Jane Birkin on protecting Serge Gainsbourg’s legacy

As Jane Birkin visits Glasgow to sing Serge Gainsbourg’s songs, one of the couple’s biggest Scottish champions, the BMX Bandits’ Duglas T Stewart, talks to her about her 20-year mission to protect his legacy.

As Jane Birkin visits Glasgow to sing Serge Gainsbourg’s songs, one of the couple’s biggest Scottish champions, the BMX Bandits’ Duglas T Stewart, talks to her about her 20-year mission to protect his legacy.

JANE BIRKIN is famous as an actress in international movies and for having the ultimate handbag (Hermès’ Birkin Bag) named after her, but most of all she is famous for her association with French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. In 1997 my good friend David Scott of The Pearlfishers and I put together a show called Je t’aime, Gainsbourg, a celebration of the music of Serge Gainsbourg. There was a screening of a Channel 4 documentary about the man and his music, followed by an “all star” concert of his songs performed by David and me with veteran broadcaster Peter Easton, jazz outsider Bill Wells, members of Belle & Sebastian, The Vaselines, Teenage Fanclub, The Primevals, and others.

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We printed up T-shirts bearing the legend “Je t’aime, Gainsbourg”. I even got a tattoo of Gainsbourg’s face on my left arm for the occasion so I could make the joke “if you fancy something more permanent than a T-shirt you can get a Gainsbourg tattoo at Bim’s Tattoo Parlour on the Bellshill Road, Wishaw for just £20”. When I did the reveal the audience seemed to approve of my gesture.

What was even more exciting, at the first of the three shows that we did, was getting a special message from Jane, Serge’s great muse. It announced that Serge and Jane had just become grandparents for the first time with the birth of their daughter’s (the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg) first son Ben. She wanted the musicians and the audience at the show to know before the media were told. She also wanted to thank the players taking part for helping to bring Serge’s music to new ears. This had very much become a mission for Jane ever since Serge’s death in 1992.

It had become a mission for me too. Since around 1992 at least half the music I was listening to at home was Gainsbourg-related – either his own albums or songs he wrote for a whole bunch of beautiful women including France Gall, Françoise Hardy, Brigitte Bardot, and of course Jane. Over and over again I would watch VHS tapes I’d picked up, while touring in Japan with my band BMX Bandits, of Serge and Jane French TV specials, and the glorious made-for-television Gainsbourg musical ANNA (starring Anna Karina). I just couldn’t contain my passion for this unique and prolific body of work any more and I had to share the love. The Je t’aime, Gainsbourg shows felt like a good way of getting some people, peers and punters alike, to open their ears.

Gainsbourg might seem like an unlikely hero for me. I don’t speak or understand much French, I don’t like cigarettes, and I don’t drink alcohol. But I made such a visceral connection with his work, the incredible elegance of the melodies and the structure of the songs, the humour, the very sensual quality of it, the chemistry between Birkin and him, and the poignancy, a beautiful kind of sadness.

I got to speak to Jane on the telephone on a few occasions around that time and met her in London, where she made an adolescent dream of mine come true when she called me “Darling Duglas” and planted a big warm kiss on my unsuspecting but grateful mouth. I haven’t spoken to her for 15 years, but now she’s coming to Glasgow to perform a special show of Gainsbourg songs it felt like time to catch up, and so we did.

Duglas: It’s almost 22 years since Serge’s death. Do you feel the perception and awareness of him and his work has changed in Britain since then?

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Jane: Well, when he died most people in Britain only knew him for one thing, Je t’aime … moi non plus. A few British papers ran brief but respectful obituaries but the Sun called me up just after he died and said (she puts on a coarse Cockney accent) “So did you make any other dirty records together?” I was so outraged and upset. It lit a fire in me and I contacted lots of people I felt they and others couldn’t ignore, people who loved Serge. I asked Jacques Chirac and (Brigitte) Bardot, Françoise Hardy, Catherine Deneuve, Claudia Cardinale, (Francois) Mitterrand, Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Luc Godard for just a couple of lines to say what he meant to them and to France. Mitterrand said: “We’ve lost our Beaudelaire.” I was on a mission to let people know that there was a lot more to Serge than one “dirty song” or burning a 500 franc note on the telly. Now 22 years on and after more than 1,000 concerts all around the world people seem to have got the message but I still want to sing his songs and for people to understand him more.

Duglas: It must have helped that so many respected musicians like Jarvis Cocker, Beck, Nick Cave, and Sonic Youth started to champion his music and even cover his songs.

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Jane: Now Histoire de Melody Nelson is acknowledged as seminal and quoted as a reference point by so many musicians and music fans. Even in France at the time of its release no-one gave it much attention to it and it didn’t sell many copies. When we were in the studio and listening to it as it was being created we thought it would be a huge success and change things, be hailed as a masterpiece, but when it was released it didn’t turn out that way.

Duglas: There’s no other album like it. It is so daring in so many ways and still sounds so modern.

Jane: Although he was well known in France because he was on television regularly he never really sold lots of records, apart from Je t’aime, until Aux armes et cætera (Serge’s controversial 1979 reggae reworking of the French national anthem). Then the French National Front wanted to blow him up.

I’m glad there are musicians now championing his music. I tried to get British musicians at the end of the 1960s and in the early 70s to listen but it didn’t work. The only time Serge met the Rolling Stones he spilled drinks over some of them and I had to persuade them not to mush him up by explaining to them he was a poet.

I’m sure even that terrible film they made about him – whatever it was called, I didn’t like it – raised awareness and added to his legend but it didn’t show the real Serge.

Duglas: It seems there was a caricature of him that he created that stopped people from seeing the real Serge. I remember you telling how shy he was, particularly with women.

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Jane: He was so shy and he would need to become this character to talk to women and have a couple of drinks so he would be comfortable hanging around with the boys and making everybody laugh. He needed the alcohol and the cigarettes to transform himself from Lucien Ginsburg into Serge Gainsbourg and couldn’t stop. Eventually it killed him. He would start the day with a couple of Pernods and continue drinking. He had a little silver spoon made so he could use it to make himself sick so he could have even more. After years of watching him do this to himself I left him. (French film director) Jacques Doillon described Serge as a suicidal optimist because he would abuse his body but seemed to believe he would always get away with it and escape death but you can only get away with living like that for so long.

Duglas: Somewhat surprisingly he continued to write songs for you but the type of song seemed to change.

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Jane: Yes, before he wrote songs where I was like a performing pretty little doll, a fantasy that he’d created, but these new songs went much deeper. They were about the real him and had so much sadness in them. I remember times in the recording studio as I was singing these songs I could see him behind the glass in the studio booth with so many tears streaming down his face. In one of these songs he wrote “I gave you the best of me” and he really did. I wished that I could have saved him and now I am still trying to give the best of me back to him.

• Jane Birkin sings the songs of Serge Gainsbourg at The Arches, Glasgow, 29 January, as part of the Glasgow Music and Film Festival.

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