Bad News From The Stars: The Life and Music of Serge Gainsbourg is a comprehensive biography examining the éminence grise of French pop's extraordinary story and his genius. It will look at each studio album in depth, from 1958’s Du chant à la une ! through to 1987’s You’re Under Arrest, and while the records will be covered chronologically, events won't necessarily follow in a linear or predictable fashion. The account will take in collaborations and collaborators along the way, with fresh interviews and insights. Received wisdoms will be challenged; Gallic clichés will be avoided. Perceptions about Gainsbourg have altered in the Anglosphere these last 49 years, with some aware of the one-hit wanderer who seduced Jane Birkin on 'Je t'aime... moi non plus’ and others coming to him via the 1971 mini-opus L'histoire de Melody Nelson. Bad News From The Stars will seek to present the whole picture as the most comprehensive Gainsbourg book yet.
Mauvais Nouvelles des Étoiles
The 1968 album Initials B.B. was the closest we’d ever get to a breakup album from Gainsbourg. Those initials belong to Brigitte Bardot of course, and while Serge wasn’t exactly playing the Petrarchan lover, she would be regarded as the Rosaline to Jane Birkin’s Juliet in the retrospective hagiography. Yet the album that followed the dissolution of his 11-year love affair with Birkin turned out to be his most infantile. Gainsbarre, the pugnacious brut of alter ego who undoubtedly did his creator’s relationship irreparable damage, was one of the malcontents who made his first appearance on his 15th studio album Mauvais Nouvelles des Étoiles, appearing in the song ‘Ecce Homo’. Gainsbarre usually came out at night, often showing up for chat show appearances in place of his maître, and he was the foil Gainsbourg needed, a scapegoat he could blame all his misdemeanors on: Gainsbourg was the erudite songwriter, the sensitive soul, the genius; the character Gainsbarre, on the other hand, was bad news. And Evguénie Sokolov, the flatulent eponymous character from his 1980 novella made a reappearance, giving his name to a two-and-half minute instrumental featuring languorous dub and the sound of breaking wind throughout.
Mauvais Nouvelles des Étoiles, his second reggae record released in November 1981, somehow straddled the disparate worlds of high art and toilet humour. It had all started so well, with the title inspired by his favourite artist, Paul Klee. Serge was an art collector on occasion, and one of his prize possessions was one of Klee’s 1913 drawings, Schlimme Botschaft von den Sternen (German for ‘bad message from the stars’). In a 1986 interview with the novelist Frank Maubert, he’d intimated that part of his love for Klee came from the fact that he too was a gifted musician who’d struggled to decide between painting and playing. “Klee was a violinist of a professional calibre. His inspirations were comic, elegiac, tragic,” said Gainsbourg. “It was Klee who said: 'neither servant nor master, the artist is pure intermediary'”.
The Swiss German expressionist had forged his own creative identity around the time of the First World War, and though not immune to the influence of Cubism, his geometric shapes appear to defy uniformity, breaking free in order to convey the recalcitrant spirit of their creator. It would have perhaps appealed to Gainsbourg that Klee was blacklisted by Hitler as a degenerate artist, and its likely Klee’s battle with his family over his ambitions to become an artist, and their desire for him to keep alive the family business and carry on fiddling, would have resonated too.
Gainsbourg’s father was a pianist who made his living playing in bars, and Serge wanted to break free from that life and become a famous painter, though unlike Klee, his abilities left him wanting. In an interview with Charlotte Gainsbourg for the Quietus in 2018, she told me: “Learning the piano for him was a very traumatic episode in his life. His father taught him classical piano and it was torture for him. He always shared the memories of having to sit down at the piano with his father which always ended in tears. He hated everything about it, but he then - as his father had - became a pianist in bars.”
Gainsbourg enrolled at the Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts on rue Bonaparte in the 6eme arrondissement of Paris when he was 17, and he’d while away his Sundays at the nearby Louvre admiring the work of Delacroix, Titian and Uccello. He was also wildly beguiled by one of three tableaus of Saint Sebastian by the early Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna which he described as “a kind of orgasm of suffering” and declared it the most beautiful picture he’d ever seen. It was a blessing and a curse for Gainsbourg as a painting that transfixed him, but also did nothing for his inferiority complex within the fine arts.
“Yes he wanted to be a painter,” said Charlotte, “and he destroyed everything he made because he wasn't good enough in his own eyes. We have a few of them, not very many, maybe five. You can see he had a sort of frustrated relationship with painting and drawing.
“Music, the way he did it after... he never thought he was making art. He considered what he was doing a minor art and not a major artform like classical music...”
My mother did some weird things when I was a child, none of which were more weird than buying the News of the World every week. Long before the organ ignominiously shut itself down and reopened under a different title after it got caught hacking a dead girl’s phone, it used to hire a soothsayer of dubious verity called Mystic Meg. Meg wrote spooky bollocks for a living, but I still used to read it…
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