‘Arabesque’ touch given to songwriter’s classics

The life of Jane Birkin, the long-term muse and collaborator of the late Serge Gainsbourg, one of France’s most notorious contemporary provocateurs, both in the field of music and beyond, has been inextricably tied with that of her former companion. Now, over 10 years after the raunchy songwriter’s death, Birkin, the heavy-breathing female voice behind one of pop music’s steamiest numbers ever recorded, «Je t’aime… moi non plus,» is still probing into Gainsbourg’s prolific and extraordinary musical world. She recently put out «Arabesque,» a collection of Gainsbourg numbers reinterpreted with Arabic spirit and sound and is currently touring Europe delivering its content. Birkin’s itinerary includes two performances in Greece, her first visit, tonight at the Lycabettus Theater in Athens and tomorrow at the Mylos Club in Thessaloniki. Birkin, who was briefly married to John Barry, the composer of the James Bond themes, met Gainsbourg in the late 1960s, soon after the hard-drinking and heavy-smoking womanizer had emerged from a brief affair with Brigitte Bardot which helped steer his work in a more erotic direction. But the debauchery heard soon after, on Gainsbourg’s infamous taboo-breaking duet with Birkin, «Je t’aime… moi non plus,» made the songwriter’s previous work sound like kid stuff by comparison. Birkin, who emerged in film and drama – including a nude appearance in Michelangelo Antonioni’s pop-art classic «Blow Up» in 1966 – before turning to music, mostly as Gainsbourg’s regular vocalist and muse, went on to garner numerous hits in France, where she has proven far more popular than in her native England. Gainsbourg, too, a cultural icon in France and a legend throughout Europe, had all the class as a songwriter to become a major international star but his French-language work kept him out of the key American and English pop music markets. By extension, the artistic reach of Birkin, who is adored by the French and is still based in Paris today, could have been far more extensive. The only regret in her life, Birkin admitted in a recent interview, was her decision to abandon Gainsbourg, pop music’s «dirty old man» of many vices, who, late in his life, made a controversially blatant sexual advance on American singer Whitney Houston live on French television. Gainsbourg’s self-destructive way of living, Birkin said, proved too much to bear. Their marriage eventually dissolved in 1980, 11 years before the songwriter’s death at 62. Birkin’s idea for her Eastern reinterpretations of older Gainsbourg material, which the singer has described as reflective of his spirit, was conceived in 1999. The reworking, arranged by an Algerian violinist, Djamel Benyelles, was later performed in Algeria at a charity show in support of flood victims. Gainsbourg may no longer be with us, but this latest «Arabesque» take on his work – there have been many more – comes as hard evidence of the artist’s timeless appeal.

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