Sunday, May 19, 2013

Walking In The Reign: Grace Jones at 65

At the risk of having a TMI moment, I'm going to share the fact that there's a little part of my brain that is dedicated to Grace Jones's version of Use Me, the Bill Withers song. A quick mental flick of the switch and it starts playing. The rhythm section of Sly & Robbie, along with the keys of Wally Badarou, sets the stage, concocting a fantastic groove that's both earthy and mechanical. Then Grace enters, working her slightly stentorian mezzo against the beat: "MY friends/THINK that/It's THEIR appointed duty..." So freaking fabulous. It was actually that song that sealed the deal for me with Grace, standing in Tower Records in 1998, the year the excellent compilation Private Life was released. I had bought the 12" of Pull Up To My Bumper in high school and had put it on countless mix tapes over the years - it is still a guaranteed floor-filler - but had not invested further. Now I was a true convert and have remained so ever since. When she's at her best, there's something about her bravery and strength, not to mention her uniquely rhythmic singing, that moves me.

Private Life covers the three albums she made in Compass Point, Nassau, with the amazing band Island Records head Chris Blackwell hand-picked to work with her. The Caribbean was a homecoming for Grace as she was born in Jamaica, moving to Syracuse, NY at the age of 12. It wasn't too long before she made her escape from that frozen city and she was quickly mixing it up in NYC and Paris as a model, scene-stealing party-goer and, eventually, a singer. It soon became obvious that she was an extension of a through-line that started with Josephine Baker and continued through Eartha Kitt (I'm a big fan) - unconventional vocalists with a strong theatrical bent and personae that freely confront issues of gender, race and sexuality.

Her first three albums made her name in the hardcore disco underground of the Pradise Garage and its ilk, but it wasn't until Blackwell sent her down to Nassau that she began to make wider waves. The story goes that he sent down some of the outrageous photos Jean Paul Goude had made of her as a virtual advance team. Sly, Robbie and the rest of the Compass Point Allstars began work on the album with huge posters of Grace staring at them from all angles, though they still might not have been fully prepared when she showed up in the flesh. Covering songs by The Normal, Iggy Pop, The Police, Chrissie Hynde, Tom Petty and others, she proved to be a genius interpreter of contemporary songwriters. On Living My Life, the third Compass Point album, her own songwriting became richer and more personal. While she was often late and sometimes a no-show at her concerts, the film A One Man Show used videos and live footage to display a riveting and unique performer.

After Living My Life, Grace tried something new, working with producer Trevor Horn on Slave To The Rhythm, which yielded another classic single in the title track. She co-wrote every song on Inside Story in 1986, working with Nile Rodgers to update her sound yet again. Like Slave To The Rhythm, Inside Story has some 80's clatter, but I'm Not Perfect (But I'm Perfect For You) is a strong single and the songs continued to show more nuance. However, Bulletproof Heart, the 1989 album overseen by her then-husband (naturally, she's had a couple), found her either subsumed or unsupported by the production.

There were ups and downs after that point and a long period of quiescence. In 2008 she released Hurricane, a return to form that found her working with Sly & Robbie again and sharing her most personal songs yet. The frankly autobiographical Williams' Blood revealed that her maternal grandfather, Dan Williams, was a musician who had not always behaved himself while on the road with Nat King Cole - a far cry from Jones' preacher-father. The dichotomy between the Jones blood and the Williams blood is likely a source of the tension and emotional depth contained in Grace's finest work.

I had a chance to see her perform in 2009 and she was as spectacular as I had imagined, managing to sing well while wearing incredible costumes. She's a bit eccentric, obviously, and chattered out autobiographical anecdotes from backstage during each costume change. While there hasn't been any new music since Hurricane, she made a recent splash at the Queen's Jubilee concert, singing Slave To The Rhythm while unflappably hula hooping through the whole song. Queen Elizabeth was not in the stadium yet, which is just as well - it might have been confusing to have two queens there at the same time!

Happy 65th birthday to the one, the only, Miss Grace Jones.

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