A notorious womanizer and a singer that defied categorization, Serge Gainsbourg is perhaps one of the most important figures in French popular music. The provocateur, who began his creative career as a painter and ended as a television host, wrote and recorded music that pushed the boundaries explicitness in song.
Gainsbourg began life as Lucien Ginsburg, born to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants. His father, a classically trained musician who played in cabarets and casinos, taught Lucien and his twin sister Liliane how to play the piano.
But his childhood ground to a halt when Nazi Germany occupied France. Forced to wear an identifying yellow star, Lucien and his family fled to unoccupied Limoges under false paperwork. The star, and all its cultural implications, became a symbol that haunted Gainsbourg in his later life.
By the time he was 30-years-old, Gainsbourg was a disillusioned painter. Unable to make a living by his art, he earned money by playing piano in bars. His early songs were mostly inspired by old-fashioned chansons, a lyric-driven style dating back to the 12th century.
Very early, however, Gainsbourg began to experiment with a succession of musical styles from jazz and pop to funk, rock, reggae and electronica. Many of his songs contained a morbid or sexual twist.
Major controversy came with the release of “Je t’aime… moi non plus” in 1969. The song featured explicit lyrics and sounds that imitated female orgasm. Originally recorded with bombshell Brigitte Bardot, with whom he had a torrid affair, the song was eventually released featuring his future girlfriend Jane Birkin. Gainsbourg called it his “ultimate love song.”
But deemed too hot for general consumption, the recording was often censored or banned from public broadcast. The Vatican even made a public statement citing the song as offensive. Perhaps because of this controversy, “Je t’aime” charted in the top 10 in many European countries.
Gainsbourg, who changed his first name to represent his Russian background and his last as a tribute to English painter Thomas Gainsborough, spent his final years as television provocateur, presenting many of his shows while drunk.
He died on March 2, 1991 of a heart attack at the age of 62. Buried in a Jewish lot in a cemetery in his home city, Gainsbourg’s funeral brought Paris to a standstill. Then French President François Mitterrand said of the visionary musician, “He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire… He elevated the song to the level of art.”