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Je t'aime (again): The French love affair with Serge Gainsbourg

As a new warts-and-all exhibition demonstrates, France has rediscovered its affection for Serge Gainsbourg, the anti-hero who came up with the sexiest pop record ever. John Lichfield reports

To the British, Serge Gainsbourg was once the ugly, pouting, unshaven French bloke who sang with the fresh, English rose, Jane Birkin, on the rudest pop record ever, "Je t'aime ... Moi Non Plus". To the French, he was either a pop intellectual rebel or a drunken, pretentious, unpatriotic bore.

In the past decade, Gainsbourg, born 80 years ago this year, has become a cult hero and inspiration to British bands from Portishead to Placebo. A young, fast-rising London band has named itself after one of Gainsbourg's best-loved, and strangest, albums, Melody Nelson.

Serge Gainsbourg has also been rediscovered by young people in his home country as one of the few truly original musicians that France produced in the classic years of pop and rock. He is now seen as a precursor of Queen or David Bowie, as someone who successfully spliced rock and classical music and a writer who produced poetic rather than crass pop lyrics (although he also wrote plenty of those).

Gainsbourg, whose first album appeared a half-century ago, is the subject of an ambitious, hi-tech exhibition which began this week at the Musée de Musique in Paris. There is also a series of tribute concerts at the Cité de Musique, to which the museum belongs, including one next Tuesday by Jane Birkin, now a fresh, 61-year-old English rose and the most popular Briton living in France.

The exhibition, Gainsbourg 2008, is part of a series organised by the Cité de Musique in the 19th arrondissement, whose classically oriented museum has paid tribute in recent years to giants of rock music from John Lennon to Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. Serge Gainsbourg is the first French pop musician to be honoured.

The curator of the exhibition, Frédéric Sanchez, describes the choice of Gainsbourg as a "consecration" and an "apotheosis". The show, which lasts until 1 March, presents Gainsbourg as not just a pop star and rebel but an intellectual and artist, who also dabbled in cinema, painting, poetry and novel-writing.

His life is recorded by a series of columns, carrying vertical "contact strips" of images, some of which are stills and others permanent video loops of Gainsbourg performances and provocations. There is a constant hubbub of female voices reading extracts from Gainsbourg lyrics. The voices turn out to be those of (among others) Jane Birkin, with whom he lived for 10 years, their actress daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vanessa Paradis, Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Adjani.

One of the associated concerts last week was an arrangement, using classical and rock musicians, of the cult 1971 Gainsbourg album, Melody Nelson. A similar concert at the Barbican in London two years ago brought the house down. In both cases the concerts were arranged and conducted by the composer Jean-Claude Vannier, who was credited as co-writer in 1971 but revealed this week that he was actually the sole author of the music.

Melody Nelson, as originally performed by Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, was an utter flop. In recent years, it has been rerecorded successfully by several rock artists and bands, including Portishead. The album, a mixture of classical music, rock and Chanson Française, has come to be regarded as an important precursor of late 20th- and early 21st-century styles of pop music.

But the album draws attention to one of the most disturbing aspects of Gainsbourg: his constant obsession with the sexual attraction of under-age girls. Melody Nelson is a rock opera which tells, in seven tracks, the story of a wealthy, ageing dandy who runs over a 14-year-old English girl in his Rolls-Royce. He falls in love with her, deflowers her and – after she is killed in an air crash – starts a Polynesian cargo cult in her name.

The original 1971 album cover had a picture of a child-like Jane Birkin wearing only jeans and clutching a soft toy. Gainsbourg's obsession, in song, with young girls became a feature of the last 10 years of his life in which he also plunged into drunkenness. The image of him as an alcoholic, provocative waster – nicknamed Gainsbarre in France – took several years to subside.

The exhibition at the Musée de Musique helps to place Gainsbourg in perspective by exploring his lesser-known early life and career. He was born in Paris in 1928 as Lucien Ginsburg, son of a poor Russian-Jewish immigrant family. As a 12-year-old child in Vichy France, he was forced to wear a yellow star and was lucky to escape deportment to the death camps.

After the war, he attempted unsuccessfully to become a painter before finding work as a songwriter and crooner in bars. Edith Piaf asked him to write songs for her but he declined.

His early career as a pop singer and pop writer, after his first album in 1958, was a mixture of rebellion, originality and cynical mimicry of commercial pop. He wrote for, among others, Juliette Greco, Petula Clarke and Françoise Hardy. He even wrote a Eurovision Song Contest winner – "Poupée de cire, poupée de son" – for France Gall in 1965.

He wrote an album of songs for the actress Catherine Deneuve and sang duets, and had a year-long love affair, with Brigitte Bardot. The infamous "Je t'aime ... Moi non plus" (I love you. Me neither) was originally written for and recorded with Bardot but she banned its release.

Instead, Gainsbourg rerecorded the song, full of suggestive heavy-breathing and orgasmic noises, with a new girlfriend, the 22-year-old Jane Birkin, in 1969. The song became his only international triumph. It was especially popular in Britain but that did not stop the British taking an instant dislike to Gainsbourg.

Part of the problem was that he looked so old – 41 going on 60 – when the cult of youth was still in full swing. Ageing, wrinkled, pouting rock stars were not yet the norm.

*Gainsbourg 2008 is at the Musée de Musique, 221 Avenue Jean Jaures, 19eme, Paris, Metro Porte de Pantin, until 1 March.