“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.

“down in the park” – tubeway army (1979)

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Dystopias in art are really interesting to me. Especially when they are set in the near future with familiar elements that exist in the here and now. From video games set in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland to 1970s sci-fi films with teenage gangs wreaking havoc within a British police state, these stories dance on the line between frightening and alluring. They are cautionary tales that exaggerate the worst aspects of humanity to make a point about modern day society. Yet, they are strangely attractive almost as to suggest such a drastic change to our current way of life would be exciting. Though, I hardly believe if any of these scenarios became reality that they would be as romantic as our entertainment media can sometimes make them out to be.

Tubeway Army, led by Gary Numan, was a post-punk and new wave band formed during the 1970s. Originally rooted in punk music on their first studio release, the band would take a sharp turn towards electronica with the 1979 release of Replicants, their second and final studio album. A loose concept album, Replicants is about a world cohabited by men and machines; a transhumanist dystopian anti-reality seething with raw sexuality and perversion. The androids appear as androgynous beings that force their will on humans for entertainment.

I was aware of Numan at an early age. Around the turn of the millennium, VH1 featured a lot of nostalgia programming; various countdowns and decade retrospectives. One particular program counted down the best one-hit wonders of all time. Numan’s single “Cars” appeared on that list. I really like that song, but that was it. Knowing that Numan was a one-hit wonder, I didn’t think that he could have any other good songs. Being that I was 12 or 13 at the time and without blazing fast internet speeds combined with an elementary knowledge of pop music, I didn’t really have the motivation or interest to explore Numan’s synthetic world of electric nightmares.

I spent my high school years in a small rural farming community. There weren’t any convenient record shops nearby and commercial radio during the mid-2000s was excruciatingly dull. I consumed all of the TV shows and magazines that glorified artists of the past. Some of which I would never hear on commercial radio. That all would change when I got to college. Technology had progressed to bring people where they needed to go much faster and streaming media was in it’s infant stage. I was in college radio at the time and I wanted more music. My hunger was insatiable. Spending time with other music lovers, I tried to absorb as much as possible. And with the rise of social media, share as much as possible as well.

During my junior year of college, I purchased a boxset by the Police called Message in a Box during a Black Friday sale online. It was a 4-disc collection claiming it contained every commercially released recording (though I would find out later it is missing a few tracks), including studio albums and rarities. A couple of the rarities were live cuts from the concert film Urgh! A Music War. I did my research online and learned it was considered one of the best concert films of all time (always hard to take such claims seriously) and featured a wide array of post-punk and new wave music. I was really into soul music and spent a lot of time in that world for my college radio show, but I like the Police. And if the Police were good enough for this film, then the other artists had to be great.

I learned Urgh! A Music War was not an easy film to find. I had to acquire a bootleg copy online if I was going to watch it. When it finally finished downloading, I watched performance after performance featuring the likes of the Cramps, XTC, and the Go-Gos. While the film featured three dozen brilliant performances, a few stuck out in my head. One in particular was Numan performing “Down in the Park,” a single off of Tubeway Army’s Replicants album

The music was dark and brooding, but featured a lilting synth-pop rhythm that added a sardonic tone. During the performance, Numan was driving around the stage in a black motorized cart while he sang. It look liked something a paraplegic would drive in battle against a robot army. I was stunned by Numan’s presence as a live artist. He was a storyteller with a showman flair for the darkest fringe of society.

Released in 1979, “Down in the Park” is set during a futuristic dystopia where the interactions between humans and androids can be violent and deadly. In this world, machines attack and rape bystanders for entertainment. They state that they are not lovers and not romantics, but they are they are there to serve the will of their robotic friends and masters. Adding life to this story, the synth-pop backing track creates a dark and hypnotic presence that makes the listener engulfed in a deep feeling of paranoia as if they could be attacked next. The harmony is broken up by interludes of Moog synthesizers that heighten the sensation that any calm being felt is only temporary.

I cannot say that I am a big fan of Numan, but I do enjoy aspects of his work. A few years ago, I did see him perform live on JBTV in Chicago. Standing only a few feet away, he performed a five song set from his latest album to promote a show he was doing at the Metro. He had an incredible stage presence and moved very chaotically at his age. This was a far departure from the stoic and androgynous robotic figure I had seen in Urgh! A Music War. Numan is an underrated artist who can present a particular image and idea. And he is incredibly exciting for that. I just hope I’m never down in the park he sings about.