Hard-boiled Frog

French cabaret punk Serge Gainsbourg doesn't just romanticize American outlaws on his posthumously re-released "Comic Strip" -- he emulates them.


Sarah Vowell
April 18, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

Last weekend, my local PBS affiliate ran an afternoon of country music
specials, including some "best of" performances from "Austin City Limits." All the jukebox favorites of my hick childhood were trotted out one by one. There was George Jones, looking tired
but sounding heroic, and Willie Nelson, stately playing that old acoustic, its face
rubbed out by years of strumming. And there was Waylon Jennings, same as he ever was, dressed in black, hair dark with grease. His hat -- black, of course -- cast a shadow down his face so that you could only see his eyes every now and then. "I've always been crazy/But it's kept me from going insane," he sang, not with any sweeping macho
swagger, but with a timeless toughness. He'd raise his head occasionally,
into the light, the movement having a kind of dignified rage about it, as if
he had no idea why any of the smiling nice folks in the audience would find
this entertaining. And if you were paying attention, it wasn't. He was a
black hole on stage who sucked in his listeners' enthusiasm like a vacuum
that wouldn't ever give it back. They were all postwar prosperity and
let's-go-to-a-show; he was the Wild West -- cagey, seething and suspicious as
hell.

Still, he was undeniably cool, a film noir antihero plopped down in a shiny fake
farce. And sometimes, when every crisp, coiffed, grinning self-helped jerk
on TV makes me embarrassed of my nationality, I flash on Waylon's shaggy, dour
mug, remember one of his grimy songs and feel refreshed. So what if his
whole outlaw persona has become a hair clichéd? At least it's a cliché with romance and real teeth. And on those days when the world seems filled with gutless saps,
I don't mind daydreaming about good old-fashioned crime. Because today's
killers ain't got the same style. I'll say this for the bad old days: The
most dashing American outlaws knew how to put on a show. They drove whiz-bang flashy cars, got gunned down spectacularly in front of movie theaters
and took on jazzy names like Pretty Boy Floyd. As Woodie Guthrie sang
about Floyd, "Some kill you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen."
Well, I know which movie I'd rather watch; "Bonnie and Clyde's" a more
thrilling ride than "Wall Street" any day of the week. And as Pauline Kael
wrote of Arthur Penn's Faye Dunaway/Warren Beatty shoot-'em-up, "It was
saying, 'Don't turn your head away, there's something horrible and rapturous
going on.'"

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Serge Gainsbourg, the French cabaret punk who died in 1991, understood the allure of American outlaws as well as anyone. His ballad "Bonnie and
Clyde" -- from the just re-released album of his '60s torch songs, "Comic
Strip" -- is full of suave rubbernecking, repeating the names of serial
killing's cutest couple as a mantra of pizzazz. The story's Americanism is
underlined by his insistence on the English conjunction -- not Bonnie et
Clyde, but Bonnie and. While Gainsbourg's real-life lover Brigitte Bardot,
playing the moll with her French accent, unwittingly makes Parker more cuddly as "Bunny," the
subtly whooping background singers cheer the story on. And
it's one slinky tale, orchestrated with stroking strings to give it the
proper eau de fromage.

Mercury's other Gainsbourg re-releases, "Couleur Cafe" and "Du Jazz
Dans Le Ravin," are pleasingly cheesy in their own right, seductive and
atmospheric if altogether too tongue-in-chic. It's "Comic Strip's"
obsession with the dark side (he calls love "un poison violent") and American
pop (the title song's whizzes and plops sound like an aural Roy Litchtenstein)
that render it harder, more unruly.

Much of "Comic Strip" lives out the confession of France's original
urban cowboy, Jean Genet: "I was hot for crime." The first song,
"Requiem Pour Un Con," elegizes a beloved felon. And the last piece, "Je t'Aime (Moi non Plus),"
meant to be a love song, doesn't just romanticize lawbreaking; it actually was
dirty enough to be banned in Europe when it came out in 1969.
Jane Birken's audio orgasm on "Je t'Aime" apparently offended the Continent, but it's not nearly as scary as the way Gainsbourg performs "Hold Up." When he spits out
the titular words, the Yankee phrase comes out like it's being rapped by a Lou Reed-Bob Dylan hybrid -- a frightening combination if you give it some thought. That's the voice of a serial killer if I ever heard one. One listen to the specter of
Reed-Dylan, and even Waylon Jennings might break a sweat.


Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

MORE FROM Sarah Vowell

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