Serge Gainsbourg, an all-around artist’s artist, tore at the heartstrings and pushed the boundaries of humour for countless people with every appearance. It is not easy defining Gainsbourg as one thing, but everyone can agree: he certainly was controversial. He was a true troubadour — a poet and a songwriter who experimented in different genres, ye-ye, chanson, and jazz.
Gainsbourg was an artist who wasn’t afraid to dabble and incorporate unconventional musical and literary ideas; African rhythms, surrealist poetry, and later in his life, more modern genres such as: such as rock, reggae, funk, and electronica. He was an actor and painter and took many taxi rides all day and befriended officers, Gainsbourg was a man of the people and revelled in the stench of humanity. But there was one exception: women. They were goddesses in his eyes, and made many swoon and fall for his poetic, shy, and often drunk nature.
In a profile look at the french provocateur, Vanity Fair, they called him “debauched, irreverent, misanthropic, crude, dissolute, provocateur, genius, alcoholic, poet, national treasure, a romantic who handled language with cynical humour, and a modern-day Baudelaire and Rimbaud.” Life for Gainsbourg was exciting and needed to be spiced up. It is no surprise then, that he was known to pull many stunts and to push the ante.
Gainsbourg has written concept albums about falling in love with teenage girls, who would eventually die in a plane crash, as just one part of his artistic intent. He released a reggae album of the french national anthem, as another. In 1975, he embraced rock music by incorporating themes of Nazi soldiers and parodying them, by dressing them up in drag.
Perhaps the most absurd stunt that Gainsbourg has pulled off, definitely came when the french troubadour decided to light a 500 Franc note, in an act of defiance, on live television. It was in the year 1984 — this was unheard of, especially because it was illegal. It was in protest against heavy taxation at the time.
While it was illegal, regardless, Gainsbourg was adored by all sectors of French society and therefore did not get arrested. It seemed as if, not for the first time, Gainsbourg was speaking for the entire nation without using any words. However, he served time in a whole different way that he would not expect.
Serge’s daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, now a beloved french actress, was incessantly bullied at school, according to The Guardian. Classmates of hers would light her homework on fire. This perhaps gives you an insight into the staunch, politically stifled atmosphere of France at the time. In fact, Charlotte Gainsbourg has some interesting things to say about freedom of expression herself, largely gained from having such an advantageous father.
Watch the video below, as Serge Gainsbourg, sets the 500 Franc on fire: