Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Sexe, Drogues et le Rock ‘n’ Roll

The casting of John Travolta as J.R. Ewing in the upcoming film version of “Dallas” sparked a debate at a recent Parisian soirée. The French and the North Americans couldn’t agree on which of the hit TV series’ themes were better: the instrumental, horn-based jingle that preceded each episode on the other side of the Big Pond, or the kitschy ballad that commenced each show here in France. When one alcohol-fuelled Frenchman sang a few lines – “Dallas, ton univers impitoya-a-ble…” or “Dallas, your merciless universe” – the North Americans had difficulty suppressing their laughter.

When The Violent Femmes mischievously inquired “Do You Like American Music?” it didn’t take their fans more than 60 seconds to come up with a laundry list of U.S.-based favorites. When most Anglophones – especially those from the States and English-speaking Canada – think of French music, it’s Edith Piaf that first comes to mind. Some might be a bit familiar with the sentimental musings of Jacques Brel, or the Sinatra-esque showmanship of Charles Aznavour, or the Las Vegas-inspired Johnny Halliday. Beyond that, however, it’s usually Francophiles that have been exposed to Dutronc, Polnareff, and the host of others that have contributed to French music history.

Regardless, there exist strong parallels between the English language music scene and what has happened here in France. Mike Brant, for example, a Tom Jones-ish 1970s icon of Israeli descent, soon rose to playboy status thanks to his pretty face and love-drenched chansons that made French girls swoon. Though Brant enjoyed a successful career, the lack of privacy that accompanied his stardom drove him to suicide. Today, Brant’s music continues to live on – usually in the salons of the concierges that inhabit the ground floor apartments of most Parisian residences.

While former celebrities Mike Brant and Kurt Cobain have their fulfilled death wish in common, it’s France’s own version of Nirvana (many argue, a better, more clever version), Noir Desir, that smacks of Sid and Nancy. A few years ago, at the peak of the band’s career, drugged-out singer Bernard Cantat beat his girlfriend, actress Marie Trintignant (daughter of French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant) into a coma. She died several days later. Cantat is currently in prison, serving an eight-year sentence for his crime.

French musicians regularly complain that in order to gain recognition, it’s obligatoire to sing in English; Anglophones – which make up the biggest market – generally don’t listen to what they can’t understand. It’s not uncommon for a French person to declare they don’t know a word of English, only to find them singing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody” five minutes later. But this phenomenon is hardly reciprocal: how many American Piaf fans could belt out all of the words to “La Vie en Rose?”

It’s a pity that the North American school system doesn’t encourage its students to learn several languages the way European educational institutions do. While English is king, one can’t deny the obvious benefits of communicating in something other than one’s mother tongue – even if it’s just to enjoy the little cultural gems that every country has to offer.

For this reason, Serge Gainsbourg – a national hero in France – never managed to break much ground outside of Europe. Here, however, he enjoyed legendary status as an agent provocateur: part dirty old man, part genius, he combined wit, booze, rebelliousness, cigarettes and romance to craft some of French music history’s sharpest lyrics. The French, who are never an easy audience to impress, deem him one of the country’s best poets.

While Madonna’s crotch-grabbing scandalized America, Gainsbourg was creating a stir of his own, with his reggae version of French national anthem La Marseillaise (those are Bob Marley’s Wailers chanting out the refrain); his burning three quarters of a 500 franc note (a crime) on national television to illustrate how much he was paying in taxes; and his declaration, upon being introduced to Whitney Houston (again on national television) that he wanted to fuck her. To accompany his single “Lemon Incest” (an examination of the strong emotional bond between father and daughter, and the physical love between them that must go unfulfilled) he filmed a video clip featuring himself, shirtless, rolling around a bed with his panty-clad 14 year-old daughter, Charlotte. One wonders what the repercussions would have been for the artist if he were based anywhere else, but save for the media hype upon the clip’s release, father and daughter emerged relatively unscathed. Today, Charlotte is a successful actress.

Unless one speaks French – or has access to someone who can translate – it’s difficult to enjoy Gainsbourg’s acclaimed plays on words. A number of Anglophone musicians (most of them Brits) recently made an attempt, however, with Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited, a compilation of 14 of Gainsbourg’s songs translated into English. Artists such The Rakes, Jarvis Cocker, The Kills, Placebo, Portishead, Tricky, Michael Stipe, Marianne Faithful, and Cat Power tried their hands at tributing the man himself, and while not all of the translations are – or could – depict their original intention, the performances are strong. Even media darling Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg’s former wife and celebrated collaborator, makes an appearance. One hopes that Gainsbourg, despite his trademark cynicism, would be touched.

The alcohol and packs of Gitanes that served as Gainsbourg’s permanent props finally killed him in the spring of 1991. While he had no problem provoking his audience with observations that weren’t always pretty, he remained self-conscious about his own physical ugliness, even dedicating a song and album title to the subject: L’Homme à la tête de chou (or, “the man with the head of cabbage.”) This didn’t stop him, however, from enjoying affairs with some of France’s most beautiful women, among them Brigitte Bardot.

Which is why, perhaps, he was able to come to terms with his looks eventually: “Ugliness is in a way superior than beauty,” he said, “because it lasts.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor. Contact her directly via, or through her agent, Rebecca Friedman, Sterling Lord Literistic, (212) 780-6050 or