I’ll admit, my first experience with Serge Gainsbourg wasn’t exactly positive. Covered in head-to-toe denim (in French, they say total look), Gainsbourg was already late into his career when I discovered him in French culture studies.
On stage, he sang about incest. The song "You’re Under Arrest" – a reference to the Miles Davis album of the same name – featured a silly rhyming rap in English. Gainsbourg seemed like a washed-up pop star, a has-been whose songs made me cringe.
Requiem for a jerk
But when I moved to Paris in 1995, a few friends introduced me to his earlier work, like his first stage appearance in 1958. Or the more self-assured and seductive performer that he became in this video (below) that accompanies the song "Requiem pour un con" ("Requiem for a jerk"). Even some of his later work was interesting – this video accompanies the 1984 song "Harley David Son of a Bitch." It rocks!
A whole nation seems to be fascinated with Gainsbourg, young or old, including my local pharmacist. Any passer-by can find Gainsbourg statuettes decorating the windows and the shelves of the Pharmacy des Gatines.
But you’d think Gainsbourg, always a heavy smoker, would be positioned strategically next to Nicorette or electronic cigarettes instead of hawking hair products or Pampers. Either way, Serge is lurking from every corner of the pharmacy.
But why this obsession? To find out more, I recently visited an exhibit at La Maison Rouge: L’esprit français: contre-cultures 1969-1989. There, the curators considered that "France is at its best on its fringes." The exhibit explores France’s counter-culture through themes like the legacy of May ’68 (when demonstrations rocked the country), women’s liberation, cinema, rock, and subversive comics or bandes dessinées.
Face to cabbage face
The exhibit is "a mix of idealism and nihilism, caustic humor and eroticism, darkness and hedonism." That description is applicable to Gainsbourg himself, who was also featured at La Maison Rouge. His reggae version of the national anthem, "La Marseillaise" was available for listening, and a curious statue was on view: L’homme à tête de chou, or the Cabbage-Headed Man.
I was delighted to come face to chou-face with the statue by Claude Lalanne that inspired Gainsbourg’s album of the same name. L’homme à tête de chou is a concept album, released in 1976, that French Rolling Stone called the 28th greatest French rock album ever.
Gainsbourg purchased Lalanne’s statue on a whim at a gallery in Paris. When he got the Cabbage-Headed Man home, Gainsbourg found him a bit stiff, but he "quickly loosened up and told his story." He was a journalist working for a tabloid (known in French as a feuille de chou or a cabbage leaf), and fell in love with the shampoo girl, Marilou, at Max’s hair salon.
The problems began when the journalist realized Marilou was cute enough (assez chou) to attract other…. suitors (to put it politely). When the journalist finds her in a compromising position with two of them, he knocks Marilou over the head with a fire extinguisher. The journalist then falls into madness and loses his head, which turns into a giant cabbage. You can find out more about the album by clicking here, and this blog burning a 500-franc note] has the full-length album on listen – scroll all the way down and click on the songs.
France on the fringes
Besides his overtly sexy albums, Gainsbourg became known in later years for his outrageous behavior: burning a 500-franc note on live TV, or telling Whitney Houston (also live) that he wanted to f**k her.
Today, it’s easy to judge Gainsbourg harshly. But to condemn him based only on his flagrantly shocking (and often misogynist) behavior is to miss the point. Behind the insolence and provocative stunts was a talented, imaginative soul with a critical eye. Most importantly, Gainsbourg – even today – represents the French spirit, decidedly on the fringes.
The exhibit at La Maison Rouge lasts until May 21st, 2017. Find out more here.