In my annotations and commentaries, I generally refer to the speaker of the song as “Serge” for songs dating from the beginning of Gainsbourg’s career up to Mauvaises Nouvelles des Étoiles — and then from that point onward, I generally call the speaker “Gainsbarre.”
This is partly for convenience — it’s annoying to write “the speaker” again and again — also partly because I think that’s how Gainsbourg himself would have thought of the speakers of his song. It was never “him” speaking — it was always some character he had created for himself. He called this personas “Serge Gainsbourg” and “Gainsbarre” as personas. And so will I.
Gainsbourg, personae, and masks
The historical human being who wrote the songs I’m talking on this website was born Lucien Ginsburg (sometimes spelled Ginzburg). From that point onward, every stage of his development as an artist involved developing new personae — shedding his literal identity, crafting characters through which to voice his authorial self. Although he signed his paintings in his own name, when we became a singer and songwriter, he adopted a variety of alter egos. First, it was Julien Grix. Then it was Serge Gainsbourg. Then it was Gainsbarre.
Gainsbourg (as I will refer to the “historical person” who wrote the songs, even if he was born Ginsburg) was very consciously aware of what he was up to in crafting these personae. In an interview he gave in the late 80s, he said
C’est une défense de mettre un masque. Moi je crois que j’ai mis un masque et que je le porte depuis vingt ans, je n’arrive plus à le retirer, il me colle à la peau. Devant, il y a toute la mascarade de la vie et derrière, il y a un nègre : c’est moi.
Putting on a mask is a defensive act. I put on a mask, and I’ve been wearing it for twenty years. In fact, I can no longer remove it: it sticks to my skin. Out in front, there the whole mascarade of living; behind, there’s a ghostwriter — that’s me.
The public persona was never “me” for Gainsbourg: it was something he invented, as a protective measure, and also as a way of bolstering the confidence to stand in front of an audience (he suffered from horrible stage fright throughout his life).
But, as he says, there came a point at which he could no longer remove the mask. It stuck to his skin. Sure, Lucien Ginsburg was maybe still in there, somewhere. But he had become inaccessible.
No wonder Gainsbourg was obsessed with the Jekyll/Hyde theme. And no wonder his (brilliant) version of the story (“Docteur Jekyll et monsieur Hyde”) has Jekyll narrating the song, trapped within Hyde — the public face that everybody loves, while no one has time for poor, boring Jekyll.
Docteur Jekyll un jour a compris
Que c’est ce Monsieur Hyde qu’on aimait en lui
Mister Hyde ce salaud
A fait la peau du
One day Dr Jekyll finally realized
That Mr Hyde was the only thing anyone liked about him.
Mister Hyde, that son of a bitch,
The singing stage name/persona “Serge Gainsbourg” is closer to Lucien Ginsburg than is the later creation “Gainsbarre” — but he’s still obviously a persona, a character, a fictional dramatic container. Like Lucien, he’s smart, he’s well-read, he’s gloomy, he’s got a dark sense of humour. But “Serge” is less idealistic, less romantic, less sensitive, less vulnerable than Lucien — he’s more confident, more assertive, more of a troublemaker, a troubler of taboos, more coolly don’t-give-a-fuck.
“Gainsbarre” is a straight-up asshole. It’s no accident that Lucien introduced this persona to the world in a song called “Ecce Homo,” the title of a book by Nietzsche. Gainsbarre is beyond good and evil, utterly undisturbed by any code of morality, eagerly anxious to tramp all over it. He’s a no-holds-barred dirty old man, who will say anything, do anything, do get a reaction. He’s the one who burned the 500 franc note on live TV and told Whitney Houston he wanted to fuck her.
Which do I prefer?
Of the two, my heart is all with Serge. He can be a dick, but you can see that his dickishness is masking some deep inner turmoil — and he’s also funny and clever.
For me, Gainsbarre is just sad and boring. Frankly I’m a little horrified by the prospect of translating his songs. They’ll be the last ones I get to, I’m sure.