“art groupie” – grace jones (1981)

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Last week, Grace Jones turned 69 years old.  Jones has been an icon I have come to love only within the last few years.  While there are still bands and musicians I nostalgically hold onto from my high school and college days, I still make active attempts to include room for new inspirations and influences in my life.  I began to really appreciate Jones when I read her memoir I’ll Never Write My Memoirs published in 2015.  Prior to that, I knew a few songs from her but not much else.  Really only a handful of her disco tracks from compilations I owned as well as the single “Pull Up to the Bumper” which was one of her biggest hits.  I had some time to read the book over the Christmas holiday that year and she intrigued me enough as a cultural figure for to invest my time.  Though I wasn’t completely unaware and blind to her as a person as well as the pop culture cliff notes surrounding her, I was still very much a novice when it came to what I knew about Jones and her music.

Born in Spanish Town, St. Catherine, Jamaica in 1948, Jones was a daughter born to a local politician and Apostolic clergyman.   At the age of 13, Jones and her family relocated to the United States and lived near Syracuse.  As a teenager, Jones rebelled against her family and religious upbringing by wearing makeup and going to gay clubs.  When her mother remarried, Jones’ stepfather would beat the children and treaty young Grace the worst of them all.  This religiously motivated violence from her stepfather would be forever cemented in Jones’ mind and influence her career.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jones pursued a modeling career.  While some photographers sought Jones out for her unique look, many felt she was too strange to have a career.  Eventually, she would move to Paris where her fashion career would really take off.  During that time, she would go to the underground disco clubs with her modeling roommates Jessica Lange and Jerry Hall (can you imagine what that apartment must’ve been like?).  During the early to mid-1970s, disco music was still an underground phenomenon and an out for gay musicians and artists who wouldn’t be accepted anywhere else that would be mainstream.  This niche culture appealed to Jones and she started cutting her earliest disco tracks such as “I Need a Man.”

Towards the end of the decade, disco became a mainstream musical culture.  With that exposure came novelty acts that watered down and delegitimized the genre.  Disco was increasingly becoming a joke to after being coopted and appropriated who didn’t respect the origins of the art form established by the early pioneers.  Wanting no part of this, Jones moved away from disco.  Instead, she wanted to approach pop and dance music in unique ways she felt weren’t being done as the industry churned out disco clone hit after disco clone hit.

In 1980, Jones released Warm Leatherette.  While that album really starts to signify a change in artistic direction for Jones, it wasn’t until the release of Nightclubbing the following year that Jones truly came into her own.  So much about Jones’ 1981 masterpiece speaks volumes about the essence of her work, life, and character.  Immediately, you’re drawn to the cover.  While Jones identifies as feminine and a woman, she experimented with gender identities when it came to her work.  She has stated that her forays into masculinity have been influenced by both her grandfather and stepfather; she resembles her grandfather while her stepfather’s authoritative and violence behavior influenced the ferocity of her persona and work.  The cover features Jones wearing nothing but a blazer while the lines, angles, and shadow of her face evoke a masculine visage.  Even her breasts appear like muscular pectorals as they creep out of the blazer.

While the cover is truly striking, the heart of the album lies within the music.  As Jones shifted away from disco, she started settling into synthpop and post-punk with hints of reggae influence.  The big single off the album was “Pull Up to the Bumper” and featured a cool, rocking rhythm produced by Sly & Robbie.  What is interesting is that most of the albums is comprised of covers.  Jones manages to take tracks by the Police, Bill Withers, and Iggy Pop and reinvents them.  The narratives change to accommodate this image and sound that represents Jones as an icon to the point that they lose connection to their originators.  In essence, that makes an amazing cover.  It isn’t enough to merely copy the original.  You must make it your own and Jones does that impeccably.

Though not my favorite song from the record, one that deserves attention is the opening track on side two.  “Art Groupie” is only one of three songs from this nine song record that feature Jones as a writer.  It is a mellow song with a catchy hook.  She opens with this great declaration that she’ll never write her memoirs, that there is nothing in her book, and that her personal life is a bore.  That first line inspired the title of her actual memoir released 24 years later (and she kept her word because she dictated the book to Paul Morley and did not write it herself).

In the song, Jones assumes the role of someone who only embodies the role people push on her.  As an Art Groupie, she conveys that she is all style and substance.  All she needs is love adorned on her picture and for her audiences to admire her in glory.  What is fascinating about this is how this character differs from the real Grace Jones.  Jones, according to her memoir, has led an incredibly interesting life complete with creating art that challenges the foundations of pop music and gender constructs.  That hardly sounds like someone who is a bore.  However, there is a kernel of truth in her claim.  The Jones people hear on records and see in the movies is a carefully crafted image.  Jones even admits as much in her book.  While memoirs and autobiographies are meant to be very personal in that the author opens up their whole life, Jones isn’t going to divulge everything.  She has her secrets.  And there are legends and myths associated with her that she is in no hurry to disprove.  That is part of her mystique and charm.  As someone pours over a picture of Jones and tries to make sense of what they are seeing, Jones doesn’t help and only adds to the confusion.

Jones is still someone that I need to explore more.  Though I have read her book and listened to several of her albums, I haven’t had that much time with her.  It takes years to fully know an artist.  While I am glad I eventually found Grace, I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to when I was younger.  Artists mean different things to you at different times.  As I get older, it gets harder to discover new things.  People start getting set in their ways and what they like and what makes them comfortable.  Plus, some much is happening that it is harder and harder to stay hip.  The only solution is to just at least try to make an effort.  You may not come across the most new and exciting thing, but you may find something deeply rooted in our culture already but without the visibility it deserves.  Jones’ impact on music and pop culture and so significant, but she has never garnered the respect and accolades she deserves.  As society becomes more open to LGBT and transgender issues, figures like Jones should resurface as icons because they’ve been committed to these ideas before it was fashionable.  I remember when Paper published that photo of Kim Kardashian wear she exposed her ass in an effort to “break the Internet.” That photo was ripped from Jones who did that two decades prior and completely nude.  Since Kim is what is hot right now, people are going to forget or ignore the pioneers that came before.  So, I stand by my love of Grace Jones and champion her every chance I get because she deserves all the attention from big gestures like a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction to the smallest nods such as when a current pop star claims to be an original.  Pop owes so much to this slave to the rhythm.

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“charger” – gorillaz feat. grace jones (2017)

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Talking about music is one of my favorite hobbies.  Hell, that’s why I have this silly blog; to talk about music and whatever inane thoughts I have at the time.  The interest isn’t just insular either.  I make pursuing my hobby social as well.  Whether it is contributing to the social listening parties of “Classic Album Sundays,” going to concerts with friends, or leading a discussion for an album appreciation group over beers, I adapt my relationship to music to suit my moods whether it is listening on my own or sharing experiencing with friends.

For this entry, I was thinking more about the solo adventures I’ve had with music.  I’ve always had eclectic tastes since high school.  Part of my musical exploration stemmed from curiosity.  Pouring over books and magazines, I gravitated towards certain artists and trace the musical lineage leading up to them and what came after.  Music as a journey is important to me.  The story of where we come from, our current state, and the future possibilities are reflected through our art.  You can analyze a lot when you look at what a culture or society is listening to at that time.

Growing up, I listened to a lot of top 40 radio.  We all did.  It is the easily accessible bastion of commercialism that appeals to the masses.  However, at the turn of the millennium, I just kind of quit paying attention to what the hit songs were.  I wasn’t completely oblivious.  The big songs I would hear and most other things would get to me, but it would take time.

During this stage in my life, I was exploring other things.  In 1999 and 2000, I just listened to a lot of classic rock.  The loud, energetic riffs of dad rock just appealed to my rebellious pre-teen nature.  As I got older and heading into high school, my tastes shifted away.  I was listening to the Cure, the Clash, the Police, and other bands that would cement my love for post-punk and new wave during my formative years.  Not that any of those bands weren’t widely successful, commercial, or accessible to a general listener, they weren’t bands that impressionable youth listened to when everyone else in their peer group listened to Nelly or whatever.

Looking back, I’ve held firm to my belief that the aughts would be the worst decade in popular music.  Now, a lot of that comes from the fact I just wasn’t paying attention at that time and nostalgia doesn’t play a factor for me.  However, I’ve had a considerable amount to catch up.  And caught up I have.

The overall issue of music in the 2000s were a culmination of things.  First off, popular genres were terrible.  This is the decade that gave as emo, crunk rap, and the height of cock rock bands like Creed and Nickelback (easy targets, I know, but I’m trying to make a point).  Secondly, this is the dawn of the digital and the correlation the decrease of audio quality and the rise of overproduction.  Vinyl was out and iPods were in.  Music was produced to be loud cutting out the nuance of depth and compressed as low possible so you could fit in your pocket as many songs as possible.  And finally, the technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to handle diversity in listening.  While illegal downloading sites like Napster and LimeWire offered us a seemingly unlimited catalog of poorly compressed and improperly labeled songs to fill our mp3 players, audio streaming platforms had yet make a big splash due to slow internet speeds and limited bandwidth that prevented independent artists from sharing or selling their music.  Take all of that and throw in terrorism and a couple of wars and it is no wonder that the 2000s sucked.

Now it should be no wonder why I missed some artists or just simply didn’t care until years later.  Gorillaz are a band, for example, that just didn’t hit me until years later.  I don’t remember the first time I heard them, but I remember the first time I heard of them.  It was 2001 and I was travelling to England with my mom and sister.  Waiting at the airport during layovers, you take time to look around at shops.  At 13, I would just walk up and down the CD aisles judging the covers.  And I distinctly remember seeing the cover of Gorillaz’s debut album.  It was that album where the animated band were riding in a camouflage dune buggy against a stark background.  Kind of a shitty album cover when you think about it, but hey, it was 2001.  Combine that awful cover with the fact that it had that parental advisory label (music with that label was forbidden to me) and it was something I knew I wouldn’t be interested in let alone be allowed to have interest in.

When Demon Days dropped in 2005, I became a little bit more aware of Gorillaz.  “Feel Good Inc.” was a massive song.  It was inescapable on the radio and in the malls.  Still, it wasn’t something I felt fully invested in.  I liked the songs I had heard on the radio from that album, but I was spending my money on Bob Dylan CDs at that time.  Priorities, you know.

Coincidentally, it wouldn’t be until after the aughts ended that I would care about Gorillaz when their third studio album dropped in 2010 (great timing and out with the shit and in the with the…you know).  Plastic Beach was stellar.  The college radio station I volunteered with put “Rhinestone Eyes” in rotation and it was a hot track.  The DJs loved it and the listeners always requested it.  It wasn’t my pick to be in rotation.  I would’ve preferred “Stylo” or “Melancholy Hill” to go in rotation instead, but you couldn’t go wrong.  It was a solid album and one of the first vinyl records I bought.

On Christmas Day 2010, Gorillaz released a surprise new album for their fan club.  The kitschy thing about The Fall was that it was all recorded on an iPad while the band was on tour.  In less than a decade, the band would release their debut album in a time where physical media was still dominant to recording an entire album on a device that could create and distribute your music while being small enough to fit in a backpack.  I bought the physical release when the album was released in limited quantities to the public on Record Store Day in 2011.  The possibilities a band could pursue with ingenuity, creativity, and technology was practically impossible to quantify and exemplified by Gorillaz.

Then, there was nothing.  Gorillaz disbanded and Damon Albarn, one of the founders, pursued other projects.  Over the years, I still pulled out Plastic Beach on occasion.  I felt that with such a small discography, the band accomplished a lot and made a timeless record with their third release.  In fact, how long could you sustain a virtual band where cartoon apes were the face and voice of your art?  Perhaps that silence on their part signified that people didn’t care anymore.

Last year, news dropped that Gorillaz were getting back together and creating a new album.  And the first single dropped during the presidential inauguration.  “Hallelujah Money” featuring Benjamin Clementine was an apt release because the themes and music video were political in tone.  This was our first taste of new Gorillaz music in several years and it was exciting.

Over the next few months, more information on the upcoming album was released sparingly.  Announcements on the title (Humanz), release date (April 28th, 2017), and guest artists (so many) were released separately.  It was a classic example of withholding information to generate as much buzz as possible.  Even though a few songs were eventually released to give audiences a little taste, you couldn’t even sample the other tracks until the album’s release date.  I was jonesing to stream this album.  I even checked iTunes every day leading up to it’s release to see if I could just listen to a sample.  Nope.  Wasn’t going to happen.  I had to wait.

Humanz released last week and I’ve listened to it several times since then.  While Humanz may not live up to my love and appreciation of Plastic Beach, it is still a solid album complete with danceable tracks and apocalyptic themes.

One particular track I was looking forward to was “Charger” purely on the basis that it featured Grace Jones.  Jones has been someone I’ve grown to deeply appreciate over the last two years after reading her book I’ll Never Write My Memoirs published in 2015.  Jones is a severely underrated and underestimated musical icon whose fashion, vocal range, and pop innovation continues to reverberate in today’s styles.  I was eager to hear how this enigmatic legend worked with one of the defining bands of my generation.

In fact, Gorillaz have always been great at bridging generational divides I music. One of my favorite tracks from Plastic Beach is “Stylo” featuring the soul master Bobby Womack.  “Stylo” is a fun, power driven song that utilizes Womack’s talents well.  Albarn had worked with a lot of the big patriarchs of music on previous recordings.  However, with Humanz, he acknowledged a lack of representation of musically talented women icons in his music and sought out Jones that.  Albarn wanted Humanz to feature powerful musical matriarchs.  As a result, great artists like Jones and Mavis Staples appear on this album.

“Charger” is a fun track.  I enjoy it as one of my favorite from the album.  However, I am disappointed with how little Jones appears on the track.  While Womack on “Stylo” belted out whole lines crisply over the backing track, Jones feels lost in the background like a specter.  And perhaps that’s intentional, but I really wanted more Grace Jones.

I read about the recording process of the track.  Albarn had wanted to work with Jones and brought her in to listen to the song that would eventually become “Charger.”  In that state, the song already had another vocalist which Jones did not like.  When Albarn removed the other vocalist, Jones ad-libbed in the studio for four hours with a level of energy that Albarn described as “supernatural” and “not entirely of this world.”  So, maybe, the foggy guest appearance reminiscent of a ghost kinda makes sense in the grand scheme of Humanz as a whole.  Still, you cannot go wrong with a little more Grace Jones.

I’m really glad Gorillaz are back and Humanz doesn’t disappoint.  While it is easy to get distracted by the cartoon characters of 2-D, Murdoch, Russel, and Noodle, there is a lot more to this band that what meets the eye.  When their first album dropped, it was easy to dismiss the band as a fad.  However, 16 years later, they have really grown into something that is innovative while also connecting the now with what came before.  By bridging a generation gap in their musical style and the company they keep as guest artists, Gorillaz exemplifies a band that respects that journey of music.