"None of us can get around Serge, really." So said Jane Birkin about the great French singer-songwriter – and her ex-partner – Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991), during her only Melbourne performance of Arabesque on 16 June 2005.
Arabesque is a simply staged, no-frills show, which also exists in CD and DVD versions. Comprising songs, stories and a few poetry readings, it evokes not only the monumental legacy of Gainsbourg's music, but the ways in which his art has been, and continues to be, transmitted – through schoolchildren who sing "Couleur Café", through contemporary pop composers like Zazie ("C'est comme ça"), and of course through Birkin herself, who for the past three years has been presenting the songs that made her famous in striking, Arabic-style arrangements.
An extremely touching moment in the show comes when Birkin reads a poem by her nephew Anno (Andrew Birkin's son), who died too young, and whose words evoke this primal and ultimate process of transmission through blood, generation and family, "the link that grew me/That travels deeply, through me in the form of every thought that I think."
In the late '60s, Birkin's trademark was her breathy, high-pitched, sometimes cracking vocals. This might have seemed, at the time, like a charming, untrained, child-woman affectation. Today, Birkin is in full control of her voice, and she creates with it a wide range of effects and moods. Fittingly, she ended the show alone, singing the classic love song "La Javanaise".
It was a magical evening, overflowing with emotion. Surely no performer has kissed her musicians so frequently on-stage, or thanked her audience so profusely – taking the opportunity, as she did so, to make a plea for cultural tolerance and "curiosity".
As her band, Djamel Benyelles (violin), Frédéric Maggi (piano) and Aziz Boularoug (percussion) produced a remarkably full and varied sound. An early highlight was a surprisingly soulful version of the once jaunty "Élisa". As Birkin confessed, she likes her songs to be "long, slow and melancholic", and the likes of "Fuir le bonheur de peur qu'il ne se sauve" filled that bill admirably.
For all her self-deprecating jokes about being "just a little English person with no rhythm", Birkin's physical grace on stage is completely enchanting – and it reached a sublime apotheosis when she (literally) let her hair down and danced during "Les Clés du Paradis" (which is not a Gainsbourg song, but one in his idiom).
At one point, Birkin matter-of-factly asserted that Gainsbourg's songs contained "some of the most beautiful words ever written by one person for another person". No one lucky enough to have ever seen this show live would be likely to disagree with this sentiment.
© Adrian Martin June 2005