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3:AM Cult Hero: Serge Gainsbourg

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“For me provocation is oxygen.”

One of this summer’s must-see flicks has to be Gainsbourg, vie héroïque, directed by graphic novel wunderkind Joann Sfar, who told the Telegraph (sadly, not on-line): “Like many French kids, when I first saw Serge Gainsbourg on television I found him funny. As a child I would just see him as a drunk man who said rude words – and I was grateful for that. He is the kind of man who makes you believe it would be fun to be grown-up.” 3:AM‘s Darran Anderson drew an interesting parallel in his essay on Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson:

You can tell something about a nation from its superheroes. America has the invincible, squeaky-clean Superman of the metropolis, Soviet Russia had the tractor girls and well-muscled pig-iron workers beaming down from posters with dead-eyed smiles, Britain has the provincial Asbo-dodging schoolboy Dennis the Menace terrorising postmen and swots into contemplations of suicide. France has Fantomas.

For the un-initiated Fantomas was the original anti-hero, a masked tuxedo-wearing man of mystery who appeared in countless pulp novels, films and comics in the first half of the 20th century. Beloved by the Surrealists he thankfully possessed none of the heroics of tiresome old queens like Superman. In many ways he was nothing more than a psychopath butchering his way through high society for the sheer joi de vivre of it. His crimes were legion and extravagant: incinerating zeppelins, guillotining archdukes, filling department store perfume bottles with sulphuric acid, unleashing bubonic vermin onto luxury liners. There he is in the shadows of masked balls with a hollow walking stick filled with poison. Fantomas — scourge of the bourgeoisie.

Music critics, when they’re not dancing about architecture, struggle to place Serge Gainsbourg. Possessing the song writing skills of Burt Bacharach, the literate venom of John Lydon and the libido of the Marquis De Sade, they struggle to make sense of him. Singer, songwriter, bohemian, film director, writer, poet, punk, jazz pianist, existentialist, artist, debauched drunkard, professional controversialist Gainsbourg was the eternal rebel, enemy of all that is tame and mainstream. He went electric years before Dylan, made funk records when The Beatles were lovable mop tops, worked with chanteuse after chanteuse years before Andy Warhol or Lee Hazelwood, bore a seditious punk attitude more than decade before ’76. The most bewilderingly complex individual pop music has ever thrown up, Gainsbourg is unique and yet when he steps out in the rare television footage of Les Petits Paves in mask, top hat and evening dress he evokes the dormant spirit of Fantomas. Over the next thirty years the poor sons of bitches wouldn’t know what had hit them.

[Full essay]

Further: Trailer for Gainsbourg, vie héroïque / The week Nick Kent spent with Gainsbourg / An interview with Gainsbourg’s US publisher Tosh Berman / Gainsbourg by those who knew him best / ‘Gallic bred: The mad life of Serge Gainsbourg’ / ‘The Secret World of Serge Gainsbourg’ / ‘La Chanson de Serge’ / Gainsbourg’s novel Evguenie Sokolov

First posted: Monday, July 19th, 2010.

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