie 1950s. But while most of his peers are stranded in the past, Gainsbourg not only understands how to evolve with the times, he grasps what’s required to shape them.

“French chanson … needs to talk about modern subject matter,” Gainsbourg tells an interviewer in the mid-’60s. “We need to sing about concrete, tractors, telephones, elevators. Not just tell stories about being 18 and sad. Modern life means inventing a whole new language, both musically and linguistically. French song needs to be created.”

By the late ’60s, freshly divorced for a second time, the nearly 40-year-old troubadour arrived at the center of l’air du temps. If his solo material remained largely ignored, he’d become the biggest songwriter in France, penning smash hits for almost every major French female pop star (Gall, Greco, Petula Clark, Anna Karina, Francois Hardy). But his creative and romantic alchemy with Brigitte Bardot was what elevated him to a certifiable force of nature. After all, she was a figure so transformational to France that Simone de Beauvoir called her “the “locomotive of women’s history.”

The obsession ignited after Gainsbourg was hired to create the music for a Bardot variety show. When a gossip columnist spotted them at a club, the “Beauty and the Beast” union quickly become an idée fixe. Even though the affair didn’t make it a full three months, its impact remained indelible. In her memoir, Bardot claimed that from “the moment my hand touched his… which lasted centuries and still lasts today, I never left Serge, and he never left me.”

Bardot inspired and first recorded “Je t’aime ... moi non plus” after asking Gainsbourg to write the “most beautiful love song he could imagine.” But when news broke of the smoldering duet, her husband, the German playboy industrialist Gunther Sachs, issued a “me or Serge” ultimatum. She subsequently sent a telegram blocking the song’s release. Several of their other collaborations—“Harley Davidson,” “Bubble Gum,” “Comic Strip,” “Bonnie & Clyde”—became classics that embodied Gainsbourg’s ability to filter his love of Americana through a perverse French prism.

In the month before Bardot broke his heart, they had dreamed of moving in together. Gainsbourg told her that he would “build his love the palace from A Thousand and One Nights.” He settled for the house on rue de Verneuil, the same street as Greco. Once the real estate agent saw Gainsbourg and Bardot walk in together, he told the other prospective buyers that it had been sold. But Bardot returned to her husband and never joined Gainsbourg in domestic bliss. Disconsolate, Gainsbourg conjured “Initials B.B,” which he described in a letter to her as a “nostalgic hymn that will forever glorify her image as an adored goddess.”

Gainsbourg’s relationship with Jane Birkin, the greatest of his loves, and the longest-lived of his artistic collaborations, wasn’t without its substantial lows. He was an abusive drunk and this behavior eventually led Birkin to leave him for her next husband, Jacques Doillon, in 1980. But until he died, their love remained indivisible. Serge was even called “Papa Deux” by Lou Doillon, Birkin’s child with the French director—who in turn abandoned Birkin after Gainsbourg’s death reportedly left her too consumed with anguish.

“He and my mother both had new lives, and I know that most kids of divorce think their parents might get back together,” Charlotte Gainsbourg says. “But that image wasn’t that far off, really.”

Birkin died last year at 76, but we spoke in 2021, shortly after the release of her final studio album, Oh! Pardon tu dormais. ... It was near the 50th anniversary of the Histoire de Melody Nelson, and the conversation never wandered far from Gainsbourg. Her admiration for her former partner had only increased in the intervening decades.

“He was extraordinary and always knew it,” Birkin said. “He was 20 years ahead of his time, all the time. He invented the modern way of writing, and influenced other artists in the same way that he himself was influenced.”

As for the controversies, Birkin dismissed them as a form of self-preservation, the natural byproduct of the persecutions and taunts of his teenage years. “In his makeup, he had an adolescent quality of wanting to shock,” Birkin continues. “It was probably because he was Russian Jewish. He had that sort of, “you shock, then you cry” mentality, because you don’t want to get hurt first.”

If Gainsbourg’s songs remain the province of mostly Francophiles and whatever resembles a music nerd in 2024, his Birkin photoshoots have become their own Instagram #CouplesGoals meme, a fact that would inevitably delight and repulse him. They evince nostalgia for a glamorous netherworld that no longer exists, a seductive fog of late night excess and possessed lust. Birkin with plush lips and baby doll dresses and Gainsbourg in designer suits and three-day stubble, looking somehow both refined and elegant and as if they’d been ravishing each other for the last two days.

After an inauspicious meeting on the set of the forgettable 1969 film Slogan, they fell madly in love. And when they rerecorded “Je t’aime ... moi non plus,” it made them one of the famous couples in Europe. Gainsbourg openly saw deistic inspiration in Birkin—and as soon as he met her, unmistakable leaps in style, conceptual ambition, and commercial success followed.

“He loved the idea of having a muse,” Charlotte says. “It’s a thing that people don’t like today, but it was never disrespectful. My mother was the best example of that. He wrote his most beautiful songs for her when they weren’t even together any longer.”

In Serge Gainsbourg’s sprawling discography, Melody Nelson is the French analog to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, an early ’70s masterpiece from a canonical artist entering their 40s, forgetting their past to discover the future. They’re albums that split the atoms of the previously understood universe to reassemble the components at surreal angles and with startling color. But Melody and its similarly conceptual follow-up, 1973’s Vu de l’ extérieur, barely sold—except for his deathbed farewell single, “Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais.”

Nothing remotely anticipated his next left turn, the Nazi song cycle Rock Around the Bunker. The effect was somewhere between Zappa and Inglorious Basterds, an acidly satirical, armor-piercing bomb that Gainsbourg described as “an exorcism.” Over a rockabilly beat, he did a Sex Pistol snarl a year before Johnny Rotten, and admonished everyone to “dance the Nazi Rock.” Hitler gets bombed to oblivion, but only after he’s first driven insane by Eva Braun incessantly listening to the jazz standard “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

When asked why he selected such a third-rail topic, Gainsbourg coolly answered: “What’s in bad taste I immediately find interesting.” When prodded about who he was trying to indict, he shrugged: “take a look at the percentage of Nazi collaborators at the time in France. They’ll take [this album] very hard.”

If the subject matter sounds slightly obvious in the present day, the wounds were fresher a half-century ago. Thousands of collaborators had been killed extrajudicially, but most had reassimilated into the fabric of postwar France. Then starting with the mid-1970s rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ultra-nationalist, Holocaust-denying National Front party, the country’s Catholic reactionary past returned to the forefront. So Gainsbourg traveled to Jamaica to remake “La Marseillaise” with Sly and Robbie and the I-Threes, Bob Marley’s backing singers.

The decision to make a reggae album wasn’t some nostalgie de la boue appropriation. It reflected the evolution of his own careful listening and a long track record of incorporating global rhythms. He loved music and language and needed to press forward. In the press materials that accompanied 1979’s Aux armes et caetera, he lambently sketched his philosophy:

The punks came and really only Sid Vicious fascinated me because he was dangerously logical and suicidal. So I’d guessed right—the burnt out figurehead of a movement that would have captivated me if I hadn’t been seduced some 30 years ago by Dada, Breton, and Sartre’s ‘Nausea.’ So what else is there to slip on the turntable other than, and always, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Robert Parker, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and that was what has really moved me for the few years: ska, blue-beat, rocksteady, reggae, reggae, reggae …

Upon its release, Gainsbourg’s reggae remix of the French national anthem became his first-ever solo No. 1. At 51, he finally became a legitimate superstar, the graying favorite of the youth, proof that everyone ages but not everyone grows old. It also made him the prime target of the country’s militaristic right wing. A Le Figaro columnist libelously attacked him for desecrating the battle cry of the Revolution. He accused Gainsbourg of “propagating antisemitism” and committing a “low blow to his co-religionists”—all so that he might “make a few bucks in publishing rights.”

A manufactured scandal unfolded. It became the French antecedent to when the police tried to stop N.W.A. from rapping their love letter to law enforcement, or when Fox News would have a periodic moral panic about how Ludacris was corrupting the youth.

“Serge couldn’t resist a goad. He knew it was going to make a fuss and was delighted to get in the newspaper for something political that wasn’t merely show business,” Birkin told me. “But he was very insulted by the accusation that he was pulling shame unto his race. And they caricatured Serge with a hook nose, holding a bottle of beer as a profile—to illustrate the point that he wasn’t really French.”

Part of Gainsbourg’s gift is his ability to artfully execute ideas that sound patently absurd on paper.

The National Parachutists Union threatened boycotts and pressured promoters to cancel shows. Bomb threats ensued. At one concert, 60 former storm troopers bought tickets and planned to bum-rush the stage as soon as he played the anthem. The scene was so intense that Sly and Robbie and their band feared for their safety, and refused to leave the tour bus. Gainsbourg opted to take the stage solo. When it came time to perform his personal version of “La Marseillaise,” he played it straight and sang it faithfully, to shock the doddering crypto-fascists into obeisance. To the scorn of the kids, they all saluted.

Outside of the venue, the police helped the paratroopers make a clean getaway after the show. But not before their berets got spat on by the teenage Gainsbourg acolytes. Nonetheless, when the ex-colonel who masterminded the operation was later asked about Gainsbourg, he had to admit that he was “a very intelligent man. He showed himself to be a marvelous tactician tonight.”

Gainsbourg emerged commercially triumphant from his battle with the nationalists, but his victory came at a psychic cost. Birkin later told Gainsbourg’s biographer that after those concerts, “He was taken over by Gainesbarre, the blowhard. It was fatal. From that point on, Serge would belong to the public.” Shortly afterward, she moved from the rue de Verneuil.

Even Gainsbourg admitted the Faustian bargain of mass appeal: “It’s an extremely cruel profession … you have to give up your soul and you need a lot of sincerity which comes at a very high price.” The neon excess of the 1980s didn’t help, with its fugue state of tacky indulgence where few veteran musicians escaped unscathed. Gainsbourg published a satirical novella about a flatulent painter which received brutal reviews. He shot commercials and ad campaigns, produced for other artists, wrote and directed two films, and had a son with Bambou, a woman 30 years his junior.

This was the period of self-parody, worshipped, surrounded by bleating yes-men, and warped by alcoholism. If his lyrics had always contained battle-of-the-sexes invective toward women, it poisonously seeped into his public character. Gainsbourg was proof that Gore Vidal was wrong when he declared “people should never turn down sex or the opportunity to appear on television.” In one appearance, he burned a 500-franc note on the air, which inspired thousands of complaint calls from viewers and enraged letters to the editor. He spent most nights too drunk at clubs he was far too old for. He befriended taxi drivers, cops, and anyone willing to humor his belligerence until dawn.

But Gainsbourg’s two final albums have significant merit. Even if his judgment became erratic, his ear never deserted him. Enamored with fluorescent electro-funk, he tried to hire Nile Rodgers. But with the Chic co-founder already committed to produce Madonna’s Like a Virgin. Gainsbourg headed to New York to work with Billy Rush, who had recently collaborated with Rodgers. The result was 1984’s platinum-selling Love on the Beat, which Rolling Stone France included on its Best 100 Rock Albums list. It featured “Lemon Incest” and an album cover depicting Gainsbourg in full drag makeup. It was either a nod to his roots in a transgender cabaret ensemble or his version of going door-to-door trying to shock people.

Whether you enjoy it or not depends on your patience for a provocateur in his late 50s unleashing lewd French come-ons over sleazy post-disco. But Love on the Beat is far funkier than it has any right to be. The same can be said of his last album, You’re Under Arrest (1987), which incorporates hip-hop and rapping in ways that somehow aren’t totally embarrassing. But that’s part of the gift of Gainsbourg: his ability to artfully execute ideas that sound patently absurd on paper. Besides, his sulfurous baritone and syncopated cadences had long abandoned traditional melodic expectations. If any non-rapper understood Ghostface’s adage of get “some official beats and say fly shit over them,” it was Gainsbourg. His postmodern collages anticipated hip-hop sampling. When he told interviewers “don’t confuse me with other singers,” it prefaced Raekwon saying, “I don’t want [no one] sounding like me on no album.”

It’s no surprise, then, that hip-hop producers have regularly borrowed from Gainsbourg over the last three decades. He’s been sampled by Massive Attack and Danger Mouse, EPMD and The Beatnuts. Nas and De la Soul spit bars over his instrumentals. One of the first and only French rap songs to ever cross over to American audiences was MC Solaar’s “Nouveau Western” (1994), which loops the beat and Old West references of “Bonnie and Clyde.” For many older millennials, this was their official introduction to the existence of non-American rap and an unofficial introduction to Gainsbourg.

Gainsbourg’s attempts to shock and rouse controversy now seem familiar in a cynical self-promotional ouroboros of social media, where outlandish behavior is practically required to attract attention. And like most of us, he reflects the good and bad of his time. In France last year, 10,000 people signed a petition to stop a Metro stop from being named in his honor. The complaint described him as “violent man, a notorious misogynist, and a champion of incest.” But because this is France, a country far more historically accustomed to artistic nuance and complexity, the Serge Gainsbourg Station at Les Lilas will open later this month. A posthumous commendation for “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas.”

“Sometimes, I wonder what he would have said about today,” Charlotte Gainsbourg wonders. “I think he would have been full-on confrontational and would have known exactly what to say. If we keep trying to erase everyone who has ever done anything shocking, anything meant to provoke—just to be gentle—it will only lead to very dull art.”

This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
See the full collection →︎

Jeff Weiss, the editor of Passion of the Weiss, is a regular contributor to The Washington Post, the LA Times, and Pitchfork. His Twitter feed is @Passionweiss.