As it happened, I moved to the Rue de Verneuil, where Gainsbourg lived, in the summer of 1991, a few months after his death, for my first tour as a Paris correspondent. I watched in some wonder as adoring declarations (interspersed here and there with antisemitic bile) formed a canvas of graffiti across the length of his home.
Soon the Gainsbourg spell had me. I listened to the songs, filled with dark irony and fatalism, that had made him such a disruptive force in French society over the preceding decades.
He was the haggard minstrel of shameless lovemaking attuned to the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. He was the subversive with a permanent stubble, hated by French conservatives for daring, in 1979, to turn La Marseillaise, the national anthem, into a reggae hit, “Aux Armes Et Caetera.” Paramilitary veterans forced Gainsbourg to cancel a concert in Strasbourg in 1980, a foretaste of the rise of the French extreme right.
He was the Jew who in “Yellow Star,” from the 1975 album “Rock Around the Bunker,” mocks his executioner-inflicted badge as a prize (“I’ve won the Yellow Star”), or perhaps a sheriff’s emblem, before concluding: “Difficult for a Jew, the law of struggle for life.” He was the outsider with an uncanny eye and level gravelly delivery; as another outsider, I had much to learn.
A single song, “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas” (or the ticket-puncher at the Porte des Lilas Metro station), released in 1958, propelled Gainsbourg to fame. Described by the writer Boris Vian as “the essence itself of musical and lyrical art,” it evokes the desperate life of the “man you meet but don’t look at” in a place where there is no sun. He makes “holes, little holes, always little holes, holes for second class, holes for first class,” and dreams at last of holding a gun to “make myself a little hole” that will land him forever in a big one.