Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.
Next up: Darran Anderson, rare bird: An academic Irish Francophile with three poetry collections under his belt, he is hard at work not only on his forthcoming 33 1/3 book about Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, but also two other books (about Jack Kerouac and Cambodia, respectively). How an Irish poet becomes obsessed with a French musician, the discovery of great art through album covers, and more, below.
What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
Darran Anderson: Growing up, everyone knew ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ and Gainsbourg always seemed to be on the edge of the radar. I’d mistakenly assumed he made soundtracks for porno films, which he might’ve taken as a compliment, so I didn’t investigate further initially. When I was a teenager, my girlfriend at the time was really into French culture–Le Grand Meaulnes, that sort of thing. I ended up getting into a lot of amazing stuff through her: Camus, Nin, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Satie, Debussy.
One weekend, she insisted we go see La Haine in this tiny local cinema that was falling to pieces and was run by a very old man, who I’m pretty certain was a ghost. It was during the Troubles and, at the time, our hometown was so grim it made Endgame look like Studio 54, but this was the one place you could go to remind yourself there was life out there somewhere. After watching La Haine and being blown away by it, I started listening to French hip-hop and eventually chanced upon the track ‘Nouveau Western’ by MC Solaar. The music wasn’t like anything I’d heard before in hip-hop or anywhere else. It had this hypnotic orchestral loop with a strange vocal sound, almost like a war whoop or a mating call. I started playing it a lot when we were drinking and someone just casually said, “Oh that’s Gainsbourg,” and it turned out it’s a sample of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. I was living in Belfast by this stage and we’d go to these nights called Skibunny, and David Holmes would DJ on occasion. He brought out this incredible track called ‘Don’t Die Just Yet’, which was a remake of Gainsbourg’s song ‘Cargo Culte’ from Histoire de Melody Nelson. So it took a while to dawn on me that it was the same guy behind all this. When it finally did, it was one of those great moments when you discover not just an artist, but a whole world you’ll spend years exploring.
The problem back then was his albums were pretty hard to get a hold of, but you’d dig through crates and find songs on mixtapes and every single time I’d just be in disbelief looking at the date they were made and how far ahead of their time they were, 30 or 40 years [before it was popular sound, there were] these mad trip-hop tracks and drum breaks, songs like ‘Requiem pour un con’ or ‘La Horse’. Even a relatively well-known song like ‘Initials BB’ is ridiculously innovative. It samples Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 years before samplers were available. The guy was using orchestras to sample composers. It bends your bones thinking about it.
Once it had clicked, I kept hearing his influence in contemporary music at that time and amongst very disparate groups–Portishead, Stereolab, Arab Strap. You’d listen to Air’s Moon Safari and hear echoes of ’69 Année érotique or ‘Variations Sur Marilou’. Or listen to Pulp songs like ‘I Spy’ or ‘This is Hardcore’ and hear his influence in terms of the spoken word form, the subject matter (a delight in the dark side of love and sex) and an atmosphere you could lose yourself in. A few years passed and I was clinging melodramatically to Beck’s breakup album Sea Change after some personal shipwreck, thinking laughably, ‘Beck knows what I’m going through.’ And there was Gainsbourg again, in the shadows, laughing at us both; the song ‘Paper Tiger’ sounding like an outtake from Melody Nelson.
I started mentioning the album to friends assuming that I’d been the last to find out about it and was surprised to discover it was relatively unheard of. I think it might even have been out of print then, which says something about the neglect it had fallen into. You’d put his music on and, without fail, someone would sit up and ask, “Who the hell is that?” The French knew of course, but outside of the country there was a sort of, if not Francophobia, then an Anglocentric tendency that prevented people from properly delving into his work. You see this still in the British press, which is fairly philistine even in the broadsheets. If they bother to do an article on Gainsbourg, it’s invariably some risible list of his ‘ten most outrageous moments’, remembering him disproportionately as a washed-up drunk on talk-shows rather than as an immensely-talented songwriter and musical pioneer. Or else you get some almost orientalist analogy, as if the reader is incapable of comprehending a foreign artist as an individual. So Gainsbourg isn’t Gainsbourg, he’s ‘the French John Lennon’ or the ‘Gallic David Bowie’. Or worse, an inane combination (‘a cross between Dalí, Jacques Brel and Benny Hill’) that would make someone of Gandhi’s patience froth at the gob with violent rage. This is something I want to change.
Thanks to reissues, word of mouth, bloggers and covers by groups like Beirut and Arcade Fire, there’s a considerable Gainsbourg cult built up, especially around this album, but it’s not yet large enough to do him justice. At the risk of alienating the potential readership, is it fair to leave him in the hands of hipsters with ironic moustaches and five haircuts on one head? So if I can evangelise on his behalf, great. And aside from a love of the album (which can be watched/listened to in full here), there’s his life. It’s not every day you get to write a true story involving Nazis, the world’s most beautiful women, and a man with a cabbage for a head.
Who will you be reaching out to during the writing process? Why?
DA: As it’s still on-going, I don’t want to be impolite and say too much about who I’ve been speaking to, other than to say I’ve been talking to artists who’ve been influenced by Gainsbourg and those he made the album with. I don’t think Jean-Claude Vannier or Jane Birkin have got sufficient credit for their contributions and talents, which is something I’m hoping to rectify. If I may mention one name though, Momus has been particularly helpful and insightful. He’d hate me saying this but he’s a genius, who should have a 33 1/3 book in his own right.
Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another?
DA: The book has its roots in a short piece I wrote in 2006 for Dogmatika, a literary website that was run by the very talented and knowledgeable Susan Tomaselli. I’d just discovered Fantômas, the arch-villain of French pulp, and I thought it was peculiar and interesting how he’d become a sort of national hero whilst also being entirely diabolical. It was difficult to imagine a character with a lack of any redeeming qualities becoming an idol anywhere but France (I mean that in the most complimentary way possible). It occurred to me that Gainsbourg had similar subversive characteristics. He was loved for his badness essentially and the charisma and extravagance with which he did it. They’d made an icon out of an iconoclast. I think it strikes a deep chord with the French, to make a ludicrously sweeping statement, because of their understanding of liberty. That free speech isn’t just the power to offend; it demands the power to offend by existing. And Gainsbourg was an extraordinary, and genuine I think, example of that. As he said, “For me, provocation is oxygen.”
The internet really doesn’t need another writer writing about writing so I won’t go too far into the mechanics of the process. The only wavering point I had was whether to write the book thematically or chronologically. I ended up going with a mixture of both. I’ve tried to keep the word ‘I’ out of it as much as possible. I’ve also tried to keep in mind how biography is an inherently flawed medium and not get too carried away with one interpretation of Gainsbourg and his music above others. Walt Whitman wrote about people containing multitudes, which is a view I subscribe to, so it made sense to take a more multi-angled approach. Sometimes there’s more truth in a Cubist portrait than a hyperrealist one.
What do you want to explore about this band/singer/artist that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
DA: Gainsbourg has had some excellent biographies (Sylvie Simmons’ A Fistful of Gitanes springs to mind, for example) and you could argue he was, like his hero Oscar Wilde, his own biographer, turning life quite consciously into art. I think there have been two things lacking in studies of Gainsbourg outside France. The first is an in-depth academic but accessible analysis of his music and lyrics, the second is a broader study of the various strands of culture to which he belonged, looking at the poète maudits, Dada, Surrealism and Pop Art. It’s been said of William S. Burroughs that he took ideas that fuelled conceptual art and incorporated them into fiction, which was fifty years ahead. I think Gainsbourg did the same in pop music, smuggling in pretty sophisticated ideas into what was seen, even by him, as a dumb disposable medium; unreliable narrators, Freudian plays on words, wilful transgression. He was closer, in ways, to Baudelaire or Breton than Bacharach. It’s worth remembering he began as a painter and I don’t think he ever lost that, even when he set fire to his canvases and vowed never to paint again. He remained an artist and an extremely clever one at that.
What 33 1/3s have you read? Which are your favourites? Why?
DA: I’ve just finished one – Jonathan Lethem’s take on Talking Head’s Fear of Music. Lethem’s fiction and essays make me sick to my stomach they’re so good. The guy’s heavyweight without being pompous which is a rare thing in contemporary writing. I love his work. I was a bit apprehensive though partly because Fear of Music’s one of my favourite albums and partly because I’d read that he’d taken a more personal interpretation of the album as his basis. Before reading it I thought, I’m not going to take that route under the misapprehension that ‘I’m not that narcissistic.’ And of course his book turns out to be brilliant and I realise I am that narcissistic and a coward to boot. But then Serge has a story infinitely more interesting than one I could dream up.
Another book I really liked in the series was Kim Cooper’s one on Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Somehow, she managed to write a book that not only didn’t detract from the magic and mystery of the album but actually added to it. That’s what I’m aiming for, with a bit of luck.
What was your first concert?
DA: It was a one-day festival in Dublin. My uncle took me and my cousin. I was 12. The first act I saw was Frank Black. The Pixies had just split up. He was great but I don’t think I fully appreciated it at the time. I was too young to realise that a bald guy screaming about UFO’s, Andalusian dogs, and Fred Flintstone in Spanish was a very very good thing. The place itself was a disaster zone. I remember thinking how off their faces everyone seemed and how everything seemed to be falling apart. There were skinheads pushing over portable toilets with people inside them. The gyres were widening, the falcon couldn’t hear the falconer, all that stuff. It was great.
How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? And could you tell us why?
DA: I spent my teenage years hanging around record stores, listening to tiresome bores trying to out-do one another, “Oh you haven’t heard Miles Davis until you’ve played it on a vintage gramophone with quadraphonic speakers in a bathysphere on the ocean floor.” Even then it struck me as fairly idiotic; it’s the music that’s important, the rest is nonsense. So I listen to whatever I have to hand and try not to fetishise [the format] or imagine it was better in the past.
Saying that, there are some albums that seem slightly wasted without a record sleeve, for the cover art. An album like Unknown Pleasures needs to be big. It’s no good seeing electromagnetic pulses from a dying star on a jpeg the size of a postage stamp. These were pretty much the only examples of art you could own yourself when you were young and poor, which was amazing in itself. It was yours. And it led you to other things. It was your way into art movements. I remember discovering Jackson Pollock through Stone Roses’ covers, Georges Méliès through Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. You could find Situationsim and Dada through punk sleeves, outsider art through Talking Heads or R.E.M., surrealism through Pink Floyd. I fell in love with Maya Deren, who’d died 20 years before I was born, because a still from Meshes of the Afternoon was used as the cover for the Primal Scream single, ‘Crystal Crescent’. I remember kind of finding out about sex and the Santería cult from the cover of Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual. The quotes on the Manic Street Preacher’s Generation Terrorists’ sleeve were an education – Marinetti, Nietzsche, Plath and so on. You went and investigated these figures and it changed your outlook on everything.
Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
DA: ‘Je ne sais pas ce que je te ferai.’ It sounds wonderfully poetic in French, not so much in translation, which is roughly, in this context, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do (to you).’ It comes as the last line in ’Ah Melody’, which is a deceptively exquisite-sounding love song at first listen. Being Gainsbourg, there’s a twist and that line is a good example of his talent for subversion. Is it an example of obsessive love, a desperate cry for help, a pathological threat or all three at the same time? Gainsbourg had, uniquely for the time, a great skill in playing with the culpability of the audience, suggesting these darker subtexts constantly but in a way that it was our own imaginations doing the dirty work for him. I’ve had conversations with friends who’ve taken him at face value as some sort of pervert and the Lolita myth, which Melody Nelson explores, as exploitative voyeurism. It’s an interesting point of a view but a pretty one-dimensional way of looking at it. You might as well condemn Nabokov for writing the book the album was, originally, based on. And in doing so, you’re also falling into Gainsbourg’s trap. He was well aware of what he was doing, in terms of playing the audience and the censor; of making an accomplice of the former and an adversary of the latter. Both had their uses.
Next time: Anwyn Crawford on Hole’s Live Through This. Stay tuned.