Jester, troubadour, agent provocateur, Serge Gainsbourg rhymed his way through life in a fog of Gitanes smoke, making music of every genre. Jane Birkin, his great love, was a “baby alone in Babylon.” Asked once on a TV show how he would like to die, Gainsbourg shot back: “I would like to die alive.”
Now, 32 years after his death in Paris at age 62, Gainsbourg feels very much alive at the Maison Gainsbourg, his Left Bank home that opened to the public last week, along with a museum nearby. Nothing has moved — not the Steinway piano, the Gitanes pack, the Zippo lighter, the empty bottle of Château Pétrus, the typewriter or the framed spiders.
All the walls are draped in black fabric. Gainsbourg preferred black, he once said, “because in psychiatric hospitals the walls are all white.”
This eerie exercise in preservation — giving the impression that Gainsbourg has sidled out moments earlier — is the act of love of his daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, now a renowned actress, singer and movie director. “To stop time on March 2, 1991, was a way to refuse the fact that my father was dead,” she said in an interview. “I would go to the house from time to time, and mope and hurt and brood from terrible loss.”
Serge Gainsbourg was the son of Russian Jews who fled their homeland after the 1917 revolution and settled in Paris. As a teenager he wore the Yellow Star that the Nazis and the collaborationist French Vichy government imposed on Jews. He and his family survived World War II in hiding.
If, as he followed his pianist father into a postwar life of Paris cabarets, Gainsbourg quickly showed contempt for pieties, moralizing and conformism, he had good reason: He knew well, having been marked for death as a Jew, the limits of the French Republic’s motto of liberty, equality and fraternity.
His house, which is already sold out to visitors through the end of the year, although occasional sales of newly-released tickets are promised before then, is dark and cluttered, a lair. In a whisper, Ms. Gainsbourg, 52, accompanies visitors through an intimate audio guide delivered via headphones. We learn that she was not allowed to play the Steinway, only an upright piano. The large collection of police badges arrayed on a table were coaxed from cops her father invited in. Antique dolls on a bed upstairs terrified her. When her head first brushed the crystal ball hanging from the chandelier in her father’s bedroom, she knew she had grown.
This, until they split in 1980, was the home of Gainsbourg and Birkin, Charlotte’s parents, whose erotic lovemaking duet “Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus” was a groundbreaking hit in 1969. It was banned in Britain and Italy, and Gainsbourg attributed its success to the Vatican, which called the song “obscene.” An earlier recording with another of Gainsbourg’s loves, Brigitte Bardot, was played once on French radio before Bardot’s then husband, Gunter Sachs, threatened a law suit. It was finally released in 1986.
If the song was explicit, it also bore the imprint of Gainsbourg’s lyricism. “You are the wave, me the naked island,” Birkin murmurs.
Gainsbourg was a bard who never shied away from the Eros and violence that, through melancholy eyes, he saw at the heart of life, and serenaded with what the French newspaper Le Monde once called “an imperious languor.” A haunted troublemaker who drank and smoked his way to an early death, he trod a fine line between provocation and outright taboo, offering a relentless invitation to confront hypocrisies.
“To be an artist you need a lot of sincerity, which comes at a very high price,” Gainsbourg said toward the end of his life.
“I can’t imagine my father surviving our current times,” Ms. Gainsbourg said. “Perhaps he would have adapted. But our culture is scary. Everything is calculated, pondered, and you run the risk of being canceled at any moment and no long being able to express yourself. That is what is frightening for an artist.”
As it happened, I moved to the Rue de Verneuil, where Gainsbourg lived, in the summer of 1991, a few months after his death, for my first tour as a Paris correspondent. I watched in some wonder as adoring declarations (interspersed here and there with antisemitic bile) formed a canvas of graffiti across the length of his home.
Soon the Gainsbourg spell had me. I listened to the songs, filled with dark irony and fatalism, that had made him such a disruptive force in French society over the preceding decades.
He was the haggard minstrel of shameless lovemaking attuned to the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. He was the subversive with a permanent stubble, hated by French conservatives for daring, in 1979, to turn La Marseillaise, the national anthem, into a reggae hit, “Aux Armes Et Caetera.” Paramilitary veterans forced Gainsbourg to cancel a concert in Strasbourg in 1980, a foretaste of the rise of the French extreme right.
He was the Jew who in “Yellow Star,” from the 1975 album “Rock Around the Bunker,” mocks his executioner-inflicted badge as a prize (“I’ve won the Yellow Star”), or perhaps a sheriff’s emblem, before concluding: “Difficult for a Jew, the law of struggle for life.” He was the outsider with an uncanny eye and level gravelly delivery; as another outsider, I had much to learn.
A single song, “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas” (or the ticket-puncher at the Porte des Lilas Metro station), released in 1958, propelled Gainsbourg to fame. Described by the writer Boris Vian as “the essence itself of musical and lyrical art,” it evokes the desperate life of the “man you meet but don’t look at” in a place where there is no sun. He makes “holes, little holes, always little holes, holes for second class, holes for first class,” and dreams at last of holding a gun to “make myself a little hole” that will land him forever in a big one.
A life of struggle, and sometimes a fight for survival itself, was the world that Gainsbourg first knew with his immigrant parents. He would never forget it. In myriad genres — rock, reggae, Afro-Cuban, pop, funk — he went on to explore themes of love and loss, often with deadpan humor. He in turn influenced countless musicians, from hip-hop to indie.
Ms. Gainsbourg told me she was long overwhelmed by her father’s legacy and the question of what to do with his house. She thought about enlarging it in 2008 with the help of the architect Jean Nouvel, but the project was expensive and she retreated. In some ways doing anything was still “unbearable.” Then, in 2013, her half sister, Kate Barry, Birkin’s daughter from an earlier relationship, died in a fall from her 4th-floor Paris apartment. Ms. Gainsbourg fled to New York.
Only now has Ms. Gainsbourg felt ready to open the house and the museum, which contains letters, school reports and a wide range of mementos from her father’s life — even if she is still in mourning for her mother, who died in July.
“I know that she is very happy I did this, even if perhaps she no longer felt at home here,” Ms. Gainsbourg said of Birkin, who continued to work closely with her father even after their separation.
Her mother always pushed her to become an artist, Ms. Gainsbourg said. When she was 12, she recorded “Lemon Incest” with her father at a studio in New York. “The love we will never make together is the most beautiful, the most violent, the purest, the most dizzying,” she sings in a high-pitched, tremulous whisper.
A video accompanying the song, a melody from Chopin with a disco beat, showed father and daughter on a wide bed, he shirtless in jeans, she in a shirt and underwear.
“It took me 20 minutes to record and I sang as well as I could because I knew it was his declaration of love,” she told me. “The most important thing is that I say this is the love we will never make together.”
I asked if it would be possible to record today. “Probably not: It would be seen as shameful disrespect to people who have suffered incest. Certainly, but that does not change the fact I am very proud the song exists, and that I sang it. I was always respected by my father. Are we going to condemn Nabokov, or any art that shocks?”
In the cluttered house, cigarette butts are piled in an ashtray. They made me think of Gainsbourg’s “God Smokes Havanas,” recorded in 1980 with Catherine Deneuve.
In it, Gainsbourg sings (in an inadequate translation of the beautiful French):