January 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
Jane Birkin is speaking on the phone from Paris, sounding exactly like you might expect – breathy, sensual, and girlish. It is still voice of a young woman on the other end of the line, despite Birkin’s 65 years. She speaks her native English with an upper class lilt and her French – flawlessly. This is in large part due to 40 years spent in France, 13 of them immersed in a now legendary romance with the country’s beloved pop star, the late Serge Gainsbourg.
The couple was the Brad and Angelina of their day, their partnership fuel for the 1960s tabloids and intercontinental nightclub gossip. When they met on the set of the film, “Slogan” in 1968, Birkin was a doe-eyed 22 year old model/actress, Gainsbourg a hard drinking 40 year old madman. Their relationship would be both prolific and volatile.
The two ultimately had one child, (the contemporary actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg), but it was their musical output that kept the press at their door. Birkin and Gainsbourg produced numerous tracks together, such as 1969 single “Je taime…moi non plus.
(“I love you… me neither”) and 1971’s, Histoire de Melody Nelson, a concept album detailing the exploits of a middle-age man’s affair with a teen-age nymphet.
“It’s funny because these songs are not very scandalous when you listen now,” says Birkin from her Paris apartment, “they are actually rather charming and sweet. When I think of when I would take the needle off certain parts of the record so my mother wouldn’t hear the heavy breathing, I laugh now. But at the time it was considered music you only played after midnight and many of the songs were banned.”
Throughout their relationship, Gainsbourg found poetic inspiration in Birkin, the result being an unprecedented series of wry, catchy and often playfully obscene songs, all written expressly for his young lover. The process for the two was simple. Serge was the songwriter – Jane was the muse.
“He would play me songs that he had written for me on the tape recorder and I would pick the prettiest,” says Birkin now of their collaborations, “I always thought he wrote the songs for me that expressed what was his feminine side. It freed him to write these lyrics, it meant somehow that he was a complete person – that he could be fragile. I asked him once if he thought that was the case, that I was expressing the feminine side of himself, and he said yes, he thought that was true.
“He was always 20 years ahead of his time,” continues Birkin, “and he’s remembered for that but also because he also wrote some very good, very catchy tunes. He was very prolific. With me, he was very clear about what he wanted. When, later in life, I began performing live, he told me I could do his songs, or do the standards. He told me once that if I was going to do a song that wasn’t his, it had to be written by an American and they had to be dead!”
Gainsbourg continued to write songs for and about Birkin, even after she left him in 1980 for the director Jacques Doillon. Yet even as their relationship changed, so did the lyrical and emotional import of Gainsbourg’s compositions.
“There were songs that he wrote for me when we were together, songs that I see now were written for the baby doll, innocent sort of person he wanted me to be” says Birkin, “and those songs were cute and sexy and flirtatious. But later in life, after I had left him, he continued to write songs for me and they were deeper. I felt wasn’t singing me, I was singing him. I was singing his feelings, his curiosity, his pain and difficulty in life”.
These included tracks from the 1983 album, “Baby alone in Babylone”, which included songs like “Baby Lou”, which Gainsbourg wrote about Birkin’s third child with Doillon.
“Serge was very much in my life, always,” Birkin says of the later years of their relationship, “He was my chum. He was best friend. He would turn up at any time of the night, and he had his room in our house. I would make him dinner or a cup of tea and just sit down and gossip. I was very lucky that way, because I never really lost Serge. He was always my friend. It was more fun with him later in life, to have him as an extraordinary, eloquent, loyal friend.”
Since Gainsbourg’s death in 1991, Birkin has spent much of her time keeping his legacy alive, not only in France, but also abroad.
“Serge is still very much alive and relevant,” she says, “When “Je T’aime” came out, that was such a scandal in 1968, and I think some of that curiosity remains. I think when I tour now; it is that curiosity that draws people to the show. And I like taking Serge around; I like reminding people of his songs.
“Although he doesn’t need me any more,” she adds quietly, “When Serge first died, I think people discarded him at first. In part, because they felt like he was someone who drank too much and smoked too much and was sort of a dandy. But over the years that has changed. They’ve come to love him again.”