TamTam Books News

Wednesday, September 24, 2003:

It's rare that Serge Gainsbourg's name gets a mention in the American media - so here we have a review from the N.Y. Times of a very recent (and I am sure a wonderful) Jane Birkin concert in New York City.


A Vulnerable Singer's Farewell to a Beloved Troublemaker

Jane Birkin's concerts at Florence Gould Hall of the Alliance Française were both a debut and a farewell. They were the first American performances by an English singer and actress who has been well-known for decades in Europe, particularly in her adopted country, France. And they were Ms. Birkin's farewell to Serge Gainsbourg, who wrote songs for her, was her lover from 1969 to 1981, and died in 1991. He was a singular figure in pop: a gruff, cigarette-loving, troublemaking songwriter and performer whose elegant melodies held lyrics full of romance, cynicism and enigmatic wordplay.

In the United States Ms. Birkin may be best known for appearing nude in the film "Blow-Up" and for her heavy breathing and erotic moans on her 1969 duet single with Gainsbourg, "Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus." But Mr. Gainsbourg wrote dozens of other songs for her piping, fragile voice.

Since the late 1990's Ms. Birkin has toured the world with a program of Gainsbourg songs. "He doesn't need me anymore," she said onstage Friday night. "So perhaps it's just for me." Ms. Birkin and her musical director, the Algerian violinist Djamel Benyelles, have radically reworked the songs, trading the old rock or cabaret arrangements for Middle Eastern inflections. A live album from 2002, "Arabesque" (Narada World/EMI), has just been released here, and Ms. Birkin's concert on Friday night was a reprise of the album preceded by two additional Gainsbourg songs and Zazie's tribute to Gainsbourg, "C'est Comme Ça."

Ms. Birkin presented Gainsbourg not as a provocateur but as a philosophical poet. She brought out his melodic gift and his melancholy side, in songs about the endless mismatches of love and lust, the ravages of time and the sadness that follows bliss. Her small voice was perpetually vulnerable, full of tender resignation. The music was already mournful while Mr. Gainsbourg was alive; now songs like "How to Say Goodbye" double as elegies for their author. Yet in "The Keys to Paradise" — about having them but being unable to find the door — Ms. Birkin danced barefoot across the stage in her bright red dress.

Although French pop has lately discovered the music of France's Arabic and North African minorities, Mr. Benyelles's spacious arrangements rarely sounded gratuitously exotic. Arranged for violin, keyboards (Fred Maggi), oud (Amel Riahi El Mansouri) and hand drum (Aziz Boularoug), the songs linked Gainsbourg's minor-key melodies to Arabic and Gypsy modes and streamlined the music. They helped a very French repertory to greet the wider world.

Ms. Birkin presented herself as a gracious supplicant to Gainsbourg's memory and to her audience. She thanked everyone from taxi drivers to the woman who "got me into this dress, and it wasn't easy." But there was a clear sense of mission behind that delicate voice.

Tosh // 8:48 AM

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