Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Strange Weather - The Tumultuous Re-Emergence of Grace Jones (Part One)

Of all the things Grace Jones is infamous for, her penchant for lateness is about as notorious as her temper. As anyone who has followed Grace for any significant length of time might know it’s not unknown for the lady to be, as I've been told, hours late for her own shows yet still manage to win over the crowd by the end of it. It’s perhaps the sort of thing which led her former collaborator and paramour, Jean-Paul Goude to remark:

Grace likes to party. In the end I lost her to it. She won’t work. She’ll show up whenever she feels like it. She has an entourage that encourages it…. Ironically, the fact that she’s fucked up her career only proves how genuine she really is.

Goude’s remarks may partly explain why it has taken nearly 20 years for her to show up with her latest album, “Hurricane” (2008, Wall Of Sound). With all the false starts and delays that have surrounded the release of a new Grace Jones album these past 19 years, this is practically Grace’s own “Chinese Democracy,” except of course, Grace’s hype is much less overwhelming, and the reception much more positive and rightfully so. “Hurricane” may not replace “Nightclubbing” (1981, Island) at the top of critics’ lists, but it will probably go down as one of the finest albums of her career. For a woman who, depending on whichever birth date (1948 or 1952) you believe, is at or nearing 60, pulling off a sound like the one she has on this album, at her age and after such a lengthy absence, seems rightly triumphant. For a survivor of the disco era, it’s certainly not the first time she’s had to pull this off. A model-turned-recording artist (not always a guaranteed career move, just ask Naomi) with an undeniable presence and personality, she also had the unconventional (some have even said limited) voice to match, which seemed to be both an advantage and a challenge. For her then producer Tom Moulton who was initially reluctant to take the job and who had once remarked that her voice reminded him of Bela Lugosi, it was perhaps more of the latter.. Yet, as much of a disco icon as she was, after 1979 whatever disco cachet she carried would have likely meant next to nothing; contemporaries like Sylvester, Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor had it hard enough, and even then, never quite eclipsed their disco success. If it weren’t for the vision of Island founder Chris Blackwell and his idea of pairing Grace with the team of Sly & Robbie, Alex Sadkin and The Compass Point All-Stars, Grace Jones the singer seemed destined to become yet another casualty of the times. The release of “Warm Leatherette” (1980, Island), however, proved to be the turning point. With it and the three albums that followed, the true potential of her distinctive voice, personality and presence were harnessed and showcased like never before. Emerging more artistically distinctive and relevant than ever, it was possibly the most successful reinvention of a disco act ever executed.

On a more personal note, and at the risk of sounding a tad fan-boyish, I’d have to say that discovering Grace Jones in my mid teens is probably one of those things that saved my life. Looking at her and listening to her felt like a portal to another place, another realm of possibility - into an urbane world of fashion, music, art and individuality that couldn’t have been further removed from the insipid oil money of the Calgary suburbs, the juvenile teenage punk of my peers, or the vulnerability of those early teenage years. While others may have found her cold, unrestrained gender ambiguity intimidating and threatening, to me there was something about her that felt incredibly, even radically liberating and inspiring at the time. I suppose the seemingly innate predilection of gay men toward iconic female diva figures (be them triumphant, tragic or both) likely goes a long way in explaining why myself and legions of gay men before me were drawn to her.. Cornering Grace's appeal among gay audiences and her symbolic stature in disco culture, the late Mel Cheren nailed it down pretty well in his autobiography (pgs 282-3):

"If there is anyone who, for me, epitomized the untamable, anything-goes atmosphere of those last disco days before AIDS, it was Grace Jones.... Although not a really a singer, at least not at first, she somehow convinced people to take a chance. Her first single, 'That's The Trouble,' quickly climbed the charts in the U.S. and became a smash. And Grace just as quickly became an icon for gay men... One time, early in her career, he [Tom Moulton] asked her about her direction, 'I want to be a star, darling,' she growled, which was honest enough. But she wanted stardom on her own terms, in a way that constantly raised eyebrows. People were shocked when she physically attacked London TV host Russell Harty on the air... They were shocked again when she posed nude in Hustler, entangled with another woman over the banner 'I have a lot of man in me.' They were shocked when she was simply being Grace... I adored her, but then, so did most gay men. It's hard to put your finger on exactly why. Perhaps because she, like we, defied convention at every turn. Perhaps because she rose above her roots. Because she turned the tables on society, using it's own techniques and methods to transform herself into a star. Whatever the reason, when someone asks me what or who best epitomizes those wild, wacky, sexy, wonderful days, I usually think of those animal eyes, that growl and say, if you want to know what it was like, look at Grace.

If I recall correctly, my first exposure to Grace Jones came through a little review in XY Magazine (a gay teen magazine which I used to devour in those days) for the then recently released "Private Life: Compass Point Sessions" (1998, Island/PolyGram) 2 CD set. It was enough to get me to borrow a copy from the public library. Listening to the post-disco groove fused with cold renderings of Reggae and New Wave and just the overall clash of madness and elegance, it was nothing like I’d ever heard before - not even the Reggae I used to hear Saturday afternoons on the local University radio station, which came close but still didn't quite cut it. Getting past my initial perplexion after a few listens, I was hooked. It was one of those things that rarely left my CD player in those days and still remains a frequent player for me today. A year after I'd bought it, those discs were pretty well scratched up and worn out..

If my appreciation wasn’t solidified by then, it was irreversibly so by the time I saw her One Man Show on video. I remember special ordering the VHS from the downtown HMV here in Calgary and really making an event of the day it finally came in. Skipping class one Friday afternoon in November '99 just to go pick it up, upon taking it home and playing it, I was transfixed. While her visual impact was certainly not lost on me before, One Man Show seemed to immortalize it on another level altogether. Seeing her perform “Warm Leatherette,” impeccably staged, contemptibly spitting out the song's lyrics, looking for all the world like the coldest, most ferocious, Amazonian bitch to ever live pretty much sealed it for me. At the time, for most of the gay guys I had come across, their default diva seemed to be Madonna, but for me, from that moment on, Grace was it.

Grace Jones - Warm Leatherette (from 'A One Man Show')
Uploaded by Grace Jones Brasil

I suppose, given the cold, aggressive image she has, Grace has always been something of an enigma. Having discovered her in the late 90’s during what will probably go down as her ‘wilderness years,' her enigmatic persona seemed that much more magnified at the time. For someone so distinctive, she seemed practically off the map for much of that time, having ‘gone underground,’ as she puts it. Aside from Compass Point Sessions, which seems to have gone a long way into reintroducing her iconic back catalogue to the public, the 90’s and early 2000’s seemed to be a mess of speculation, shelved album projects, sporadic single releases, botched deals, minor movie roles, punctuated by the occasional high profile appearance now and then. Although still performing quite regularly (three times a month, she claimed in 2000), little was reported in the press, aside from the occasional bout of air/train rage, rumours about her drug habits, gossip inches about her love life and occasional festival or fashion show appearance. Amidst all of that however, talk of a new Grace Jones album, although relatively low-key, never really seemed to die.

A return to the Island label, her 1993 single, the #1 Billboard Club Hit “Sex Drive” (a cover of Industrial duo Sheep on Drugs' “Track X”) produced by Mark Pistel and Philip Steir, two-thirds of activist rap/industrial group Consolidated was a blistering, snarling return to form, especially after her largely disappointing major label liason in the late 80's. Notably, the B-side of “Sex Drive,” “Typical Male,” a cover of a track which Consolidated originally did themselves, was my personal favourite of the two tracks. A searing feminist indictment of patriarchy, who better to deliver such a statement than one of the most feared women in pop culture, herself? Needless to say, Grace's version, backed with an aggressive aural clash of beats and samples and fronted by her combative delivery, was far more effective than Consolidated's original. Although this may have come some fifteen years earlier, it is perhaps the most direct precursor to the direction she would take, using her persona as a vehicle for social commentary, upon her re-emergence earlier this year with “Corporate Cannibal.”

Listen: Grace Jones - Typical Male (1993, Island Red Label)

Despite the positive reception to the "Sex Drive" single, the 1994 album project that was to supposed to follow, said to have been entitled “Black Marilyn” would eventually end up on the shelf. Grace briefly spoke about it in her interview from the December 2008 issue of Mojo Magazine:
We had the whole album. Consolidated came in and ended up producing the whole record and I couldn't stand listening to it. I ended up crying. I just got like ‘Whaaaaaa!’ Then I started taking drugs. I think I was mixing everything. Just whatever I could find to kill the pain. Downers and uppers and whatever was new on the market.
After the aborted “Black Marilyn” project, she seemed set to return once again with her much touted collaboration with Tricky and his Durban Poison label, reported in 1996 and plugged further a couple of years later by Brian Chin for his liner notes on the Compass Point Sessions set. Yet by the end of the 90’s that collaboration seems to have effectively collapsed amid rumours of creative differences and irreconcilable demands. To date, the only track to ever surface of the three or four that they had apparently finished (Grace once said three, Tricky reportedly alleged four) from their sessions was “Hurricane”. Apparently re-recorded and included as the title track for her current album, at the time, alternatively titled “Cradle To The Grave” by some, it ended up leaking in the late 90's via a bootleg white label with two versions said to have been remixed by DJ Emily, which are still widely available on the Internet. Tricky himself had also previewed another version – one which he had remixed himself on a radio show that he hosted in September 1999.. Given Tricky's involvement in this mix, of all the versions to have surfaced, this is probably the closest to the final version recorded by Grace and Tricky.

Listen: Grace Jones - Hurricane (Cradle To The Grave) (Tricky Remix) (Unreleased)
Listen: Grace Jones - Hurricane (Cradle To The Grave) (White Label Mix 1)

Despite the apparent demise of her partnership with Tricky, there still seems to have been some resurgent interest at the turn of the millennium - a collaboration with Lil’ Kim - “Revolution” from her album ”Notorious K.I.M” (2000, Atlantic), a remix of “Pull Up To The Bumper” by Funkstar De Luxe (top 5 on the Billboard Club Charts in November 2000). Of all the one offs she did during this time, her finest would have to have been “Storm” from the soundtrack of the ill-received 1998 Avengers movie. Co-credited to frequent collaborator Bruce Wooley's Radio Science Orchestra and produced by Marius De Vries (U2, Madonna, Björk); with it's epic orchestration and Grace's larger-than-life cinematic presence, "Storm" sounded like the the Bond theme that she had never been given. With reports surfacing of yet another planned album project said to be entitled (appropriately enough) "Force Of Nature,” that track effectively seemed like an exciting preview for things to come..

Listen: Grace Jones & The Radio Science Orchestra - Storm (1998, Atlantic)

Having signed a record deal in 2000 with an emerging web-based company, (with planned distribution by EMI) - an early proponent of digital music distribution and one of the many short lived, ill-fated dot-com enterprises of the time, things seemed to be looking hopeful once again. A prominent press interview with The Independent (her first major press interview in 8 years, they claimed) and a less high profile one the year before for Australian webzine Seven Magazine both gave hints to an imminent album release, with the latter interview ambitiously citing the likes of Roni Size, Stevie Wonder, and P. Diddy (or Puff Daddy, as he was known then) as prospective collaborators. Around mid-2001, there were also some reports mentioning that "Storm" producer, Marius De Vries had been enlisted as a co-producer on the project. Not long after however, whatever hopes of an imminent album release seemed to be dashed with the project appearing to be all but scrapped, or as MCY reps claimed ‘indefinitely on hold.’ It would be another three years before anything more was heard from Grace on the studio front..

To be continued in Part Two..





Anonymous said...

Very interesting reading material ; once more.

Just saw a great 3 page spread in the new issue of GT (UK'S Gay Times) magazine.

I need to pick it up !!!

Tommy said...

Hey Kris, thanks for the kind words! :)

Thanks for the tip on the Gay Times spread. I'm gonna have to pick up that issue too, whenever it reaches newsstands over here, that is..

Anonymous said...

Hey Tommy

My mistake ; Grace's spread is in the December issue of ATTITUDE magazine (not GT).

The one with TOM HARDY from Guy Ritchie's Rock'N'Rolla on the cover.

Anonymous said...

Great insight!
Seems like Hurricane had a very complicated making...but it was really worth the wait. I think Grace and her team have managed to make a record that sounds like vintage, early 80s Grace, while updating her sound and making it more relevant than ever. Especially lyrics-wise.

I really enjoyed reading this story through your eyes and personal experiences.
Thanks for another great article!

Brad said...

This was so comprehensive and wonderful...I cannot wait to read Part 2.

Ryan MC said...

wow! very nice!!!!!!! you are a great writer. keep it up-can't wait for pt. 2

M.E. Grant said...

I anticipate part 2.
You know, Grace and others would have an equal shot at being a "default diva" if they were more prolific, I'm sure. It's been a long road to "Hurricane," but the results are indeed stunning for someone at an age when the industry's best and brightest might not lend a hand. For years I've been hoping the same for Tina Turner, who deserves an album to rival "Private Dancer."

Unknown said...

There is an old magazine article by Elio Iannacci in 1997 with Grace answering some amazing questions. The magazine is gone now—it is called ICON. It was gay and based in Canada. Does anyone have it?

Tommy said...

Kris - thanks for the correction on that! I really want that issue now. Haven't found it here (yet). I think I'll just have to buy it online..

Charles - I totally agree. It's exactly what all good
'comeback' records should do, IMO. Thanks for the comment! :)

Brad & Ryan - Thanks for the kind words! :) I just posted part II, a little overdue and a little long-winded, but what else is new?

M.E. Grant - I agree, it is a stunning album. Even if she hasn't been as prolific as she perhaps could have been, the fact that she's managed to stay somewhat relevant and influential, largely trading on her old records/glories is a testament in itself.. As far as Tina goes, next to "Private Dancer" of course, I thought her "Wildest Dreams" album was a great moment for her, being able to work with the Trevor Horn and the PSB.. Thanks as always for the comments! :)

John - I'm going to have to look for that magazine! Iannacci has written some positive things about her album in the Canadian press. If I ever find it, I might have to put it up here..

Anonymous said...

As far as techno/tech-house goes, that white label mix of Hurricane is AMAZING! One of the first songs I could see myself playing from start to finish without anyone in the crowd batting an eyelid! thanks x

Gary said...

would it be possible to re-upload those grace jones songs again.. that storm song is amazing... could never find it anywhere..
and typical male.. i never heard that song before,, im been looking for sex drive could never come across it too, she had another 90s song.. Love kills.. I have like all her songs from the 70s and 80s.. but her 90s music seemed to go under.. and its impossible to find it anywhere


Anonymous said...

i always go for Quality over Quantity!

so a 2 decade wait for 'new stuff' is just how long we all had 2 wait!

i wonder if our Grace would get half as much 'music biz shyte' if more people thought of her as a female Bowie???

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