In the Shadow of Serge

The fantastical Paris that had built up in my mind was, I assumed, dead – if it ever had existed at all. I actually wrote a poem about this very subject in a university Creative Writing class, which I’ll post here (whilst begging for forgiveness):

I remember standing,
in my mind, on the Rue de Verneuil,
Saint-Germain,
Not quite 8am,
but une madame et sa chien marched purposeful on the
narrow sidewalk, passing graffitied grilles.

C’est vil!” she tutted,
ambiguous in her reference.
But in her wake an infinite stretch
of vieux riche, à la septième arrondissement.
Ancient Gauloise fumes in an arc,
guilty, invulnerable.

Alfred Jarry once cycled here, absinthe-
sodden, using a revolver as a bell.
Now, madame takes a walking revolver
that shoots bullets of Dieu sait
wherever I place mon pied.
Her vengeance

on the city she loves, for letting monsieur take
les femmes de la nuit
back from Chez Castel
again.

Mercifully, it wasn’t entirely the case, for Paris has done a fairly commendable job of retaining as much of the “old Paris” as possible – certainly a better job than London, anyway.  The vast majority of shops are sole traders, the utterly bourgeois 7th arrondissement is still nothing but simply “French” despite being about half a minute away from the Louvre, and that exclusively Parisian chic absolutely exists, even if you still can’t quite put your finger on exactly what it is. But, sure, the Paris I really, really wanted to see was gone – and I’m not necessarily talking about a Paris in which Alfred Jarry is using a revolver as a bell, but rather a far more recent Paris which includes a living, breathing Serge Gainsbourg in any capacity.

Gainsbourg-5bis-rue-de-Verneuil

IMG_1149

Even a cursory glance at this blog reveals that I have a remarkable talent for shoe-horning Gainsbourg, Queen or Yoko Ono into anything even remotely related to them, so I don’t feel I have to explain once again why this twenty-something Englishman harbours a deep admiration for a long-dead chanteur who doesn’t even write in a language I can understand. All I will say is that I’m not alone, for here are some fellow Gainsbourgites I’ve learnt about on this strange and still unfolding Gallic journey:

  • Johnny Depp and former Gainsbourg associate Vanessa Paradis gave one of their daughters the middle name Melody in honour of Histoire de Melody Nelson. Depp was also quoted as saying “To me Gainsbourg is a kind of untouchable [..] There is two people I wish I could meet : John Lennon and Serge Gainsbourg.”
  • Malcolm McLaren, upon moving to Paris, stated that every time he entered a bar, he hoped Gainsbourg would be there propping it up. One day that dream came true in an evening that began with a Bloody Mary and ended with a legless Gainsbourg screaming “J’adore Sid Vicious!”
  • Susan Sontag is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, and according to McLaren, she specifically requested this so she could be “close to Serge Gainsbourg”.
  • Artists like Beck, Jarvis Cocker, Sean Lennon, Charli XCX, Miles Kane, Franz Ferdinand, Nick Cave and Sparks have cited Gainsbourg as a major influence.
  • A quote from none other than J.G. Ballard sits rather comfortably with an au naturel Gainsbourg on the cover of Sylvie Simmons’ wonderful biography A Fistful of Gitanes (follow her on Twitter – she’s live tweeting the entire book!) – he is, according to Ballard, an “all-round scallywag.” Who can argue with that?

I arrived in Paris on the evening of the 4th April, two days after what would have been Serge’s 87th birthday. The following afternoon I found myself in Montparnasse admiring the graves of Charles Baudelaire, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and of course Serge Gainsbourg. When people claim that Gainsbourg defeats the likes of Baudelaire, Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde to be the occupant of Paris’ most visited tomb, it’s easily believable, for a steady stream of silent observers looked wistfully upon the somewhat sinister slab that houses Serge and his parents, Olga and Joseph Ginsburg. For all of the ten or fifteen minutes I remained at his resting place, I was never alone. That said, I’m not sure what I would have done were I standing there without the company of French strangers anyway, considering even with a crowd I was too busy worrying that, if Serge really could look up at me, he’d be looking at me from an awful angle.

Whenever I engaged in genuine conversation with a Parisian during my visit, I ensured that I successfully “slipped in” a reference to my Gainsbourg fanhood along the way – I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting. A pat on the head? An exclamation of joy at the honour of meeting someone so refined? Regardless, instead of throwing French citizenship in my direction, the most enthusiastic response I received was a grunt of nonchalance. It really didn’t take long to decipher why. As a Briton, I can claim a kind of kinship with the numerous greats my island has produced: Lennon, McCartney, Bowie, Ray Davies. Expand it to those who share my mother tongue and you can throw in Elvis, Brian Wilson, even Freddie Mercury (see!). But Gainsbourg was the Frenchman who stayed French, the legend in their own time and culture. We’ve got a host of musical geniuses, but he’s theirs. He’s one of a long line of great French poets, but they have to share Rimbaud and Baudelaire with everyone else. They’ll sell me vinyl copies of Vu De L’Extérieur and L’Homme À Tête De Chou, they’ll flock to his grave on Easter Sunday of all days, yet he’s nowhere at the same time.

Case in point comes the day after the visit to Montparnasse, when I took a pleasant but back-breaking walk from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre, and then crossed the Pont des Arts towards Gainsbourg’s home on the Rue de Verneuil. Walking up the Rue des Saints-Pères, looking for the second street on the right, I was quite strongly reminded of a recent trek to Kensington’s Logan Place to finally visit Garden Lodge, the abode of my childhood hero Freddie Mercury (and again!). Both are carefully placed in the small side-streets of extravagantly wealthy areas of town, both saw their legendary occupants deaths, and both have posthumously become major sites of pilgrimage – graffiti consistently the order of the day. My reaction to both homes was markedly different. Having adored Freddie as far back as I remember, always as a dead man, he was more a myth than a man – I’ve walked where he walked, met people he met, but in my life he was only a voice on a record, or a visual cacophony of bright colours and balletic flourishes. Even watching interviews with an off-duty Freddie, or with his family and close friends, never really brought home just how much DNA Freddie actually shares with the human swarms that descend upon the London Underground at rush hour, forcing you to temporarily hate the entire human race. Garden Lodge did that, seeing the window that leads to the bedroom he died in making his terrible battle with AIDS a genuine human tragedy rather than the subconscious irritant that robbed me of his talent. It felt like Freddie Mercury – the man who once was Farrokh Bulsara, not the wild rock star – was inside the house, even in death a force of nature. This wasn’t the case on the Rue de Verneuil. Aside from translating the tributes and tittering at the “défense de fumer” sign that had somehow found itself on Gainsbourg’s front door, I was underwhelmed. Didn’t I like Serge Gainsbourg as much as I convinced myself I had? Was I losing interest in the man J. G. Ballard had called a “scallywag”? I decided to quit whilst I was somewhat ahead, and halted my intended pursuit of Serge’s haunts in this beautiful city. If Serge’s house couldn’t have an effect on me, how can Les Trois Baudets?

Our train back to London, and to home, was to leave on the evening of Wednesday 8th April, allowing us plenty of time to enjoy one last trek across the city before preparing to leave. When I travel, I lose my usually rather eager appetite and in the three-and-a-half days I had spent in Paris, I had consumed about four slices of pizza and half of a burger. Finally, my hunger was catching up with me, and I wasn’t going to compromise on my only meal in Paris. My friend Steve – who once visited a Korean restaurant with me and requested nothing but “proper English tea” the entire time – was similarly hungry, in fact he was so hungry that, upon finding ourselves near Gainsbourg’s house again and not exactly spoilt for choice – he agreed to enter a traditional French bistro with me. I nervously asked the doorman “uhhh, menu anglais?” “Non, but we shall help you!” he answered quick as a flash, and ushered us excitedly into the bistro. Beautiful decor (all dark red and black); smartly dressed, ageing waiters who all looked – to varying degrees – like Salman Rushdie (Steve looked at me like I had pissed myself where I stood when I pointed this out to him). Everyone inside looked utterly bourgeois; comfortable, confident, attractive in that unattainable Gallic way. And here I was in a t-shirt, grey hoodie and jeans. I felt like an invader – an uncultured Anglo swine imposing my hoodie and bad posture on these smart and comfortable French sods. I considered making a break for it, slinking out of the joint muttering “dessolayyyy, dessolayyyy” to nobody in particular, but French waiters are something else, within mere seconds you’re sat on a rickety table eating complimentary caviar, wondering how quick is too quick when it comes to consuming steak and endives plat du jour. Anyway, whilst eating the frankly divine meal I had successfully negotiated in very broken French, I looked up and saw, reflected in the large mirror stretched across the wall, a framed photograph of Serge Gainsbourg; cigarette in hand, hair askew, suit carefully crumpled. “I wonder if Serge used to come here?” I asked myself, noting down the name of the restaurant: Le Bistrot de Paris, on the Rue de Lille.

Le Bistrot de Paris, courtesy of TripAdvisor.

Upon laying both gratefully and regretfully on my bed back home, all of about ten hours later, I turned on my laptop and almost immediately Googled for information relating to both Le Bistrot de Paris and Serge Gainsbourg, and to my surprise, discovered I had stumbled across Serge’s favourite restaurant – a place in which he dined on a regular basis. I was also rather touched by the following piece of information, translated from Gainsbourg Forever: “In this restaurant, on 1st March 1991, the singer had his last meal with his daughter Charlotte and his companion Bambou. Gainsbourg died in the night at his home in 5bis rue de Verneuil, three blocks from here.” And there it was. Unlike Mercury – a truly cosmopolitan star if ever there was one – Gainsbourg is Parisian to the core – everything we know and love about the City of Light is epitomised by this child of Russian-Jewish émigrés. Gainsbourg may not be as visible a symbol to his city as The Beatles are to Liverpool, but he is loved just the same; the difference being that rather than a commodity to be merchandised, Serge is spoken of in reverential whispers, commemorated in framed photographs wherever he walked, silently admired where he reposes. There may not have been an ounce of French blood in Serge Gainsbourg, but nobody represents the peerless city of Paris and its unique residents like Serge Gainsbourg. He’s not mine, nor will he ever be. He’s theirs – I’m just a tourist.

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