So many things in today’s time feel like a novelty. Things that you can remember being special or unique are now standard. For the purpose of this piece, I’m thinking of music magazines coming with compact discs. The first magazine I remember with this added incentive was CMJ. CMJ stood for College Music Journal — sort of a Billboard magazine for college radio stations. There was a subsidiary magazine under their umbrella called CMJ New Music Monthly. Each month the magazine would feature a mix CD with 15-24 songs, some by artists you knew, some by artists you didn’t. These artists were featured in the magazine and on the CD. The discs were hit and miss. I still have one disc, June 1994. While there were a few good tracks on the CD, one stood out to my (then) young ears. It starts with these wild back-and-forth strings and a vocal tick bounces around the instruments. And then there is rapping. In French.

The rapper is a man named MC Solaar. The track is titled “Nouveau Western.” I always liked the song and I never expected to hear the main sample of the song again. But I did, four years later.

The record store I used to work at had an endcap, stocked by an employee, dedicated to what could be called outsider music. The endcap had a name, EGNARTS. (Think about it.) In 1998, a CD popped up on the endcap with a baby blue cover and a Lolita-esque figure clutching a teddy bear: Historie De Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg. I can’t remember when I first heard it. All I can recall is that it floored me. I bought the disc. The price sticker was a white $24.99; it cost $17. I remember all those early CD prices. Red $14.99 ($10.30). Green $15.99 ($11.00). Pink $8.99 ($5.80). Yellow $11.99 ($7.00) and so on. I digress.

At the time I hadn’t heard anything like Gainsbourg’s music. I never gave much thought to the music of France. I enjoyed world music, definitely, but never from France. Probably the only thing I knew was the Solaar track. Yet there was something in this music, on this LP, that touched a nerve and led me into a buying binge of his music. What did it? What triggered this? Je ne sais quoi.

I must describe the LP. It is hushed, subdued in parts. One thing struck me immediately: the strings. Sweet jesus, these are the sleaziest strings in recorded history — the bass coming in slow; the strings, oh, those strings, tinkling along. I don’t know a lick of French (unlike Spanish — I can say “Hello,” “Your mother’s a whore,” and “The dog is big and black”), but the mood of the LP is set and carried by the sound of the music. There is one phrase of English on the LP: “Spirit of Ecstasy.” It is the name of Gainsbourg’s 1928 Rolls Royce and the real crosses with the fictional — the real car is on the record. It is in this car that the protagonist sees a teenage lass on a bicycle, feels lust in his heart and, in a true display of chivalry, knocks her off her bike with his car. The protagonist conspires to break a few laws with the femme, named Melody Nelson, before she ultimately dies in a plane crash. Let me make that look as ridiculous as it sounds: BEFORE SHE ULTIMATELY DIES IN A PLANE CRASH!!!! Wow. The true arc of the narrative is shocking, really when you think about it. And if you are like me, once you dig deeper into the artist’s career you realize, well, it isn’t outside of the normal range of shocking behavior from the artist.

A friend once said to me, “The thigh is nature’s napkin.” This quote sort of sums up Serge Gainsbourg’s career. Equal parts showman, musician, and provacateur, Gainsbourg’s biggest career hit was song “Je T’aime (Moi Non Plus),” which was banned in a few countries. Why was the song banned? Have a listen to the released version, recorded with Gainsbourg and his new muse, British actress Jane Birkin. Listen and guess why it was banned.

The sound is dirty, sure, but it is the moans that place this track onto a pantheon of truly filthy music. This was, however, the second version of the song Gainsbourg recorded. This dates to 1969 while his first version, recorded with John Lennon’s favorite bombshell Brigitte Bardot, in 1967. The Bardot version is dreamier, not quite as juicy as the Birkin version. Yet this version was shelved due to Bardot’s husband (as word goes) being jealous over the tone of the song and perhaps buying into the story that Bardot and Gainsbourg were actually having sex as they were recording the song, thus adding realism to the tone. Despite lyrics that translate to, “I come and go between your kidneys,” Gainsbourg considered the song an “anti-fuck” song. But by not understanding the French lyrics of the song, these deeper meanings were lost on the parts of the globe that didn’t understand the words and just found the sounds dirty.

The song is almost a novelty, a track that teeters on the edge of rendering its creator a one-hit wonder. And yet the song holds up and still, in some instances, is capable of shocking. It is also widely covered by artists as diverse as Donna Summer and Einztruende Neubauten to Cat Power, Cibo Matto, Malcolm McLaren, and the Pet Shop Boys. The song was covered by three-fifths of the original Bad Seeds as well (Barry Adamson, Nick Cave, and Mick Harvey).

To me, Melody Nelson is one of those LPs on which the sound of the voices singing merges with the sounds of the music to create a memorable experience. You don’t need to know what is being said to enjoy the music. Sly Dunbar, half of the famous reggae rhythm section Sly & Robbie said of Gainsbourg during their late ’70s collaboration, “We didn’t know what he was singing about, but his singing was good and the melodies were great.” That applies to all of Gainsbourg’s music, his various genre-skipping and his eventual descent into outrageous behavior almost for the sake of the behavior. The music is rich and deep, yet the LP itself is only 28 minutes long — miniscule. This allows for repeated listens without too huge of a time investment. And you don’t need to understand the words to understand the idea of what is happening in the story. The music sets the tones of the story; the singing underscores the music and adds the extra layer of emotion and tone to the LP. You FEEL the LP as you listen to it, all due to the individual pieces you hear.

Yet the disc is so enjoyable that you can fall into a trap of loading up on Gainsbourg’s music. This is a dangerous gamble because French music has something in common with reggae music: the more of it you listen to, the more it all sounds the same. Once music reaches that point, it is time to step back, which is what I finally did with Gainsbourg. Figuring that all his work would be so great, I loaded up on the Phillips reissues. This was a very uneven experiment. Melody Nelson’s followup contained odes to farting, poop, and monkeys. Rock Around the Bunker from 1975 leads off with a jaunty number called “Nazi Rock.” Gainsbourg hid from the Nazis in the ’30s and ’40s, yet he records this odd concept LP about the inner sounds being heard in a German bunker. Then he went to Jamaica with Sly & Robbie and recorded with a proper reggae background. Normally such experimentation would be applauded, but eventually the music began to sound like a straight line. Around the same time there was a three-volume set issued on Mercury in 1997: Coleure Café, Du Jazz Dans Le Ravin, and Comic Strip. The first CD is his exploration of world music; the second his forays into jazz sounds; and the third is a collection of his pop sides. “Je T’aime” is on Comic Strip, as are his works with Bardot and Birkin. One of the songs on Comic Strip is “Bonnie and Clyde,” an homage to those famous outlaws. When I bought this disc and heard that second song I was transported back to listening to the CMJ CD and the MC Solaar song. Of COURSE that was the sample used by Solaar; rappers at the time were using what they were familiar with. Why wouldn’t a French rapper use a song about the Old West to rap about the Old West?

I’m not going to lie, whenever I listen to “Bonnie & Clyde,” I always laugh when Bardot comes in singing the word “Bonnie.” Her voice sounds so deep, so off. She comes back on throughout the rest of the song but that one bit always gets me.

Gainsbourg died in 1991, 20 years ago, at age 63. Hard living caught up with him as it will all of us. Thinking about him now, so long in the past, I started to wonder about where he would be today. Probably doing the same thing: living like a French Hugh Hefner, gallivanting around France with some young trophy on his arm. Would he be a joke like Hefner? Would the world of universal connectivity render his impact, his audacity and his shock limp? There could not be another Serge Gainsbourg in the world of 2011. Nothing is shocking to us anymore. We see death, decay, and disaster on the news and at the click of a mouse button. When was the last time the country was ever properly shocked? Not only that, but in America, we have moved from a decade of outward growth (the ’90s) to one of recoiling inward (the ’00s). Our civilization is spaced out and ingrown; the ability to shock from an authentic position has vanished. Another reason there would be no Serge Gainsbourg in 2011 is his appearance. We don’t allow the ugly to be famous. I’m not throwing stones at the dead; I think Gainsbourg thought of himself as an ugly fellow. I think that is what drove him into the arms of beautiful women. The ability to overcome his ugliness must have been intoxicating. Jane Birkin, his muse from 1969-1980, was also his object and cover girl. It was Birkin who provided the voice of Melody Nelson and the physical embodiment of the character. It was Birkin, seven months pregnant with the couple’s daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, who served as the cover model for the LP. The sight of the cover allowed one to put a face to the giggles.

Perhaps it is simply enough that this artist was a titan in his country, a larger-than-life figure that cast a long shadow of the world he lived in. Perhaps it was the shock that drew his appeal; perhaps it was his appeal that caused the shock. Whatever it was, the music will live on for new listeners to discover.

One other notable thing Gainsbourg did in conjunction with the LP was “acting” in an accompanying short film of the LP. I think of it as the movie version of the record, but done in an awesome early ’70s style. Back projection, psychedelic lights and images, and acting done to further the narration of the record. Had I seen this back when the LP was reissued, I would have loved it more and I would have understood it all better. Yet at the same time, I’m glad I didn’t see this until a few years ago. The images and understanding in my head are still with me to this day. If you are hearing this for the first time, sit back and watch the clips and marvel at the sound of the music, listen to the small bits on the track and let them all wash over you. Approach the rest of his catalog with caution but drive right into Melody Nelson, it rewards with every listen.

Mike Vincent is a teacher, dreamer, grouch, and runner. He lives in northern Michigan and his favorite Beatle is George Harrison.

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  1. […] her mother’s body and her father’s face. The ugliness of Serge Gainsbourg that I wrote about last week is not ugliness when it comes to his daughter, far from it. If anything, you can sort of see the […]

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