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SERGE WEEK: The Origins of Melody

Happy day 2 of Serge Week, celebrating the release of the 87th volume in the 33 1/3 series: Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson.  Author Darran Anderson here with the first of three posts.

Looking back at Histoire de Melody Nelson, it might seem the album just appeared from nowhere and exists as a singular work not just in Gainsbourg’s discography or in French music but in music in general. This would be a mistake. No artist is an island. The beauty of culture, for everyone bar the territorial and the delusional, is that it’s an echo chamber and no work can really exist without ancestors and descendants. Over the next few days, I hope to show the various often-surprising strands of influence that informed Histoire de Melody Nelson, the other often-overlooked innovations of the all too brief Gainsbourg/Vannier partnership and how, in turn, they continue to inspire the music of today and tomorrow.

The Origins of Melody

By Darran Anderson

Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita.

‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.’

We’ll begin with the most substantial and controversial inspiration for Melody Nelson; Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a book more celebrated and condemned than read. Even aside from the sexual taboo of the subject matter, it’s easy to see what attracted Gainsbourg to the novel. It’s a brilliantly-treacherous masterpiece, shot through with a mix of hyper-lucid cynicism. Yet for all its sensational themes, it’s a remarkably subtle and pernicious work. Like Gainsbourg an eternal outsider (and fellow Russian émigré), Nabokov could see through the cant and hypocrisy of society to an extent that makes the book a withering critique of modern tabloid-obsessed thinking, provided we can detach ourselves from that way of thinking when reading it. Yet it’s no satire, as Nabokov insists in the footage above. He’s much too sophisticated and mischievous a writer to create anything didactic. Or to even ‘tell’ the reader anything. It’s a complex novel as much about solipsism, male delusion and the complicity of power as it is about sex. Lolita is manifestly not about Lolita, just as Histoire de Melody Nelson isn’t about Melody Nelson. They are ciphers. The real protagonists are the narrator and the audience. And there is an electricity in the novel’s ambiguities and the extent to which it makes the reader an accomplice, either through empathy or condemnation. You’re never quite sure about Nabokov’s deeper motives. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, ‘He may talk like a pervert, and look like a pervert, but don’t let that fool you: he really is a pervert.’ This would be mirrored in Gainsbourg and Melody Nelson.

Around the time of his Percussions album, Gainsbourg attempted to adapt a poem by the narrator of the book Humbert Humbert to music but Stanley Kubrick had already secured the rights for his film. The song intended would eventually become the track ‘Jane B’, written for his future Melody Nelson muse Jane Birkin (an entire album Lolita Go Home would follow in 1975). Gainsbourg would read Humbert’s poem on French television in 1975 and smuggle Lolita into his songs in various guises (the voyeuristic track ‘Pauvre Lola’ for one). It’s most evident in Histoire de Melody Nelson.

There was a commendable side to Gainsbourg’s intentions, above and beyond shock value. He began his career writing songs that had real weight, songs like ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ that could rank alongside any contemporary novel. He was surrounded however by highly-successful songwriters penning simpering dumbed-down love songs for teenyboppers and being rewarded handsomely for it. He was expected to follow suit. It was like asking Balthus or Duchamp to paint bubblegum cards. It also invited the question, who’s the real cynic? Gainbourg, the industries manufacturing Lolitas or the public who are suitably outraged and simultaneously titillated by it all? I think that’s what really unites Gainsbourg and Nabokov; an intense clarity that recognises all the moral complexities, culpabilities and duplicities at work under the surface and their delight in drawing us in, to become entangled. It’s as Juliette Gréco, for whom he wrote the immortal ‘La Javanaise’, said in Gainsbourg’s defence, “Just because he speaks the truth doesn’t make him a misogynist. There wasn’t a hint of baseness in Serge, but a grand lucidity.”

Barbarella / Marie Mathématique.

Like many outsiders and escapists, Gainsbourg loved comic books, even scripting one called Blackout with Jacques Armand later in his career. One of his favourite strips was Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella , which would become the iconic Jane Fonda, Roger Vadim and Terry Southern film. You can see why the character appealed, not least in terms of the overt and subversive use of sexuality. Gainsbourg came to work with Forest and André Ruellan on a forgotten gem of a cartoon series featuring Barbarella’s niece Marie Mathématique. The show survives in grainy VHS copies and with the demand for Gainsbourg material and interest in retro-futurism (to use a dreadful word) increasing, it could be hoped that a digitally-restored version might emerge from the archives. Though the series would only last six episodes and a touted musical would fail to come to fruition, it’s obvious that Marie was a prototype who eventually morphed, via his Bardot single ‘Contact!’ ( “Help me out of my flight suit, if you please / It’s covered all over with space debris”), into Melody, a space-girl who fell to earth.

Boris Vian.

By Gainsbourg’s admission, there was one figure more than any other who influenced his work and his persona: the ill-fated genius Boris Vian. Like Serge, Vian was a Surrealist born too late, an ultra-romantic in the guise of a bitter cynic. His popularity and well-being were not helped by his wilfully antagonistic nature. He would go out of his way to challenge and alienate the audience and they’d oblige in kind. The generation who would respond to his proto-punk attitude were not yet born let alone grown up. Bar one. “Boris Vian, pale under the spotlight,” Gainsbourg would recall, “spewing forth a series of ultra-aggressive texts before a dumbfounded crowd… it was there I said to myself, I can do something with this minor art.” Though he was too distant to be regarded as his protégé, Gainsbourg was helped immensely by Vian, who wrote several superlative and combative articles in praise of the young songwriter and “against all these phony songs and fake artists.” As early as 1959, Vian declared, “Now I can already envisage a type of fat-headed listener with a big belly full of optimism protesting that all is well, and that this youth of today is full of hatred for all that is beautiful. Haha! Might I permit myself too pose a question; did Gainsbourg invent adultery? Did the word not exist before him? (quite a while before, I dare say).” You can see this attitude permeating Gainsbourg’s own consciousness, “People may give me snide looks… but why shouldn’t a song illustrate something horrible? The Surrealists afforded themselves this luxury in literature. Did Goya try to hide the horror in his paintings?”

“Who’s the real cynic? Gainsbourg, the industries manufacturing Lolitas, or the public who are suitably outraged and simultaneously titillated by it all?”

Sadly, we’ll never know how Vian’s work would have developed or whether the two would work together (Alain Goraguer became arranger to both). Suffering from a weak heart, Vian died at the age of 39, whilst railing against a film version of his book I Spit on Your Graves (“These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” were his last words). The tragic and surreal aspects to Histoire de Melody Nelson owe a great deal to the writer, especially the idea of love as a form of blissful damnation. Gainsbourg was always keen to show that love can be a diabolical thing as well as transcendent and his black humour owes much to his predecessor. Vian’s novel L’Écume des jours (Froth on the Daydream) on that theme is a masterpiece, which I wholeheartedly recommend, in advance of Michel Gondry’s adaptation. Above all, Vian can be seen as having handed on the dubious role of poet laureate of provocation to Gainsbourg. The artist’s role he taught, if you wish to be anything other than a performing monkey, is to question and incite as well perhaps as seduce.

Sibelius – Valse Triste, Op. 44, No. 1.

Freud used to say there were two unconscious forces at work on human beings – a life instinct and a death instinct, which he named after the Greek gods Eros and Thanatos. The Eros side of Gainsbourg is pretty self-explanatory in almost everything he did. The Thanatos side is less apparent and more interesting in certain ways. When he and Jane Birkin first went out, he had musicians serenade her with Sibelius’ Valse Triste. It’s a curious choice given, for all its beauty, it’s a heart-breaking piece of music. Even when falling in love and in the throes of passion, there is this hint in him that it’s all doomed. This follows on in the most haunting track on his album, ‘Valse de Melody’ and it suggest the darkness that Gainsbourg was harbouring beneath the louche and cynical exterior; the childhood days persecuted as a Jew, hiding for his life in the woods, narrowly escaping the Holocaust. Jane Birkin has said that Gainsbourg kept the provocative songs for himself and gave her the sad ones but in Histoire de Melody Nelson he hung onto that minor key which plays a part in some of his best work (‘La Chanson de Prévert’, ‘Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais’ and so on).

Mondo Cane.

“It enters a hundred incredible worlds where the camera has never gone before!” went the tagline. It’s an intriguing occasionally appalling mess of a film and a sort of cinematic missing link between the old tradition of the Cabinet of Curiosities, exploitation anthropology and Vice Magazine. So you have footage of cannibals in Papua New Guinea, Italian monks, Yves Klein, transvestite Gurkhas and Japanese drunkards with shots of dogs mauling each other and cars being crushed in scrapyards and anything else they could find along the way. The scene that interested Gainsbourg was footage of the Cargo Cults of Polynesia who try to trick the sky-gods into sending them aeroplanes full of treasure through elaborate rituals that mix modern technology and ancient beliefs. The whole phenomena shows the distorting effect modernity has on tribal life and customs. Gainsbourg was able to incorporate it to surrealist deus ex machina effect in the conclusion of Melody Nelson and how Melody meets her unlikely but inevitable fate. Jean Claude Vannier has pointed out that Gainsbourg was influenced by the poetry of José-Maria de Heredia in this scene. You get a sense of parallels between Heredia’s ‘The Conquerors’ and the extraordinary lyrics of ‘Cargo Culte’ in terms of a sense of orientalised wonder, promethean ambition and squalid exploitation. It’s proof, if any were needed, that Gainsbourg was a poet and more than that, one in the fine tradition of the poète maudit. He was one of those real artists, who are not hacks or self-help charlatans but who go to places most wouldn’t dare and bring back something exquisite and cursed for the rest of us, while we’re performing our rituals, building our planes from wood, somewhere beneath.

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