2012 has thus far proven to be marginally better than the Mayans predicted. My company, Paizo Publishing, continues to kick ass with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, maintaining the number one sales spot for the entire year and winning a prestigious award for “Best Publisher” at the annual Gen Con Game Fair. All that financial success and fan support has led to more accolades and a better standard of living for myself and my employees, but it’s also spawned a ton of new work and new challenges. I tend to thrive in this environment, but it also has an addictive element to it that can erase and more or less destroy the parts of life not directly tied up with business. I’ve read fewer than 12 books this year, many of my friendships and personal relationships have atrophied beyond repair, and I don’t get as much sleep as I should or need to. I’ve written one chapter of a novel I laughingly told my editor I thought I could finish by June. For the tenth consecutive year I’ve been able to start the year saying “I cannot imagine being busier than I am right now,” and end the year much, much, much busier than that.
And as much as that sounds like bitching, I’m thrilled to be where I am career-wise. I love my job and the people I work with, and if I could have it any other way, I’m not sure I would. This is the life that I’ve chosen, and I’m living it well, even if at a not insubstantial cost to whatever remains of my personal life. My girlfriend, Danica, and my pug, Ptolemy, keep me as sane as possible. Both are cute, loyal, and fun, and only one of them occasionally pisses on the apartment floor.
Somehow, although so much has changed for me in the last seven years, I’ve always managed to hold tight to one holiday tradition (no doubt made easier by a self-enforced personal exile away from work to the ancestral homeland of Edina, Minnesota to visit immediate family). I speak, of course, of the annual Serge Gainsbourg Christmas Gift here on my blog.
I don’t know most of you personally. I don’t have enough cash to get you each something awesome (or even something that kind of sucks), but I feel it’s my solemn duty to pay back some of the support readers have given me, either by buying products I’ve written or published or simply be checking out my blog, following my Facebook fan page, or just self-Googling a name eerily similar to mine (hi!). And the best way I’ve found to do that, nay, the only way I’ve found to do that, is through the gift of music.
I am an audiophile. I love all sorts of music, the quirkier the better. I love old music, new music, sad music, fun music, you name it. Mostly, I love the weird stuff, the clever stuff, the obscure stuff most of you have probably never heard of. I’m the guy at the karaoke party flipping through the mainstream song book and finding exactly nothing I know well enough to perform, even though my iTunes is crammed with 10,000 songs. My taste is, very likely, not your taste. But it is pretty well refined, and a lot of it centers on Serge Gainsbourg.
Due to obsessive listening to 60s Ye-Ye music, my high school French is getting a bit better, and I find myself “accidentally” understanding lyrics in beloved French songs more and more with each passing year. One of these days I’ll take a class to encourage the language to click back for real, but for now I’m content to half-ass it and double-check lyrics online when I can’t figure them out via the headphones. You see, I love French music most of all, and when you talk about French music, you’re going to be spending a lot of time talking about Serge Gainsbourg.
I discovered Gainsbourg about ten years ago thanks to UK producer Andy Votel, whose Finders Keepers label is probably my favorite purveyor of weird music in the universe. I was impressed by Votel’s psych-folk compilation Folk is Not a Four Letter Word, an absolutely essential cornerstone of any musical journey into the weird. Back in the day (when the label itself had only a half-dozen releases under their hood), they had an “A to Z” of great off-beat music, much of it discovered crate diving in old record shops. Gainsbourg was much more popular than most of the gone-and-forgotten folkies and rockers on that list (the man is a national treasure in France, and is probably one of the best-known French celebrities in America, if only because he fucked Brigitte Bardot, the actual best-known French celebrity in America), but his influence on the kind of music I like is so epic that he was all over that list of recommendations. I immediately placed an order for his opus, “Histoire de Melody Nelson,” as well as the Votel-suggested “Je T’Aime…Mon Non Plus” (“I love you, me neither”), which is named after the one song of his that ever charted in the United States, a breathy, over-sexed ode to his young girlfriend, the actress Jane Birkin (and the inspiration for Melody Nelson herself).
Both albums are exceptional, and among my favorites. Melody Nelson speaks for itself. Even if you don’t understand a lick of French, any person who considers him or herself interested in music needs to give it a serious listen, and should probably own a copy. Honestly, this is probably pointless advice, because owning Melody Nelson is a prerequisite for having good taste in music, period. I mean seriously. If the bass-playing on virtually every track of the concept album doesn’t immediately get you tapping your feet and thinking about sex, you likely have bad taste, or perhaps no pulse. In that case, I can’t help you. BUT I WILL PROVIDE ONE MORE LINK.
Ahem. Melody Nelson out of the way, let’s turn our attention this Christmas to the title track on “Je T’Aime,” which I remarkably haven’t ever posted during one of these holiday extravaganzas. If it sounds like Serge and Jane are having sex while singing this song, well, they definitely were, at least in the general sense. Gainsbourg had previously recorded an unreleased version of this song with Bardot, and while the legendarily beautiful actress’s French is far better than Birkin’s, Serge himself didn’t seem that into it, like he was recording the tune for a paycheck. In this version it’s clear it’s for real. As with Whitney Houston, you can definitely tell that he wants to “fuck her.”
From the virtually mainstream, we take a detour into the strange world of “L’Homme a Tete de Chou,” a 1978 concept album that’s probably the most similar to Melody Nelson in all of Gainsbourg’s oeuvre. As in his famous album from earlier in the decade, this one is likewise about an older man falling in love with a young muse after a chance encounter. Only this time, it’s not a plane crash that does in his lover, but, well… ok, so he kills her. Anyway, here’s my favorite track from the album.
Another amazing song from that record is “Ma Lou Marilou”, among Gainsbourg’s first dabbles in reggae. He would go on to record two reggae albums in Jamaica (with Bob Marley’s back-up band, no less), but this was pretty early on in his experimentation. From the video below, you can already see that Serge is starting to let himself go physically. Never a super-handsome man, he originally made up for it with style, panache, and talent that allowed him to bed some of France’s hottest women. But it wouldn’t last forever. Signs of his eventual slide into alcoholism (but never irrelevance!) can be seen here, but hey, cool song.
Speaking of Serge’s reggae turn, here’s probably his most famous tune in the style (complete with backing vocals by Rita Marley). Never one to shy away from controversy, Serge decided to title his reggae album after a “remix” of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. To say people freaked out is an understatement. French veterans were super, super, super pissed off about this, and equated it to blasphemy against the state. Judge for yourself.
Serge was always sniffing out new genres of music. He started with traditional French chanson (think “lounge music”), and then went on to pop, psych, and reggae. Eventually, of course, that means he also dabbled in really, really shitty early 80s proto-rap. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Danica hates this song more than maybe any other in my collection, but it’s probably a testament to my sick love of Gainsbourg that I actually kind of like it, despite the terrible (and I mean TERRIBLE) rapping. Something about that guitar lick really grabs me. That said, this video, featuring a fat, drunk, run-down Serge sitting in an eight-dollar Toyota is, with Melody Nelson, a great bookend on Gainsbourg’s career. Somewhere between the early 70s and the mid-80s, Gainsbourg went from a Rolls Royce and Jane Birkin to sitting alone in this brown piece of shit trawling the streets of New York for some hideous tail. Yeah, this sort of sucks, but many of you have been bad this year, and deserve a lump of coal in your stockings. But again, that guitar lick. Maybe there’s a diamond in that coal after all?
And with that, we’re done for another year. Bon Noel, everyone!