Monday, July 24, 2023

Proud to be a muse, talented in her own right: Deceased Artiste Jane Birkin

There is no way I could let the passing of Jane Birkin go by without doing at least a modest tribute to her on this blog. I was lucky enough to conduct an interview with her way (way) back in 2003 when she was in NYC to present her show “Arabesque” — consisting of songs by Gainsbourg with an Arabic backing band at the Alliance Francaise.

This clip, which is quite short, is one of the most popular interview clips I’ve posted on that site – you know the one, the one that doesn’t really approve of “fair use” and has a myriad of rules to keep those who uphold that practice from posting their work. In any case, this is a short little snippet, but that’s what I used to post up there.


Recently, when “Uncle Jean” (aka Jean-Luc Godard) left us, I went back to the Birkin interview to excerpt her discussion of working with him on Soigne ta droite (1987).



Because of her public persona as Gainsbourg's muse (
in my talk with her she proclaimed her pride at having inspired and been given the songs by Serge), it was not noted enough by critics that she kept getting better and better as an actress. She’s charming as hell in some of her early “dollybird” incarnations, and her beauty is one of the only reasons to watch some of the films she made with Gainsbourg (unless Serge did the score, which gave you two reasons to see the film).

But, as time went on, she began appearing in more demanding roles and, once her relationship with Jacques Doillon had ended, she did indeed become a regularly busy actress who provided particularly wonderful turns in ensemble pieces (as in the two Poirot-by-Ustinov films she’s in) and the work of other New Wave directors, including Resnais, but most especially Rivette. (For whom she starred in Around a Small Mountain, his last film, a “small movie” extraordinaire concerning a very charming middle-aged romance.)

For we American fans, the documentary Jane by Charlotte (2021), made by Charlotte Gainsbourg in an effort to understand and relate to her mother, gave us a portrait of Jane that was very much down to earth. She may have been a music, movie, and fashion icon, but she was also a somewhat emotionally distant mother, who, it was revealed in the film, was having health problems.

In the film, which lacked a narration by Charlotte and was more of a fly-on-the-wall view of the family (thus requiring that you already knew who Jane, Charlotte, Lou, Kate, Serge, and others were), Jane having a bout with cancer is mentioned in the past tense. In her obits it was noted  that she had a stroke in 2021 and had cancelled various commitments in early 2023 because of a broken ankle and a break in her shoulder.

Then she cancelled an appearance at Town Hall in NYC in the summer of last year, having all the tickets refunded, which seemed to indicate something grievous had occurred. No more was heard until the death announcements started appearing online the Sunday before last.

As a tribute I offer the following video clips, which relate entirely to her music career. Appraisals of her acting career are best saved for another time, as a number of her French films never appeared on these shores with English subs.

While her “Symphonique” stage show found her singing only the songs that Serge wrote directly for her (with the orchestra playing Serge’s most familiar songs with Jane offstage), it’s interesting to see that she was on French TV in April of 2021 looking in fine form, performing a Gainsbourg medley of his more, let us say, “familiar” songs.

She was seen in March of 2022 on an interview show discussing her concert performances, her “sketch” film with Agnes Varda (not a great picture — each time I see it, I want to love it, but it seems like more of a not-that-good TV comedy show transposed to film), and the documentary by Charlotte. She looks a bit bigger in this clip but is in good spirits and seems to be in good health.

And here she is on Feb 1 of this year, participating in a protest supporting the people of Myanmar. Her commitment to various causes was the least-seen but most important part of her public appearances:


Many of the TV appearances Jane made with Serge have become available on DVDs and on fan-generated “mail order” discs. This one, featuring him lip-synching to two songs from the classic Melody Nelson album while he carries Jane on his back, is one of the more playful clips that hasn’t surfaced on a compilation (yet).

Serge composed songs for seven of her solo albums (not counting songs for films and random unreleased tracks). The songs ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. One of the latter is “Di-doo-dah,” heard here with Jane singing it live on the Russell Harty show in 1973

Another minor (but catchy) song for Jane by Serge was “Ex-fan des sixties,” wherein the decade’s biggest heroes (either dead or having broken up their band) are recited in a laundry-list fashion. It’s not a major Gainsbourg song, but it’s interesting, as it acknowledges what an incredible impact the pop and rock of the Sixties had on France. (All the artists mentioned are either American or British).


Moving from the ridiculous back to the sublime, here is one of the songs that Serge entrusted to Jane that is considered one of his best works which he never sang. It was recited by Catherine Deneuve at Serge’s funeral service and was always in Jane’s repertoire, if she was doing “both sides” of Serge.

The title, “Fuir le bonheur de peur qu'il ne se sauve,” translates loosely as “Fleeing happiness for fear it will run away.” A very helpful YouTube poster named Julia has subtitled the song in English but hasn’t made the video embed-dable for some inexplicable reason. (I always wonder why people make sure their vids are not to be embedded – will that negate the possible copyright claim? Those are either going to come or they’re not; adding the embed function serves to spread your work around more.) 

Over the years, Jane sang with a number of other performers. Perhaps because her first song was a duet with a guy (“Je t’aime, moi non plus” with Serge), she continued to work very well with male partners. One personal favorite was Bryan Ferry (with whom she sang a Roxy classic). Also, in Bertrand Tavernier’s
Daddy Nostalgie (1990), she duetted with Dirk Bogarde on the song “These Foolish Things,” which Ferry had brought back to life on his first solo LP in 1973.

“Je t’aime” was such a big hit in France and England that a follow-up was attempted twice: “69 Anee Erotique” and the “new dance” that Serge proposed (which, let’s face it, was not all that much more than syncopated groping) with this number.


Some fascinating footage appears here — Serge personally instructing Jane on how to sing one of his songs for her solo albums. (He definitely conceived of her “choir boy” voice as an instrument to be included in the orchestration of his songs.) Also, Jane talks in 1997 about his death and how he left her 25% ownership of the Melody Nelson album, in case “things went wrong” in her old age.


In 2003 when Jane was touring the world with her “Arabesque” show, featuring Gainsbourg songs with arrangements for Arabic instruments, she appeared on various programs in Europe to promote the shows she was doing. Here she performs Serge’s rousing “Elisa,” slowed down and made into a hypnotic ode.


Jane had another touring show after “Arabesque,” but her final major undertaking in terms of musical performance was a show called “Birkin Gainsbourg: The Symphonic” (which sounds much better in French as “Le Symphonique”). The show played here at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 1, 2018, and was an absolute delight. Only one guest star joined Jane onstage: Rupert Wainwright, who sang "Ces Petits Riens" and "La Chanson de Prevert." There is a video of Rufus joining Jane in a different venue here.

In Charlotte’s documentary about her mother, it is noted that the only time they sang together onstage was here in NYC at the Beacon Theater on March 6, 2020, a short time before the pandemic lockdowns began. A scan of YT reveals that, while the Beacon show might’ve been their only planned and rehearsed appearance together, they did sing onstage on another occasion. In 2013 a video was posted of them singing together at a concert in Monaco, duetting on Serge’s “La chanson de Prévert”:


Birkin stated in my interview with her that her first-ever performances in the U.S. were for the “Arabesque” tour in 2003, and thus her first-ever NYC performances were the two times she performed that show at the Alliance Francaise. (I saw the second of those two shows and it was wonderful.)

Her last performance in NYC was most definitely the Beacon Theater show, as a show that was to take place on my birthday (June 18) was announced for last year (2022) at Town Hall and was cancelled very quickly without explanation. (The mention of cancer in Charlotte’s documentary and the stroke she suffered in September 2021 were alerts that she perhaps was having health problems.)

Oddly enough, the first hit you get on Google when searching to find when it was that Jane played her last concert is the thoroughly unreliable Concert Archives site, which lists the cancelled June 18, 2022 gig as if it actually took place. One wonders how many other cancelled performances are on the pages of this website….

In any case, the reason to re-see the Symphonique show at the Beacon was that, this around, Jane had invited guest stars to join her onstage. So I attended the show and was very glad to see Jane duetting with both Iggy Pop (!) and Charlotte G. 

Jane chose to sing “Ballade de Johnny-Jane,” from the soundtrack of Serge’s film Je t’aime, moi non plus (1976), with Charlotte. This was an interesting choice, as it first appeared on the soundtrack to the film and is an odd song that refers to the film in its lyrics. 

It also, oddly enough, was a song that Jane duetted on with Vanessa Paradis. The latter is a surprise, since Vanessa had Serge write the lyrics for her second album about a year before his death. She was the only artist who requested he do rewrites on some of the lyrics, and he wound up wisecracking, “Paradis, c’est l’enfer” (“Paradis, it was hell”). Here are Jane and Vanessa singing “Johnny-Jane.”

And here is some lovely YT poster’s very good recording of mother and daughter singing father’s movie theme song:


Now further down the rabbit hole, we can thank YT poster “secularus” for posting not only the preceding video, but also videos of the two songs that Jane did with Iggy at the Beacon. 

The first was “Elisa,” which they had also done the preceding evening on “The Tonight Show” with that grinning, chuckling idiot as host. The “Tonight Show” people made sure that there is no post of that performance on YT. All the better to watch this dynamic duo perform it onstage:


Iggy first tackled Gainsbourg’s lyrics with a tuneful cover of “La Javanaise” in 2012 (on his album Apres). Far closer to the spirit of his own songs is Serge’s “Requiem pour un con,” which taunts the listener and calls them an “ass” (or twat, in one online translation that I think is a bit too loose and a bit too British). Here Iggy does the song with Jane:

The song that Jane ended all of her Gainsbourg shows with was the aforementioned “La Javanaise.” It was written by Serge for Juliette Greco, who had the initial hit with it. Serge also recorded it himself and sang it in some of his live shows, later in his career.

Jane’s performances of it were always especially moving, as her voice cracked throughout it, and it always seemed like the song’s simplicity made it the perfect way to end a tribute to Serge. Especially because this most romantic of tunes, set in a waltz tempo, actually says that the couple dancing will be in love “for the length of a song.”

In one particular rendition she did on a Gainsbourg tribute on French TV, the audience sang the song along with her, which made it perhaps the most stirring tribute to Serge ever (with the French public so familiar with his signature song that they took over from the onstage singer). That version doesn’t appear to be on YT (or is tucked away somewhere), so I’ll end with a different version, in which Jane sings the whole song alone.

This is from a charity benefit show she participated in back in 2017. She is wearing sneakers and an old-looking pullover, and is sporting a cast on her left arm. This makes the performance even more endearing, as if she was going to keep singing Serge’s music no matter what happened to her health-wise. And she did, for which we can only be intensely grateful.

Note: Thanks to Despina Veneti her excellent sampling of Jane B. photos.