IF GRACE JONES IS A QUESTION MARK FOLLOWED BY AN EXCLAMATION POINT THEN THAT EXCLAMATION POINT MIGHt JUST BE HER FORTHCOMING CURATION OF THIS YEAR’S MELTDOWN FESTIVAL, WRITES CARY GEE
Originally invited to take the helm of London’s most outré cultural celebration encompassing music, film and the visual arts in 2021, Grace’s debut will finally happen in July, after a year’s delay due to the Covid pandemic. You only have to look at past curators, who have included David Bowie, Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, David Byrne, and Nile Rogers, to realise that being invited to take control of Meltdown is akin to being awarded a Nobel Prize for Cool.
Past line-ups have featured many of the most startling and original LGBTQ+ performers of this and previous generations; Boy George has appeared twice, at the invitation of Yoko Ono, and Anohni, the transgendered singer formerly known as Anthony Hegarty of Anthony and the Johnsons fame (who once sat next to me taking notes while listening to his own guest Marc Almond) and Grace’s guest list continues this trend with appearances by Skin (of Skunk Aninsie fame) and gender-bending Canadian singer-songwriter Peaches who is set to make her third appearance. Other LGBTQ+ favourites have included Siouxie Sioux, Suzanne Vega and the New York Dolls who appeared at the behest of a pre-crackpot Morrissey.
Grace’s own queer credentials stretch back almost to the beginnings of modern LGBTQ+ history in mid -1970s New York, where, following a successful career as a model in Paris (she emigrated from her home in upstate NY after being told she was too dark to model for US magazines) she launched her putative singing career at the renowned gay discotheque 12 West.
Legendary dance mix producer Tom Moulton who produced Grace’s first three disco albums (Fame, Muse, Portfolio) was there.
“All of a sudden the spotlight hits her,” he says. “She starts singing I Need a Man and the place goes crazy. After she finishes, she goes, ‘I don’t know about you, honey, but I need a f**king man!’ Talk about a room-worker. Whatever it takes. She was so determined.” An icon was born.
Unlike her disco contemporaries (Gloria Gaynor was also produced by Moulton) Grace had not been blessed with a voice, at least not one that coincided with the invention of tunes, but what her voice lacked in quality it more than made up for in authenticity. And it is that authenticity that allowed Grace to sidestep disco’s death rattle and cement her place as one of music’s and wider culture’s most enduring and hyper-individual stars.
However, it wasn’t until the beginning of the1980s, a few short years before AIDS was to decimate her natural constituency, that Grace really hit her stride musically and aesthetically when she collaborated for the first time with rhythm section and producers Sly and Robbie, whose post-punk, dub-heavy blend of new wave, reggae and rock on the album Warm Leatherette perfectly matched the visuals of art director (and later Jones’ romantic partner) Jean Paul Goude.
Covers of songs by artists as diverse as Chrissie Hynde, (another pretender to the throne of the world’s coolest woman), Roxy Music (Love is the Drug) and Smokey Robinson proved there was no stone Jones wasn’t prepared to leave unturned in her pursuit of musical perfection. She didn’t so much sing these songs as bend them to her own imperious will.
By the time she released her studio masterpiece, 1981’s Nightclubbing, with added synth, funk, and va-va-voom Jones had not merely tapped into the Zeitgeist, she had become the Zeitgeist, her androgyny the prevailing fashion and Jones herself the ultimate paradox. A template for non-conformity, shrouded in myths of her own making.(I once heard her tell someone how she was discovered shortly after her birth after floating down a river in a Moses basket!)
Songs from both Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing, as well as its follow up Living My Life, were captured in Goude’s ground-breaking, visually stunning performance video One Man Show (1982), an absolute must-see for any Jones fan and far more rewarding than her appearances in the mainstream movies Conan the Barbarian (where she met former husband Dolph Lungren) and A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s final and least favourite Bond film.
By the time filming wrapped on A View to a Kill the two stars were barely on speaking terms. “Every day in her dressing room she played very loud rock music that made the walls shake,” said Moore. “An afternoon nap was out the question.” Anyone who has marvelled at Jones’ Amazonian appearance on film (and quaked at her now legendary assault of Russell Harty on his chat show) might be surprised to learn that she is actually a relative slight 5’9” tall, which would all but disqualify her as a fashion model by today’s lofty standards.
Nevertheless her appearances in these two films led directly to her most commercially successful music release to date, 1985’s Slave to the Rhythm. Produced in collaboration with Trevor Horn (best known as the Svengali behind Frankie Goes to Hollywood) the single gave Grace her first ever top 20 hit single and album of the same name which featured eight different versions of the same song!
The essential “best of” collection, Island Life was released the following year and featured on the cover Goude’s extraordinary artwork Nigger Arabesque first published in New York magazine in 1978 and subsequently referenced by Nicky Minaj who struck the same pose (with less conviction) in her video for the 2011 song Stupid Hoe, proving once again that Jones’ legacy continues unabated.
I first met Grace when she pitched up at an apartment I was staying in, with enough luggage to sink a battleship, and announced she had come to stay. No one batted an eyelid… except me. Over the years we’ve continued to cross paths. For a while it used to be at funerals. Happily nowadays it’s more commonly at Wimbledon. Perhaps surprisingly Grace is a big fan of men’s tennis, (and Roger Federer in particular), or perhaps it’s just another example of Grace turning up wherever you least expect her.
In the 1990’s I got to work with Grace on a live vodka promotion in Europe. What could possibly go wrong? In theory it all sounded very simple. Grace would turn up at a host venue, announced on the same day… just in case… appear on stage in an extraordinary outfit… I remember an iridescent sequined robe with a hood, the kind a boxer might wear, and perform in front of a wall of vodka bottles resembling the world’s best ever game of Jenga. The song she was required to sing only had six words. “Absolute Grace, Absolute Sex, Absolute Vodka’”yet every appearance by Grace carried (and still does) an element of jeopardy. That’s what makes her so utterly compelling as a performer, and these appearances were no different. As she strutted and sang she downed liberal amounts (of vodka?) from a bottle she plucked out of the wall. Whether or not it was a prop no one ever really knew. By the time she had finished her song the bottle would be empty and she’d be out of there on her way to the next gig!
Fast forward almost 30 years and Grace’s next gig will be at Meltdown, at London’s Southbank centre. And it promises to be one hell of a show. In addition to performances from the aforementioned Skin and Peaches, Grace has also invited self-proclaimed “Womanist” and Grammy award winning sister of Beyoncé, Solange Knowles, Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal and Barry White’s original band The Love Unlimited Symphony Orchestra. The festival concludes with Grace Jones’ own performance on Sunday 19 July, and who in the world wouldn’t want to see that?