A ’60s love child grows up

Jane Birkin is coming to Tel Aviv to present a far-Eastern musical homage to her former lover, Serge Gainsbourg.

Jane Birkin 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of PR)
Jane Birkin 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of PR)
Considering the fact that Jane Birkin’s first contact with most of the world was her recorded simulation of an orgasm, the rest of her career hasn’t been too much of  a post-coital letdown.
From her genre-defining roles in definitive ’60s love-era films Blowup, Wonderwall and the French film Slogan, to her unlikely worldwide cult hit recorded with actor/singer boyfriend Serge Gainsbourg, “Je t’aime... moi non plus” (“I Love you... Me Neither”), Birkin did her small part to tear down sexual and social barriers of the day and drag the staid establishment kicking and screaming into an era of mini-skirts, unisex haircuts and high boots.
While Twiggy may have been the pinup girl for the “swinging ’60s,” it was the English- born actress and singer Birkin who was the real “it girl” of that turbulent, society-changing decade. When Martin Scorsese wanted an inside view of George Harrison in the mid-1960s for his current documentary Living in a Material World, he went to Birkin, who got to know the moptop when he scored the music for Wonderwall.
But it’s a testament to Birkin’s talent as an actress and a singer that she’s not just known as the original 1960s wild child and lover of Gainsbourg, but has enjoyed a long, successful musical and cinematic career, in addition to mothering actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg.
All impressive accomplishments indeed, but of course, it eventually all comes back to “Je t’aime.” For those who may not recall it, the 1969 song featured innocuous music supporting cooing lyrics sung in French by Gainsbourg and Birkin. Innocent enough, except for the added background tracks of Birkin’s simulating an increasing level of sexual moans and groans climaxing in more ways than one at the song’s conclusion.
The song, with its languorous piano-based rhythms, later influenced the music of everyone from Portishead and Air to Dido and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker. It became a hit, despite being banned from the airwaves in many countries.
However, it was not an intent to shock and change the world order that prompted a young Birkin to shed her clothes for those films or simulate sex in the song – it was based in the entirely traditional human emotions of pride, fear and jealousy.
Birkin was married to James Bond composer John Barry in 1966 when she was cast in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, and decided to disrobe upon the dare of her husband.
“He didn’t think I was brave enough to take my clothes off, so I did it to impress him,” the 65-year-old Birkin said in an email interview last week, ahead of her musical performances “Birkin sings Gainsbourg Via Japan” on January 14 and 15 at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv.
By 1969, Birkin had divorced Barry and begun a long-term romance with French matinee idol Gainsbourg, which led to “Je t’aime.
“I did that out of fear of another girl doing it in a telephone cubicle with the divine Serge,” she said. “So it was jealousy and fear – those animal reactions!”
Birkin described those times as “a cultural revolution” but for her, it was more of an attempt to establish a “normal” life at 18 with her husband Barry.
“Swinging London was exciting, with photographers like David Bailey, pop groups The Beatles and The Stones, actors like Terrence Stamp, Michael Crawford and Michael Caine, mini-dresses and looking wonderful on the Kings Road with Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy... but to me it it didn’t seem like a revolution,” said Birkin.
“I was married most conventionally at 18, so all I worried about was ‘Can I have a baby, will I lose John Barry?’ Well, I had my baby Kate at 20 and lost John Barry.”
She was referring to the breakup of her marriage, but Birkin rebounded when she met Gainsbourg, the person who eventually became her mentor, on the set of Slogan in 1968. They began a relationship that lasted 13 years, including several collaborations, not the least being their daughter Charlotte who was born in 1980. (She gave birth to another daughter, actress/songwriter/ model Lou Doillon in 1982).
AFTER APPEARING as Brigitte Bardot’s lover in 1973’s Don Juan (Or If Don Juan Were a Woman), Birkin in 1975 resumed collaborating with Gainsbourg, appearing in his first film, Je t’aime... moi non plus, based on their hit song together. She then went on to star in the Agatha Christie films Death on the Nile (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982), while at the same time beginning to appear frequently on theater stages and holding down a second career as a singer with albums including Baby Alone in Babylone, Amours des Feintes, Lolita Go Home and Rendez-vous.
Birkin explained that she loves all those disciplines and has never been able to choose between them, thus she continues to indulge in all of them.
“I am happy to be asked to do anything by friends,” said Birkin. “Hence yesterday, I was filming in Turin, for Sergio Castelito with Penelope Cruz, I’m appearing in Quebec in February with Wajdi Mouawad in a one-woman play he wrote for me, La Sentinelle , and I’m performing the Japanese musical show up to the end of the year. So, I’m a very un-frustrated person and a very lucky person.”
Birkin’s streak of individuality and quirky style have endeared her to a new generation of musical artists who have clamored to collaborate with her – including everyone from Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, Franz Ferdinand and The Divine Comedy to Rufus Wainwright and Keren Ann.
Rendez-vous, her album of duets with Bryan Ferry, Placebo’s Brian Molko and Gibbons, was released in 2004. It was followed by Fictions in 2008 where she collaborated with authors such as Neil Hannon, Gibbons, Wainwright and her daughter Charlotte.
“Beth is a fabulous writer for me, as was Rufus [and] Keren Ann, but my daughters Charlotte and Lou are my favorites,” she said. “Maybe the Japanese philosophy from Nobu is brushing off on me – live each day and be happy, no looking back except for the chance to have the best of dear Serge’s work carry on with me.”
No matter which avenues her muse has led her down, Birkin always seems to return to the main artistic influence on her life – her time with Gainsbourg. 20 years after his death and 40 years after L’Histoire de Melody Nelson, the first Gainsbourg concept album featuring Birkin, the singer is still singing his music.
In the past, Birkin has presented Gainsbourg’s music in different settings – including 2002’s Algerian-tinged shows “Arabesque.”
On her current tour, Birkin is offering the Gainsbourg songbook of jazz, cabaret, reggae and offbeat French pop interpreted by a group of Japanese backing musicians on piano, violin, drums and horns. The collaboration arose after Birkin traveled to Japan and got involved with relief efforts after last year’s devastating earthquake by staging a Tokyo concert to raise funds for Doctors of the World.
“Singing songs makes me feel less useless than watching misery on the television,” she said. “I’m lucky enough to have been able to be there and show that their feeling of being forgotten in an indifferent world can be proven wrong. I’m a messenger!”
Birkin’s interest in humanitarian issues preceded Japan, and she had worked for years with Amnesty International on various topics including immigrant welfare and Aids in countries like Bosnia and Rwanda. And she’s been a vocal proponent of Palestinian rights, including making a documentary on Palestinian actor/director George Ibrahim.
“I sang Arabesque in Ramallah and Gaza seven years ago before playing in Tel Aviv, the last time I visited Israel, and Djamel, my violinist and artistic orchestrator of Serge’s works, was delighted to play to a Jewish audience as well,” said Birkin.
“This time, it’s more difficult due to scheduling – we have to separate the two dates and go back to Palestine a month later. So be it, I’ll get boycotted whatever I do, so what to do? Forget both? I could, but I don’t want to. I think I can come to Israel with ‘Serge via Japan’ and still stick up for ‘Palestine’s existence.’
“It’s normal that people in both countries will feel: ‘well, she’s naïve, she doesn’t live here, who’s she to have an opinion?’ I hope my Japanese musicians will understand the complexities and not be wounded by comments that are made. But they’re wise, and I hope people will see their great talent... and that Gainsbourg’s beautiful songs will rise above all.”