Serge Gainsbourg thinks you’ve got a lot of nerve.

Sometimes Serge Gainsbourg seems better known for his creeptastic, controversy-baiting moves than for his music.

The beautiful melody to “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” is colored by Jane Birkin’s maybe-faked orgasm. He sang a duet with his daughter, Charlotte, but it was a song called “Lemon Incest.” He also wrote “Les Succettes” for a cherubic 14-year old France Gall. The title translates as “The Lollipops,” and it can be read that way, but let’s get real. He made a 14-year-old sing about how much she loves giving blowjobs. I guess it was funny at the time. It makes me squirm a bit now.

There is so much lasciviousness masked as comedic art in Gainsbourg’s career, it’s easy to forget that beyond being an agent provocateur, he was also a legitimate musical genius. His lyrics may make me uncomfortable occasionally— hell, so does reading Lolita, and I don’t conflate Humbert with Nabokov, so where’s my editorial remove here? But these songs are extraordinarily well-crafted and his music is just cool as shit.

Here’s a reminder: “Requiem Pour Un Con,” which, when translated, reveals itself to be the same sort of blistering kiss-off that Dylan made with “Positively 4th Street,” but with stronger language, less sympathy for the target, and fewer biographical details.

And, yeah, it’s pretty clear that the translation linked above is a pretty damn bowlderized version of the original. Well, at least when it comes to translating the title. If you’re going to be precise, the word he uses isn’t “twat.”

There is no way that that thick haze of cigarette smoke did those microphones any favors.

Slick as this video is, it misses my favorite part of the whole song — the nonchalant un, deux, un, deux, trois, with a sudden hand drum stab functioning as quatre. Enjoy its effortless (read: immaculately staged) cool, and wish you could have been there, dressed to the nines.

I can talk about language, controversy-baiting, and 60's French style. But what matters to me are those drums and that angular, absolutely funky guitar line. And that bass line. From the moment it kicks in, I’m taken to a space outside of time, occupied by that and the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” I’m not sure when or where it belongs; I don’t know of a time or place in the real world with that much style or nerve, but maybe we just haven’t gotten there yet.

Once we do get there, maybe we won’t actually need to provoke people so badly, or we’ll at least take provocation with more grace and humor than we do now.


An earlier version of this piece appeared at letsrot.com on November 3, 2014.