Birkin/Gainsbourg: The Symphonique With Jane Birkin And Wordless Music Orchestra At Carnegie Hall, Thursday, February 1st, 2018
Over here in the States women are in a bewildering place, caught by a bizarre alliance of the Religious Right and a political movement filled with Andrea Dworkins, into that rift comes the late agent provocateur from a country which takes a fuck load to get provoked about, France’s Serge Gainsbourg. One part con, one part con man, the always compelling son of a classically trained pianist Joseph Ginsbourg, the Jewish Serge and his twin sister had to escape Paris with false papers during the Nazi Occupation or face concentration camps and death, so when you listen to 1975’s Rock Around The Bunker, you might be well advised to leave your moral indignation for Lemon Incest.
Lemon Incest was an album of the real love that dare not speak its name, featuring his then thirteen year old daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg. I am a huge Charlotte fan (I wrote this about her performance at Hiro Ballroom nearly exactly seven years ago: “Completely beautiful, completely commanding, she was excellent and then some with a small but very strong back up band she played for over an hour and when she said “I don’t want to leave you” at the end I believed her”) and there she was looking radiant before the performance at Carnegie Hall, barely three steps away. I thought of going over and telling Charlotte how wonderful her new album, Rest is, but Rest, informed by the suicide of her half sister photographer Kate Barry (yes, that John Barry was her father), isn’t wonderful, it is good but not a pop moment manner the way IRM was. Plus, hassling celebrities at concerts is the definition of naff, so I just shook my head and continued arguing with a fathead a couple of seats after me.
It is Charlotte and Kate’s mom that we are at Carnegie Hall to applaud, the legendary singer, actor, and model, Jane Birkin. The astoundingly gorgeous garcon manque stopped everything for two years after the loss of her daughter in 2013. And when Birkin decided to return she hooked up with pianist Nobuyuki Nakajima, the musical director of Jane Birkin sings Serge Gainsbourg “Via Japan” tour, who wrote the classically charged arrangements of “The Symphonic,” to return Serge to the place where he learnt music from his father. It is a late trip to the center of the Gainsbourg, or at least a part, of the catalog, of the past through a lens deepening pop art into fine art.
It’s all a little bit of an over reach, but since it is Birkin’s history to overreach towards, and since Birkin is a sublime interpreter of the self-reflected world of songs like “Ballade De Johnny Jane” and “Baby Alone In Babylone” it would be the essence of sophistication to whinge about it. Birkin, who is 71 years old, entered to the strains of “L’Anamour,” defined timeless beauty. Dressed like a fashion plate Charlie Chaplin, she tugged her hair and smiled constantly, a wide smile for the audience and for the Wordless Music Orchestra (not unlike Chuck Berry, they pick up orchestras wherever they go on this 150 stop tour), and gracefulness for all.
I feel about Gainsbourg much the way I feel about Dostoyevsky, admiration rather than love. With obvious exceptions, “Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus,” “Bonnie And Clyde,” the aforementioned Rock Around The Bunker, the discofied “Goodbye Emmanuelle,” the entire Histoire De Melody Nelson, I feel he is messing with me. And if that sounds like a lot of exceptions, the man wrote over 500 songs between bouts with cigarettes, alcohol, and women. But I could be wrong and the most provocative thing about Jane on Wednesday night was how open hearted it was. My French kinda died in high school so in any given song I’ll recognize a dozen words, and never in order, and I am left to tone to discover how emotionally rich Jane’s interpretations are. The orchestra can’t hit a groove, they can’t do rock, they can’t do dance, neither folk, nor Reggae, nor ye ye for that matter, but they can do what is needed more than anything, French pop. You could imagine the Wordless Music Orchestra supporting Francoise Hardy, or Charles Aznavour, they cushion Birkin’s light but heartfelt vocals, on animated novelty like the late in the evening “La Gadoue,” and the early in the proceedings deep balladeering of “Lost Song” on an album I should have included in favorites, the sublime Baby Alone In Babylone (I just bought a copy on CD via Japan) . “Lost Song,” which wells from tears and strings to Birkin’s piercing and quiet but very attuned singing, was a show stopper.
Birkin’s gifted singing becomes clearer when Rufus Wainwright (who is to his mom what Charlotte is to Jane), joined her for two songs, including “Un Petit Reins,” which Rufus, a top apparently, steamrolls through savoring lines like “It is better to think of nothing than to think not at all,” an aphorism for the ages, while Jane beams and yet maintains her credibility. When the song calls for it Birkin understands how to sell it; on “Jane B,” Jane B loses the groove of the original but her singing is much better, and, given its Chopin pedigree, makes tremendous sense here.
“Birkin/Gainsbourg: The Symphonique” is in the process of travelling round the world and I get the feeling that Birkin is getting more comfortable in the role (of Jane, the manque with credibility). There is a certain lack of strain in her performance, however deep she goes into Serge’s music she comes out on top. The suggestion is, as Jane quoted Serge as claiming in a song, that she was an amiable little idiot, but except for her visage none of that remains. She really is a study in female excellence, a skill of hiding before flowering in plain sight. In the quarter century since Gainsbourg died, Jane has figured out how hard to pull on the wordplay, dodgy sentiments, bizarre subject matter, and amours de fou (lost in translation, of course: in Hong Kong they translated some of the songs into English on the playbill, the entire enterprise began with Jane reading Serge’s words at a show in Montreal -where they don’t need translations, of course), and she sings and performs them with an effortless good humor and intelligence.
Unfortunately, there is a sense of covering up what doesn’t need to be covered up, get past the lyric and all those Gainsbourg songs are beautiful compositions, protean to a large degree aND you can hear why he is a legend, really everywhere you look. A coupla years ago alt pop stars like Beck and Jarvis Cocker were coming to terms with the great man though they felt a little joyless in the proceedings. To listen to Serge’s original versions is to hear an act of self-discovery and fearlessness. I mean, if you can shock the French…
Disappointments? I see no reason why a seventy-one year old woman wouldn’t be comfortable faking an orgasm on stage, at least I see no reason why Jane would be. This is a woman who portrayed Serge’s ex Brigitte Bardot’s lover in a movie in 1973, what the hell difference would a little huffing and puffing make? Time has been exceedingly kind to “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus”. Next, a little context would be fine, yes, we all know the story by now, but really, Jane is in the process of translating her diaries into French from English; I bet it brings back a lot of memories, share some. Musically, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Birkin is still a charming, timeless elf, she still brings desire, protection, and admiration out in her audience. The songs were OK when they soared and were more than OK when it was quieter.
Once this tour is over I have two recommendations for Jane:
1 – take one of her albums out on the road with a small jazz rock band -play clubs, I’d love to see her at The Blue Note.
2 – write (or co-write) her own material
Finally, in this bizarre and scary moment in US history, we look back at Gainsbourg and Birkin, the man and his muse who in 2018 have now become the woman and her muse. She reminds us what Serge instinctively understood, the more you regulate human behavior, the less freedom for all, and the more likely totalitarianism till the Nazis are occupying Paris and a twelve year old Gainsbourg is running for his life.