Relax Baby be Cool - The artistry and audacity of Serge Gainsbourg
There is a palpable sense of the author's disappointment throughout this book. Jeremy Allen has recognised that Serge Gainsbourg is important, that the delicate ego of the French singer resided on an equally delicate shelf of unfulfilled promise and that time and revision and the same need for fabulous icons that faked the story that Jimmy Dean was a great actor has created the genius myth of the current Gainsbourg. But he wants the myth to be reality and so the book tells that extra, eternal story of the disappointed music journalist, quite cynical about the artist's achievements but willing to fight you if you question the artist's genius.
There's great detail here and a rolling soundtrack list of lesser known Gainsbourg productions, both musical and on film which are interesting to explore, even if the descriptions often don't live up to the reality. Musically, Gainsbourg is a double CD of greatest hits plus Melody Nelson, the slightly too late proto-prog concept album on which his reputation relies for the most part and the book also points us towards the oddities, cover versions and mistakes that make up the rest of Gainsbourg's work.
Allen doesn't flinch from the ugly 'Gainsbarre', Gainsbourg's guilt-constructed alter-ego and we read of a deliberately trendy man willing to self-indulge the 1970's zeitgeist of Olly Reed or Kieth Moon style arrogant alcoholism, even if the violence he inflicted on his long suffering muse and love of his life, Jane Birkin is only fairly casually mentioned a couple of times. To be fair, Birkin herself seems strangely forgiving.
There are many descriptions of recording sessions from those involved, who try to explain their and Serge's role whilst writing and recording but only Sly Dunbar gets close to describing what is, ultimately, Gainsbourg's actual genius, which is galvanising motley participants around an original concept and making it happen. Sometimes it's a success, sometimes the results stink, but it's the process that matters. The book makes clear, despite itself, that the egos of the fellow travellers, the arrangers, co-writers, session players, often muddy the truth. I was left with the feeling, however, that Jeremy himself is a little puzzled as to what happens in a recording session, possibly because Gainsbourg's roles crossed neatly defined lines: writer, singer, musician, producer.
In seeking to keep Gainsbourg up on that shelf we read opinions from current international musicians who claim influence or who have covered Gainsbourg's work and I wonder if a similar trick with a book about The Beatles, say, that features Noel Gallagher or Graham Gouldman talking about their fave fab four tune would resonate in the same way. Consequently, sometimes the experience is close to a television retrospective padded with various random talking heads inserted into the documentary footage to give an unneeded contemporary context, giving the impression that a good part of Gainsbourg's story took place subsequent to his death.
If Jeremy Allen can't quite bring himself to be breathlessly in love, equally he doesn't manage a long, cool look. The 'serious' British music critic has long suffered this uncomfortable position, too embarrassed to be a fan, (unless the subject is an almost universally accepted, apparently other-wordly star, like (unfathomably) the Tom Waits tribute act Nick Cave, say) and too much of a fan to be truly dispassionate.
Nevertheless, Relax Baby Be Cool, neither just a fan's account nor a sober, serious evaluation of Serge Gainsbourg, is full of neatly compiled info and is an entertaining read. A sort of extended Record Collector article and well worth buying.