Serge Gainsbourg: “A Fistful of Gitanes”

Serge Gainsbourg: “A Fistful of Gitanes”

Some great artists are not merely superior craftsmen, but so unique, they stand aside from all their contemporaries. Serge Gainsbourg was one such artist.

I noticed this book got some bad reviews – mainly from French and international Gainsbourg afficionados – to whom most of the content will be common knowledge.

But as a relative newcomer, I was pleasantly surprised by this short and easily-read biography. It was unfortunately written after Gainsbourg’s death – the author never met him – and it is clearly intended as a short and entertaining summary of his life and work. It is certainly not the definitive biography – Simmons herself recommends Gilles Verlant’s “Gainsbourg” for that.

The author quotes generously from her interviews with people who knew Serge – Jane Birkin, not least – and paints a clear picture of the kind of man Gainsbourg was: Restlessly creative, painfully shy, yet devil-may-care – and maybe most surprisingly, a devout family man. In fact, I can’t remember reading any other musician’s biography (and a heavy-drinking French musician at that) that doesn’t imply any sort of infidelity.

The only disappointment in the book is the treatment of Serge’s work itself. Being no Paul Morley, Simmons doesn’t indulge in wordy descriptions of Serge’s music – and maybe just as well. Of course music needs to be listened to, rather than read about – but if you don’t know the music in advance, this book hardly does much to encourage you.

And of course, there are the lyrics. Serge’s punny French wordplays (think triple entendre rather than double) are notoriously un-translatable. Though Simmons should get credit for giving it her best shot when needed.

Still, this book offers the perfect companion to a set of Gainsbourg cds – eiter a good compilation or the massive complete works box set. The music is like nothing you ever heard – and the book offers some fine insights into the enigmatic man behind the work.

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