You find celebrities all over your phone, computer or iPod. But it’s usually your own family, not somebody else’s, that gets tucked away and preserved in embarrassing photo books.
Jane & Serge: A Family Album, by Andrew Birkin, hopes you will give its celebrity subjects, Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, the kind of special treatment usually reserved for family.
What makes this likely? Gainsbourg is the best-known French singer on this side of the Atlantic.
In the early- and mid-’60s, Gainsbourg sang pretty songs with inflections from traditional French music, jazz, bossa nova, Ye-Ye pop (he wrote songs for many of the Ye-Ye girls, including France Gall and Brigitte Bardot) and rock. An omnivorous appetite for assimilation fueled his work. In 1964, he recorded Gainsbourg Percussions, an album that pulled in rhythmic beds from Latin and African music…many years before the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light or Paul Simon’s Graceland.
In the late ‘60s, Gainsbourg became more experimental. The title track of 1968’s album Bonnie And Clyde shows the singer trading verses, almost rapping, with Brigitte Bardot over a thunderous string arrangement. In 1971, he released Histoire de Melody Nelson, a steamy, tightly unified album of highly orchestrated sensual funk. (This came out around the same time Al Green and Isaac Hayes perfected their sultry come-ons; American listeners may be familiar with songs from Melody Nelson through the rap group De La Soul, who used the album for samples.) Feeling restless in 1979, Gainsbourg recorded an album with reggae royalty Sly & Robbie. Again, the Frenchman proved ahead of the curve—a number of famous American and English musicians later made this same move.
Many know another reason Gainsbourg made it to America—sex, always helpful for generating controversy.
He sang about lust in explicit terms, and even if you don’t speak a word of French, his tones oozed carnality (as did the cover of Histoire de Melody Nelson, which featured a half-naked muse looking distinctly under-aged). Several years before Let’s Get It On, Marvin Gaye’s first ode to sexual pleasures, Gainsbourg recorded a duet, “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” that got banned by BBC and the pope. (It contained heavy breathing.)
According to another book, Ye-Ye Girls of ‘60s French Pop, the Vatican found the song so shocking that banning it didn’t send enough of a message. Catholic leaders briskly “excommunicated the A&R man responsible for having imported the song into Italy.” In England, the only thing to stop “Je t’aime… moi non plus” from grabbing the top spot on the charts was…Creedence Clearwater Revival. “Bad Moon Rising” saw “trouble on the way,” but held on at number one.
Gainsbourg’s duet partner for the released version of “Je t’aime… moi non plus” was Jane Birkin, an English actress and singer who linked up with him, musically and romantically, in the late ‘60s. (Gainsbourg originally wrote the tune with Bardot in mind.) When not attracting the ire of the pope, Birkin recorded two interesting albums around this time that merged her distinctive singing with Gainsbourg’s favorite pop production.
Jane & Serge: A Family Album shows a different side of the couple known for recording their erotic breathing. We find little sex, and only the babies running through the pages suggest that intimate things might once have happened.
Music doesn’t show up much either. In one shot, Gainsbourg makes funny faces at a piano—the man clearly possesses a knack for performance—and we see occasional glimpses of microphones, stages or sheet music. But intrusions from the outside world feel rare. Readers see Gainsbourg hold up a Sunday paper that apparently quotes him saying to Jane, “You are not my wife, darling—I love my liberty too much!”
He seems untroubled. For all we know, she seems untroubled too.
The photos largely serve to humanize the couple, to bring them down from their exalted status as sexy, chic stars of music and film from the ultra-stylized ‘60s. We get good, clean family fun, verging on domestic bliss. Gainsbourg usually smokes and often smiles, enjoying champagne and “Marcel Proust cocktail[s].” When Gainsbourg’s having a good time, everyone else seems to follow. In one series, “Serge gets his first taste of English Christmas.” In another, Jane eats toffee apples with great delight in an amusement park.
Eventually, Birkin left Gainsbourg, partially because of his tendency to morph into a violent drunk, but peace reigns here.
At a time when everyone can take pictures easily with phones and find images almost instantaneously with a Google search, it requires more work to establish strong personal connections between stars and people who buy their music or watch their movies.
Books of photographs or coffee table volumes attempt to counteract the ease of access and wealth of information with uniquely pretty pictures and impressive presentation. Jane & Serge, for example, comes with stickers, a poster and reproductions of contact sheets from the original negatives. Deluxe vinyl reissues provide similar pleasures that listeners can’t find in an MP3 version.
We get no text in this book, just 160 unadorned photographs, mainly black and white. In an accompanying pamphlet, we find short captions and an essay by Birkin’s brother, Andrew, the man responsible for taking most of the photographs. Andrew worked as a photographer for the film director Stanley Kubrick. He knows his way around a camera. We get a higher quality picture than in the average family album.
It’s good that he’s a talented photographer, because we have so little backstory, even in Andrew’s essay. The book definitely requires foreknowledge of the couple—without interest in the subjects’ art, these handsome photos lack any context. In a world full of visual stimulation, the family activity of complete strangers doesn’t jump to mind as a first option for entertainment.
Still, you may find comfort in this fact: Famous people visit tourist sights, just like the rest of us.
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today, and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and can be found at signothetimesblog.