IT WAS MY SECOND WEEK in this joint they called the American Legion, just off the Champs Elysées. A friend of mine, Niki, had asked me to come along to help fill out the evening as she didn’t have enough songs. That certainly wasn’t my complaint.
A club for veterans of conflict from the Somme to Saigon, mainly it was occupied by the former, the old Somme types, dashing tartan ribbons in their caps and a ton of heavy metal on their chests. They hung around this obscure colonial lobby feeding the hungry fruit machines and generally going to the dogs over old campaigns. These boys made no bones about wanting the place to themselves. Cold shouldering Limey troubadours was one of their specialities.
Adjacent to their lair lay a huge mirrored restaurant, replete with long sturdy bar and a baby, white grand, getting lonesome over in the corner. The State Department, or the F.B.I., or whoever else owned the kip, obviously had different plans for it than our veteran friends. They had draughted in a nice nuclear family from California, who’s job was to breathe some life and to bring some cash in there much to the dismay of the old school. Niki and I were supposed to be á part of all this fresh air otherwise I would have agreed with the old boys, I certainly didn’t enjoy playing there and quite liked it’s dusty old fifties feel.
This particular evening though for some strange reason, it was packed to the gills. Schools of waitresses I hadn’t seen before flurried about, arms full of supersteaks and pommes. They did all this flurrying in the huge mirrors where I also swam, fiddling nervously with my guitar strap in another vain attempt to delay the dread jump. I was jumping into cold, dark, eating waters, where the sharks smiled sweetly… I’ve never really liked this job! Fishing a decent pick from my waistcoat pocket I glanced across at Niki. A one, a two, a one, two, three…
About halfway through the second number or so I happen to look towards the entrance, and who should be standing there? Only the one and only Serge Gainsbourg, that’s who!
SEÑOR GAINSBARRE HIMSELF! Well well! Crooner-poet, high priest of sleaze, Institut National du Scandale, and only one of the richest and most famous men in the land. Gulping once but with neither heart nor foot skipping a beat, I watched in amusement. Two hundred diners were using strange telepathy and pretending not to ogle the distinguished newcomer.
He sat down at a table like any mortal should, his current glamourpuss en face and another couple of swells settling in alongside them. All that appeared to happen then was that they completed their meals and left, with the two of us still scraping away there in the background.
As I was watched him go I wondered what he’d thought of our little floorshow , and I wondered just what must it be like and I wonder… Serge, would you mind just… takingmeto-theBahamas?… Non?… O.K… Have it your own way… I don’t care!… Adieu! jaír Gainsbourg, and n’er the twain shall meet.
Niki and I could only wing two or three songs together, the rest of the time we did separate sets. Neither of us wanted to do the last one so we drew straws. I won, and got to play for the rapidly emptying house. How did that old song go?. .. Oh! yes I know.
“To empty arenas where nobody cheers, and I’m glad Hank 1~lliams ain’t here.” How true, how true.
When we’d finished the troubadour bit, we had a drink or two at the bar before settling up with the boss. When we did, he proffered an extra five hundred francs.
“Compliments of Mr. Ganesberg“, he said.
Well I had kind of admired the guy, ever since I’d come to understand the language over here (already more years ago than I cared remember), but he seemed to have fairly shot up in my estimation. “Nice one Serge.” I said to myself, pocketíng my newfound wealth.
On top of all this, the maid behind the bar informs us that he frequents the place and I begin to see the whole filthy, ass-licking possibilities of the situation. Especially as it seemed that Serge Gainsbourg thought that Niki and I, or me or Niki, were worth that kind of bread. The barmaid was sure she said, that she didn’t see what all the fuss was about, but she was as fresh as a ..:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />California orange and completely unversed in the ancient schools of European debauchery. I was more used to being around people who had degrees. She’d never heard his music and was sure that she didn’t want to after serving the funny little man a couple of times.
“He’s just a drunken bum.” she said.
“Yeah I know” said I, “..but could you phone me the next time he’s in here?”
I WAS IN THE PAINFUL PROCESS of breaking up with my longtime companion Hélène, but was still actively involved in hanging out with her little brother Pierre. I say little having known him since the old days in Brittany, when he still had the puppy fat. He was with us now, up with the big boys in gay Paris, a twenty three year old ladykiller. We were close friends and told each other just about everything.
I had also been close to Hélène’s elder brother Marcel, until he’d gone completely off the rails. I felt like their brother. During the many visits to our ancestral home, I would join in their schemes and plot against my tyrannical, surrogate parents. What wicked fun we had had, long ago.
All was well when any combination of us four were together, it was only the deadly combination of alcohol and strangers that could break the spell. Systematically on these occasions, they would turn into obnoxious and aggressive beasts of the field. Although I loved them dearly, this did kind of make it hard to take them anywhere.
I had learned my new language as much from Pierre as from anyone, except maybe Jacques Brel or Asterix. Huge intensive chunks of my courses consisted of Gainsbourg seminars, held in noisy cafes over many a rattling pinball. We would toast the morning sun with blood stained tequila, emulating his favourite hero (Delon coming in a close second), and listening over and over to the new album Love on the beat. We thought it was great!
On the cover Serge was made up like an old tart. Each song on there made use of his special brand of English punned through French, resulting in some kind of joke. He liked his little joke, my mate Serge. For example the title ditty, on which he was accompanied by some poor wench getting herself mercilessly and rhythmically flogged, was a play on the French word bitte, which meant penis. Get it? The rest of the lyrics were also disgusting, but most people didn’t catch them and no one knew how to read anymore. Yo ho ho, Sergio!
One had to admire Gainsbarre though (as he had begun calling himself, only for the way he’d managed to bridge the great age divide, if nothing else. Amazingly enough for a man of his advanced years, he was more in touch with French youth of the eighties, than any pimpled, young Bertrand could ever hope to be. Wicked, cool, old Uncle Serge. Poor Brel and Brassens both left early, they hadn’t even had the time to wave bye-bye and were never anything to do with rock music anyway. Serge was the only contender.
I remember years later, when I was playing one horse mountain towns down south, how astonished kids would approach me about him (T had cunningly dropped his name on my information sheet, in a cheap attempt to find cheap work. I figured he owed me that much).
“Oh putain! C’est vrai, t’as joué avec lui?” one young chap had said to me, demanding to know exactly which of Serge’s discs I’d played on. The basis for his flight of fancy was the chalk legend, which I’d just noticed myself, scrawled on a blackboard behind the bar. It said simply,
“Steve Shorrock – Ex Gainsbourg!”
The poor fellow told me it would have given meaning to his whole existence just to have met Serge. He would have given his right arm he said, and I believed him. I basked for awhile in the reflected glory of my new found status, then I hit the guy for a smoke.
GAINSBOURG FREELY ADMITTED to spending just one week a year writing a new million selling album and then because he was so loaded, in every sense of the word, he could just hop off to New York or Kingston, hire the cream of the crop and lay it right down. His previous album had been pure Reggae. It featured Sly & Robbie, also Bob Marley’s widow Rita.
God knows what it was doing there, but somehow at auction Gainsbourg had acquired the rights to the French national anthem, and his dub version of “La Marseillaise” had every red blooded legionnaire in the land up in arms; so to speak. He’d even brought the band over from Jamaica to tour with him once, but as soon as the first concert was disrupted by these bold Brummels, the Rastas quit the stage toot de sweet as they say in Lancashire.
“Hey, we got own praablem man, I & I no need all o den Frenchy fuckry, Rasclaaat!”
Under police protection, an even bolder Serge crooned away undaunted and accapella. Torrents of abuse rained down on him from the angry patriots crowding the hall. After all he did own the damn thing now.
Pierre and I would also discuss Serge’s latest T.V. antics, which were pure French farce. These events in which the nation gleefully participated, outraged detractors and delighted fans. Only a while back on some chat show he’d given them all a big thrill, by holding up a five hundred franc note, taking a cigarette lighter from his pocket and sending the bill up in smoke before our very eyes. All highly amusing and highly illegal I might add, but no one got arrested so that was OK.
Even more recently on yet another talk show, he had proposed sexual intercourse to a startled Whitney Houston who sat between him and embarrassed host, Michel Drucker.
“I wont too feuk yoo“, Serge had quipped.
An angry, disbelieving “Whaaatt!” was all dear Whitney could manage by way of reply. As her brown cheeks flushed, Drucker tried to persuade her that his guest had in fact said something else. He was lying to her on national television, but Serge soon put them right.
“Non, non, I say Iwanna feukyoo!”
He was extremely drunk.
IN ENGLAND HIS NAME IS ALL BUT FORGOTTEN. Only a short hop across the channel though, finds it up there with Elvis and the Pope in terms of celebrity, and notoriety. Not that it had ever rolled off too many tongues back in Blighty, where he remains the proverbial one hit wonder. Mais quelle hit. It was called Je t’aime, moi non plus (I love you, neither do I). No one cared a fig who the Frog singer was, hell! it had a woman making dirty noises on it. In order to jog most peoples memories back home, it would be necessary to drag them back to ..69 and hum them a couple of bars. Eighty per cent of the adult population of Europe remember it, I’m sure you must do too Ladies and Gentlemen. How did it go again?… Da di daa, di da dum da, di da dum da, di dum, di dum daaaah, Je t’aime… Oh oui, je t’aaaaaime!
Although he had been popular for many years in France, this was his first, and possibly last, international megaseller. Originally he had recorded it with Brigitte Bardot but she’d chickened out from releasing it at the last minute. Not one to be perturbed, Serge simply redid it with his new love, English, baby-doll actress, Miss Jane Birkin. She had recently appeared in Antonioni’s widely acclaimed film Blow Up (The Velvet Underground had originally been asked to do the famous Yardbird scene, but apparently there wasn’t enough cash to bring the band’s equipment over from the States). Anyway, Jane went on to become Serge’s long suffering partner, his moll, his muse, his Frankenstein’s monster and a mother to him and his children. He had always written many of his songs for women to sing and Jane became a hefty part of his mouthpiece over the next two decades, until she split.
We were reeling from the summer of love when the record broke and though still at school, I was doing plenty of psychedelic homework, even managing to squeeze in Hendrix a couple of times that year.
Despite free love and the age of Aquarius however, I still hadn’t lost my cherry and remember just how naughty that record had sounded. Jane was busy giving it the heavy breathing treatment while Serge declared to her and the whole world, how good it felt to be going in and out between her kidneys. I’m sure that it must have been! Ocassionally between spasms, she would tell him how much she loved him in French (her accent being equally atrocious/charming as was his in English). He never did say he loved her back though, he just kept saying ..Me neither’ (that was the joke), and carried on telling everyone what a great time he was having up there amongst Jane’s kidneys. They’re funny the French.
Of course over in England nobody knew what the hell they were going on about, although Jane’s multiple orgasms had rather given the game away. If they’d fully understood, there could have been all kinds of blockadings of ports, or at least questions would have had to be raised. Beyond a shadow of a doubt here was a case of pure, unadulterated, French filth… and number one with a bullet.
Auntie Beeb also thought it extremely rude and banished it from her airwaves without hesitation, replacing it with an insipid instumental version which also charted. Serge’s song had such a strong melody line even prudes could now enjoy his music.
I have a clear picture of my own dear mother: she’s in our kitchen, battling away with the dishes. She is humming the blasted thing over and over to the wall in her lovely soprano voice (this is because the doctored version is all she has heard. I’m glad the Broadcasting Corporation is doing it’s job and protecting my mum from Serge Gainsbourg). Listen to her sing, she just loves Serge’s melody. Rest her soul.
London was still swinging away, I was still a fraction too young though to be getting ..up the smoke’ every five minutes or so to join in the fun and games. However I was doing my best down our way, amid the fallout and the flak. I was also getting a lot of kicks by proxy, keeping up with the latest escapades of Los Rolling Stones and their ilk, in the colourful pages of OZ and The News of the World (I also read the Beano and occasionally Mayfair, but although their pages were even more colourful they said very little about the scruffy lads).
Gainsbourg was in good company, even the Beatles had got the same treatment. They’d had the audacity to slip smutty words into their later songs and (Shock Horror!) words such as ..knickers’ began to appear. This was a disgusting reference to ladies underwear in the song I am the Walrus. Our attention was also drawn to words like ..smoke’ being, according to the B.B.C., a drug reference in the song A Day in the Life, even though no one mentions any drugs.
Bien sûr, this was all so much codswallop to ze ordinary French man, who thought that smoking and knickers were just as valid a part of everyday life as ..le food,’ ..les vacances,’ ..le bank account,’ etcetera. Unlike the Brits, their government felt no need at all to protect the nation from it’s own number one record, or from debauched Jewish sex-agents provocateurs for that matter. As throughout history they had much more important and subversive things to worry about.
Things like wine and revolution.
Copyright Steve Shorrock