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It’s like it says in Ecclesiastes, “Of the making of books about Serge Gainsbourg there is no end.” This book, newest volume in the famous Bloomsbury 33 1/3 series, is well worth your while, even though it suffers from the most enviable of flaws, too much packed into each sentence. From the beginning, the series always had more excitement than fine writing, but the fan boy (and fan girl) aesthetic holds sway through the years and I’m glad. I learned rather less about Histoire de Melody Nelson than I thought I would, but way more about Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991), who in the years since his death seems like the most protean and exemplary postmodern talent of the 20th century.
It used to be that the 33 1/3 series was really decisive and they would publish no more than one record by any artist not matter how many good ones the artist or group had issued. (I wonder if that’s still true, didn’t I hear that a second Beach Boys LP was going to be covered soon?) Anyhow has the selection of “Histoire de Melody Nelson” provoked any cries of “unfair”? To me, it is great, but not that great. Maybe the ideal Gainsbourg record would be a compilation LP of his greatest songs, and he didn’t even sing all of them. But HdMN is a concept album, and Darran Anderson makes sure we understand that.
The individual numbers sometimes suffer from a lack of love I think. He is more interested in treating each of them as a hook or peg onto which he can hang a huge and well-sorted grab-bag of Gainsbourg lore and fact. He’s like a kid who has so much to say he thinks he’ll die if he doesn’t get to say it all, right away. This leads to sentences in which more than one set of parentheses are used, such as this: “While Jane filmed Alba pagana (released in English as May Morning(, a campus suspense notable for a tagline superior to the film (‘First comes the wine. Then the wild dancing. Then the love. Then the killing of the sacrificial victim’), Serge stayed in their hotel in England, sketching out ideas and snippets of lyrics, towards what would eventually become sonnets and alexandrines.” Whew, long sentence, and Anderson still manages to leave out a crucial word in his breathless race to the finish: the phrase “a campus suspense notable for a tagline” seems to be missing a noun, doesn’t it? “A campus suspense thriller,” maybe, “or suspense movie” I’m just speculating on his process, forgive me Darran Anderson if I’ve got it arsebackward!
Psychological insight is acute here, and he doesn’t balk at articulating the worst sides of Gainsbourg. Anderson tells us that, like Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, Gainsbourg was nervous about marrying Jane Birkin because she had previously been married to a towering and domineering figure—in Jane’s case, the genius musician John Barry. Thus we see Gainsbourg apparently trying to outdo and thus slay John Barry. Check that metaphor, as they used to say in the New Yorker. “The epic Breakdown Suite from Si j’etais un espion (If I Were a Spy) was Gainsbourg confronting the work of John Barr head-on; Moriarty wrestling Holmes at the top of the Reichenbach Falls.” Wow! Sheer teen boy power in that comparison. He is good at marking turning points in Gainsbourg’s development, whether or not they relate directly or not to Melody Nelson. For example, he and his first wife manage to sneak into Salvador Dali’s apartment one night to make love among its surrealist appointments. and Anderson tells us matter-of-factly, “After that night, art and sex were forever intertwined in Serge’s head.: I have to say, in my head too, after deep immersion in this splendid, slightly nutty, psychobiography.