Wednesday, November 29, 2006

D'Autres Nouvelles des Etoiles


"There's a trilogy in my life, an equilateral triangle, shall we say, of Gitanes, alcoholism and girls... and I didn't say isosceles, I said equilateral." --Serge Gainsbourg

"The first time I saw him I thought. It really wasn't his face, it was... it was his way of being that I found... horrible! He had no sense of courtesy or kindness... but I understood later that what I'd taken for belligerence came from a real shyness." --Jane Birkin

"Serge is a mixture of Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen and Tom Jones. It's a combination we've all fantasized about hearing, and there he is. I heard all the music first, but when I saw films of him, I really got the attitude, which communicates a lot. The way Serge carries himself is like no one else... He represented a rock 'n roll decadence that isn't cliche. It's a little more refined and maybe a little more perverted." --Beck

I never knew a Melody, but I once knew a Heather Lee and she was a Serge Gainsbourg fan. I had no idea who he was at the time and assumed he was a schmaltzmeister like Charles Aznavour. I broke up with Heather Lee before I heard any of her Gainsbourg discs, but when I finally did, I realized she had been grooving to one of the coolest cats ever.
The last couple of years have been good for Gainsbourg collectors. Many of his LP's have been reissued and some, like the reggae albums, include bonus material. Hard to find soundtracks, such as Cannabis, have also been re-released. A number of good compilations exist, including a 3-disc set of his music for films. For the hardcore fan there's a comprehensive 17-disc box that spans his entire career. As for Serge on video, in 2000 Universal France released a collection of Gainsbourg's television appearances and promotional clips. Last year a revised, subtitled, two DVD set was made available domestically. D'Autres Nouvelles des Etoiles features 80 clips [9 of them interviews] filmed between 1958 and 1989, a total of 4 hours, 40 minutes of footage.
Serge Gainsbourg is a singular presence in French pop or pop in general. As Beck noted, he combined an unlikely assortment of musical and personal qualities. The most typical image of him is a mondaine hedonist, coolly sucking on a Gitane while caressing a ravishing doll. A sort of French James Bond, if you will. The less typical image of him is a polite, gracious, self-deprecating, funny, shy, philosophical, nervous man. A sort of French Miles Monroe, if you will. Displaying the evolution of his persona, D'Autres Nouvelles des Etoiles presents Gainsbourg in his complexity.
To understand a little of his diverse nature it helps to know something of his background. Serge Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginsburg on April 2, 1928 at the L'H/Yentel-Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris [est. 651AD]. Lucien or 'Lulu', as he was known, grew up in a relatively secure, artistic household. His parents, Joseph and Olia Ginsburg, were Russian Jews who fled the Bolshevik revolution. His father, Joseph, was a painter-turned-pianist who played in bars and nightclubs. Gainsbourg would say, "he raised his children with his own ten fingers." In the summer, Joseph Ginsburg would play seaside resorts like Deauville and Biarritz, often bringing the family along. It was thus that Serge had an early introduction to the world of luxury and entertainment and it was on the beach of one of those resorts that he became aware of the link between sex and music, when a pretty girl walked past as the PA played a Charles Trenent tune.
In 1942 the French government began complying with the occupying Nazi regime and issued the directive that all Jewish citizens over the age of six had to wear an identifying gold star. His parents tried to make light of it, telling him that it was like wearing a sheriff's badge, but he knew his government and many of his countrymen considered him less than a citizen and could have cared less if he and his family, like 77,00 others, had 'vanished'. His father managed to get the family to Limoges where they spent the rest of the war under the name Guimbard. Later in life Gainsbourg would say, "I have never forgotten that I ought to have died in 1941, '42, '43, '44."
One can see how this experience would brand him with an outsider sense of his culture. In the French cannon Gainsbourg is as iconic as Napoleon and yet, like the Corsican, he never considered himself fully French. In commenting on his relationship with Birkin he noted, "We make a funny couple... I'm of Russian origin, only my education is French. So Russia and England, it's a real cocktail, a bloody mary with lots of vodka." Elsewhere, he commented that his distance came from his roots having been left in Russia. This sense of otherness became embodied in the name he chose for his career. Though morphing Ginsburg into an Anglo/Francophonic variant of Gainsborough, he swapped 'Lucien' for 'Serge' to assert his ancestry.
The extent to which his heritage influenced his music or sense of humor is interesting to speculate. In the liner notes of his Gainsbourg tribute CD, John Zorn wrote, "at times certain inflections, lyrics or turns-of-phrase sound strangely Jewish" and Gainsbourg himself asserted, "My music is Judeo-Russian; always something sad." According to Birkin, when he had his mega-hit with Je t'aime, moi non plus, he took himself to Cartier's and ordered a star of david in platinum. And yet, as far as overt references in his work and public life went, he was more demonstrably Jewish than Bob Dylan, but less so than Woody Allen. He didn't make it a cornerstone of his public persona, but he didn't avoid it as songs like Yellow Star and Juif et Dieu attest. [To be fair Dylan did do Neighborhood Bully, but as everyone knows, his non-musical roots are largely a private matter to him.]
Then there was the matter of his professional late-blooming. He had originally wanted to be a painter, but discerned that it would be unlikely for him to enjoy a bourgeois lifestyle as an artist. In a 1968 interview he stated:
-" painted for about fifteen years... Then certain problems of survival arose after my military service. Before your military service, you have your parents.

--Sometimes after, as well.

--No. When you're an aristocrat, perhaps. I wasn't, so I took fear of the bohemian life, which I consider anachronistic... I took fear of that bohemian life which I found had no place in a modern context and I gave up painting.

Adopting his father's profession at the age of 23 was, then, a fallback and if being a cocktail pianist lacked the cache of being an artist, it at least afforded him an occupation where he could smoke, drink, keep odd hours and pursue women. The irony of course being that, as a painter, he would have been undistinguished, but as a piano player he had more than a spark. He worked as hard as any musician or, if you prefer, was no lazier than any musician. In either case, he had a nimble tread on the keys, improvising tunes at the drop of a hat.
Gainsbourg developed a nice string of gigs among the clubs of the Rive Gauche and, within several years, added singing to his repertoire. Despite this he was not a popular figure. Most likely, this had more to do with his style than his material. His witty, cynical songs did better when covered by Mich/(R)le Arnaud, Juliette Greco and Pia Colombo. Serge liked doing instrumentals but, by all accounts, hated singing in front of an audience. Pierre Koralnik, who would later direct him in several projects, attended a performance in 1958 and recalled:
His appearance on stage was very striking. Gainsbourg was looking very cramped in his suit, with a pallid face, singing in a lugubrious tone and making no attempt to win over the audience. That was the strange Mr. Gainsbourg, who came for one song and left just as quickly.

And Jane Birkin has this anecdote:
He was very frightened. He couldn't remember his own words because they were so clever, so he wrote them down on a piece of paper, and when his hands would shake too much in front of the chic nightclub audiences he would roll the paper up into a little ball and chuck it at them.

By comparison, his equally arty, year-younger contemporary, Jacques Brel was an established star. Although doing similar material, Serge possessed none of his success or popularity and languished as an awkward, weird guy who tended to alienate audiences.
When his first recording, Du chant /* la une!, was released in 1958 he was 30, divorced and living with his parents. Thus, despite the later improvement to his fortunes, he felt for a long time like a bit of an imposter. For someone who proclaimed he wasn't an aristocrat, he took the air of wealthy dilettante. He would often approach songwriting and scoring commissions in a lackadaisical manner, terrifying more than one director, but would always pull through, producing a brace of songs and a score within a matter of days. Paradoxically, it was the feeling that he was an artist incapable of success, engaged in an inferior pastime that freed him from the notion that he had to play by anybody's rules. After all, if he was producing trifles, it didn't matter what their substance was. Ironically, this pose would cause him to produce the most astonishing output of popular music in postwar France.
Predictably, filmmakers didn't quite know what to make of him. In the late 50's he had the appearance of a hotheaded hood from a Melville film, the one you'd least want to get into the car with. His early film roles were bit parts as creeps and punks, his very first as a blackmailing photographer in the Bardot flick Voulez-vous danser avec moi? At least movie directors utilized something of his aura. The directors of his music clips couldn't be bothered. As a newcomer, he had little or no control over the way he was presented and was probably told just to show up and wear something nice. In Adieu, creature! [59], Serge cruises the countryside in a convertible and in La nuit d'octobre [59], he wanders the ruins of a cathedral, like a lost soul in a Franju film. In both, his dark-suited urbanity strikes incongruously with the rustic setting.
The first thing that surprises you when you see him is how animated he is. Despite his reputation as l'homme impassive Gainsbourg had a very mobile face. When singing or even conversing, he pursed his lips or twisted them in cruel expressions. His Picasso eyes would widen and dart about, he would arch his eyebrows, his hands would wander back and forth, then gesticulate menacingly. Because of the violent subject matter of his songs, such as Le Poin/ssonneur des Lilas [59], he would often mime suicide -- pointing his fingers to his head or slashing across his throat or wrist. As a consequence of all this emoting, he was often a terrible lip syncher. Koralnik states, "He was never a great actor... He was already such a personality in life and in the media that he couldn't take on another role... He'd completely overwhelm his characters, like a vampire; the first thing you'd see would be Gainsbourg playing at being an actor."
Even when not singing, his face often betrays great discomfort, the sense that he would rather be anywhere than performing in a clip. In L'assassinat de Franz Lehar [64], a duo with the even more hawk-faced Philippe Clay [who makes Serge look sweet by comparison] there's an instrumental passage where the camera tracks along as he walks. Serge doesn't have to express anything, but his face constantly twitches. Unfortunately, very few clips in D'Autres Nouvelles des Etoiles show him performing live, but when he does his body and face tend to be more reserved and in sync with his voice, as in a masked appearance at a Parisian Mardi Gras soiree in Les petits paves [62].
His voice too, early on, was not one he was happy with. Remarkably light and fluttery, it was an instrument perfectly suited to capturing the turns of the ornate chansons he was composing, but one he would ultimately came to hate.
Given these hangups, it's no surprise that his best performance of the period is an instrumental of All The Things You Are [64]. Accompanied by a guitar and bass, it's the only clip where you see him jamming on the piano; a true pity, because it proves what a good player he was! It is also one of the few instances where he looks like he's enjoying himself. He smiles! You can tell this is what he likes to be doing. --Odd his collaborators didn't capitalize on this more.
About this time, however, the familiar image of him begins to develop as the cigarettes and liquor appear. He also begins to be seen more frequently on television. One in a series of four clips, All The Things You Are was made for the program Venez donc chez moi which, as implied by the title, seems to have been shot in his apartment -- the first of many glimpses into his residences, all of which bore a decorating sensibility one could call 'Neoclassical Gothic'.
Gainsbourg's first sexual encounter was with a prostitute at the age of 17. He was laughed at and told to come back when he was older. He had to approach several before one would take him as a client and she chewed gum throughout the transaction. His first romantic liaison occurred with his girlfriend, Elisabeth Levitsky, at the apartment of the absent, vacationing Salvador Dali. According to Sylvie Simmons in A Fistful of Gitanes they,
"fucked in Dali's all-black living-room - its walls and ceiling covered in astrakhan, the curly black material used on old-fashioned coat collars - on a pile of pricey artworks by Miro, Ernst, Picasso and their unwitting host, which were scattered on the floor. Lucien left the apartment with a Gitane clamped between his lips, a future wife on his arm, a firm idea of the ideal of home decor, a small black-and-white picture stolen from Dali's porn collection of two young girls eating each other out, and a reinforced belief that surrealism was the finest artistic movement there ever was..."

With experiences like this, it would have been unusual if he hadn't developed a somewhat neurotic sexuality. Like other famously neurasthenic skirt-chasers [W. Allen, R. Crumb] Gainsbourg pegged a lot of his women troubles on his looks. True, he wasn't anybody's idea of conventional handsomeness, but then neither were Gabin or Belmondo or Chevalier or Leaud or Montand or Piccoli or Depardieu or scores of other actors and performers who became sex-symbols in France. If anything, this jolie-laid tradition should have made him feel like a contender. Sure, he was no Alain Delon, but neither were most of his contemporaries. But if having affairs with a succession of gorgeous women wasn't enough to quell his insecurity then, perhaps, there was something more than calculatation to his profession of ugliness; a prideful boast which he bore like a perverse shield.
His discomfort with the opposite sex is beautifully manifested in Ce mortel ennui [64]. Dressed in a severe black suit and skinny tie, he promenades the marble arcade of a lavish building. About him chicly dressed women loiter and a gang of them stalk him like panthers. It could be an ogled Monica Vitti in L'Avventura with the sexes reversed. The song has a mournful jazz tone. The lyrics concern a man bored to death by his wife, but lacking the nerve to leave her because he fears she will commit suicide and so, bides his time by filling in the a's and o's of his newspaper. Smoking a cigarette, he walks through a phalanx of women [one of whom bears a teasing resemblance to him], then finds himself surrounded, like a sulky parakeet in a girl cage.
By 1965 Gainbourg's career was beginning to pick up. He was writing more pop-oriented songs, his album Gainsbourg percussions was a modest success and yet, in an interview with Denise Glazer, he's transparently uncomfortable. He smiles sickly, bites his fingers and barely makes eye contact. At one moment, his awkwardness becomes so apparent the camera cuts away. His sarcasm, at least, flows unimpeded. When asked why he switched from highbrow jazz to lowbrow pop he quips, "I've turned my coat because I've noticed the lining is mink" and when asked why he writes so many songs about women he replies, "What do you want to talk about in a song? They have to please women. It's women who applaud and their husbands follow... or their boyfriends."
In two clips from that year one can see his continuing aversion to performance. In Machins choses[65] he's paired with an 'exotic' girl with whom he lies on a flokati and fur festooned floor. Despite their proximity, he barely registers her presence. In Couleur cafe[65] the exotic girl is back and Serge now follows her about as she dances, at one point suppressing a laugh as if to say, 'I can't believe I'm in this fucking ridiculous clip.'
His first big break was France Gall's winning the Eurovision song contest with Poupee de cire, poupee de son. A far cry from his sardonic chansons, it was a fairly innocuous ditty sung by a fairly innocuous singer. Furthering the irony, it was not even the official entry of France, but of Luxembourg. However, a hit was a hit and it gave him some visibility. The money and attendant success didn't make him any happier. If anything, he felt like he had slid further down the greasy pipe; first abandoning art for jazz and then jazz for pop. The compromise!
His disenchantment is fully on display in the mini-doc Gainsbourg tel que [65]. A camera follows him about Paris as he speaks from what is evidently a phone interview.
--How do you see the success of Poupee de cire, poupee de son?

--As 7 million Francs.

--And besides money?

--Nothing. OK, I get some satisfaction.

Asked again what success means to him, he responds, "It simply means the loss of the notion of money. I think that's all. It means money. It gives you money. But when you have extravagant tastes you never have enough." Asked how he used to be perceived, he responds, "It's funny. I had a reputation as an impenetrable character, super intellectual and sophisticated. Never understood by my compatriots. I liked pure, modern jazz, but no one's interested in modern jazz." Asked if the perception of him has changed he says, "I didn't yet have a theatrical costume. Now I have a cynical costume. A cynical costume, which I find theatrical, because it comes from my relaxation. But before, they said I didn't have a theatrical costume. And now I have cynical costume they call me pretentious. They should make up their minds. It's a vicious circle." A bit of a philosopher, he adds at the end, "If you take a camera and point it at a blue sky, what do you see when you develop it? Nothing at all... In my tortured love life, I have beautiful black clouds, greys, blues."
By 1967 he was becoming a prominent part of the landscape. Since 1960 he had been scoring several film and television projects a year, but in '67 alone he had ten such commissions. The most important of these was Anna, a musical starring Anna Karina. Asked how he felt about having an actress sing his songs he replied, "I think she's more professional as a singer than any real professional. In fact, I promised her -- and the contract is signed -- twelve songs, a whole record." Although, sadly, it has never been re-released, Anna is considered to be one of his best collaborations; the first which allowed him to express his lyrical and aesthetic sensibilities with a clear and strong hand [a good description can be read here].
In addition to Anna, he worked on the television shows Vidocq and Dents de lait, dents de loup. A clip from the latter shows him singing among a sea of teenyboppers. He's twice as old as everyone around him, but doesn't remotely look out of place. This isn't Frank or Dino or Sammy trying to get with the kids. Partly this is due to the fact that there isn't a speck of condescension in him. As sardonic as he might have been, he developed a genuine appreciation and understanding of the music of his younger contemporaries and could write it as well as any of them. Indeed, Gainsbourg twigged quite early to what the Brits were doing and sought English musicians to give him that mod sound. However, his generational bonding owed as much to his sulky, lupine demeanor, which gave him a rock 'n roll pose as Byronically insolent as any twenty-something with an added layer of sophistication as a bullet-proof patina.
If swinging it, London-style, wasn't enough to put him over, then having a high-profile fling with Bridget Bardot was. However, despite their musical and sexual chemistry, the clips they did for her television special were somewhat inert. Bonnie and Clyde [68] displays no particular dazzle, although Comic Strip[68] is goofily fun in a sub-Barbarella way. For real magnetism one should watch Ne dis rien [68] with Anna Karina. A model of simplicity, it shows them slow dancing as they sing to each other. I have no idea if they ever enjoyed a tryst, but the looks they exchange are heartbreakingly romantic.
Though relishing the affair with Bardot, he felt betrayed when she eventually dumped him for her husband; his wounded ego flaring in a 1968 interview when asked the perennial question of why he wrote so often about women.
--Yes, but if you don't want to talk about Vietnam or the problems of Africa we come back to women. What other subjects do you see?

-"s this a transposition of life or a position you've set out with?

--A position, because my life has been punctuated with breakups and failures. Women are a delicate matter... Especially women in 1967, 1968... It's a problem!

--Why is it a worse problem than in 1930 or 1931?

-"n the 1930's they at least had a sense of public modesty, whereas now they wear miniskirts up to their thighs. When they get into a taxi it's up to their pelvis... A young girl dressed like that, which as a voyeur I find very beautiful, cannot have a mentality as strict as that of a young girl of the 19th century.

A year later Gainsbourg met the English model/actress Jane Birkin when she auditioned for the film Slogan. They did not hit it off immediately. He had originally wanted Marisa Berenson and considered Birkin unsophisticated or, as he charmingly put it in Portraits croises [70], "The first time I saw her... Jane? Who's that pig? And English!" Birkin, in turn, had no idea who Gainsbourg was and called him Serge Bourguignon. However, after an arranged dinner and an ensuing night on the town, they became inseparable for a dozen years. In the same program she explains the attraction.
-"t suits me fine that everyone finds him horrible... When I was little, I had a parrot who bit everyone but me... He loved me because I dared to tickle him under his wings. He adored me. Everyone said, "How can you adore that awful parrot?" I thought, "He's adorable but I don't want the others to know..."

A clip from that year Elisa [69], like Ce mortel ennui, shows Gainsbourg circulating among a group of women. This time, he has someone to return to. Birkin has little to do but sit next to Serge at the beginning and end of the song, but the way she smiles and whispers at him shows the playfulness of their rapport. They are similarly lovey-dovey in 69 annee erotique [69] where she sings while perched on top of his piano.
The effect of their romance can be further seen in /Ae propos de Melody Nelson [71], where they are interviewed by Gainsbourg's frequent interlocutor, Denise Glazer. In stark contrast to his prior declarations, he smilingly states:
-"'m not a cynic, as other maintain... I'm a romantic... I always have been. As a boy, I was shy and romantic. I became cynical through contact with others, who attacked me for my ugliness, and my candor... They confused my candor with cynicism...

-"n fact, what you call ugliness is something you made into a style through your desire for perpetual candor...

--They say I'm ugly... fine, I don't care. It's worked for me... I wrote somewhere that when I'm called ugly I laugh quietly so you don't awake.

Although acting together in a handful of mostly forgettable films, the fullest flowering of their onscreen pairing was Histoire de Melody Nelson[71]. Presenting the entire album in a 28-minute clip, it was shot on color video, a rarity back then. The piece has a live video style, swirling lights are mixed and melded with superimposed images in a candy-colored blur. Of all Gainsbourg's clips, it is the one he undoubtedly had the most creative input in. Surrealist paintings, of the sort he once made love on, act as scenic elements. At one point, he and Birkin stroll through a series of Delvaux's and at another their embrace mimics a Magritte. It is also, among his clips, one of the most sensual. His performance is unusually relaxed. Smartly, he doesn't lip-synch many of the lyrics, instead letting them play as he performs mute. Birkin, naturally, is quite sexy [albeit in a goofy sort of way] as she shimmies about in series of snug and revealing outfits, but the real pleasure is seeing them dance together. The sense of tenderness and yearning contained in the lyrics is given visual form as they sway in each other's arms. More romantic, even, than Ne dis rien, it's a level of intimacy one sees only again in La decadanse [72]
"Look at this cigarette. Of course it's eating away at my lungs. But what else could give me that same kind of physiological orgasm, one that renews itself every five seconds, every five minutes? There's the hand-gestures, the click of the lighter, the enjoyment of tar and nicotine eating away at me... And these violent pleasures come from soft drugs - like alcohol. How can you give up a minor drug that's such a pleasure?"

Gainsbourg suffered a heart attack in 1973. Ever the aesthete, when the medics arrived, he refused to be placed on the stretcher until he went upstairs to fetch his Herm/(R)s rug, because he found the ambulance blanket too vulgar [he also took the opportunity to snatch ten packs of cigarettes, which he later smoked in his hospital room]. According to Simmons, "Although his doctors had warned him that cigarettes were bad for his heart; others in the medical profession had announced that drinking was good for it; so by upping his intake of one, he figured he could cancel out the harmful effects of the other." Though entering the period of his most idiosyncratic productivity, his personal excesses began taking their toll and by the late 70's, he was showing signs of wear. The dissipation is apparent in Sea Sex and Sun [78] where an older, seedier Serge sidles up to two black dancer/singers, who hustle away as he awkwardly tries to fondle them.
By the early 80's, his relationship with Birkin had also worn thin and she left him for the director Jacques Doillon. As she put it, it wasn't the drinking that drove her away, though that could be unpleasant, and it wasn't his controlling nature, though his finickiness didn't comport well with the messiness of marriage with children. And it wasn't that he was a bad father or a faithless husband because, for the most part, he was sweet, doting and loyal as both. What did it was the simple need to live a more normal life. Gainsbourg might have been content to burn his candle at both ends, but Birkin wanted to burn hers from just the one.
His dissolution accelerated after the breakup. The formidable capacity for alcohol was overwhelmed by bottomless consumption and the svelte rake morphed into a drunken lech. In public appearances he became a rheumy, paunchy, inebriated self-parody. The incidents he's best known for, burning a 500 Franc note, accosting Whitney Houston, are not to be found on D'Autres Nouvelles, but can be readily seen on YouTube. However, one can see a duet with Catherine Deneuve, Dieu fumer de havanes [80], in which he has his arm about her and repeatedly tries to draw her closer. Deneuve brushes him off smilingly, plucking his hand away. In Lemon Incest [84] Gainsbourg lies barefoot and shirtless with his then 13 year-old daughter Charlotte, who's clad in a shirt and panties. Much has been made of the scandal provoked by this video, but it's fairly innocuous. Instead of looking like a taboo-breaking provocateur, he looks like a flabby geezer. More disturbingly, in Love On The Beat [84] Serge sits on a couch on a stage in a disco. As dry ice wafts about, topless dancers circulate like fish. Like an old cat, he clumsily paws at them as they flit by. On a separate dais his brand new wife, Bambou, dances topless in a pair of jeans as an audience of mooks watches and cheers.
Jacques Doillon described Gainsbourg as an optimistic suicide. Despite his pastis-fueled ride into oblivion, he remained productive until his death at the age of 63 [on an odd personal note, the same age at which my father died]. In addition to producing his own albums, he produced several for Jane and Charlotte as well as one for Bambou. In addition he wrote and directed two films, Charlotte Forever and Stan the Flasher. Not too bad for a guy who drank up two-thirds of his liver.
Throughout his career, Gainsbourg showed different faces. Insecure, edgy creep. World-weary humorist. Dirty old crank. Those can all be rather entertaining, but my favorite image of him is as an artist, a husband and a father. The truest reflection of this is to be found in the legacy of his work. Not only in the reams of enjoyable music he produced, but in his influence on those whom he loved and inspired. There, the spirit of Serge continues in Jane and Charlotte, Michel Gondry, Benjamin Biolay, Air, The Tindersticks, Jarvis Cocker and many others who continue to create beautiful, melancholy, fanciful, funny things.
End Note: The last time I was at the Easy Street in Lower Queen Anne, they had several copies of D'Autres Nouvelles for sale at a very reasonable price.

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