The process of fashioning herself into a full-functioning human being is complete. Ladies and gentlemen: Grace Jones. You’ve been asked here to take a moment to observe pop technology made flesh. This being began pop life as a model in New York City after being programmed in theatrical behavior in upstate New York. Her last album “Hurricane” might be her best. But she already had a best album, it was called “Nightclubbing”. And between her two best albums was a massive slump and hiatus—why is that? Most bands either get better or get worse. Grace Jones got worse, then better. Let’s find out why!
Jones went to the Warhol school of self-promotion, both aesthetically and in practice—think of Warhol’s blank expression, all his personality in a snap-on wig, art as pop product and vice versa, self as celebrity. Although Warhol’s eyes have all the personality of a fish, looking into her eyes in photographs is like looking at a panther in a zoo. Her first phase, as flowing disco queen, was supplanted by the mannequin of the “Nightclubbing” sleeve: she put the “man” in mannequin. She was less a person and more an idea: of woman, of black woman, of the exotic, of the MC. The disco queen was the clothes horse, dressed like a tropical bird who spread her plumage across the pastel gatefolds of the (single) LPs: “Portfolio,” “Fame,” “Muse.” The front of the “Warm Leatherette” sleeve featured a high-contrast video image of her in Ray-Bans, and the back a leather outfit that made her look as much like a piece of furniture as anything.
By the start of the ‘80s, Jean Paul Goude had remade Jones as a polished mahogany mannequin. Whether with just a dinner jacket on or naked, she became an idol embodying the unknown, her smooth brown skin like the Polaroids of celebrities that blew the detail and blemishes out of the white skin tones of party people known and unknown alike. Grace Jones, you are sexy and I am 17, I am attracted to you, but I am also a little scared. Those girls at the high school dance got nothing on you, intimidation-wise. There’s a reason why your character in “View to a Kill” is both a Bond girl and Bond villain. Though, after seeing it in the theater six times, I’m still not sure why.
I know a made-up woman is always made up to attract, but what do I know, a teenage boy whose other heroes are the English synth guys who are also made up. (Hmm, that phrase suits all of you: made-up.) Goude’s image of you on the “Island Life” compilation, you as a sculpture, it’s so beautiful, as you finally reached a state of pure artifice. The sleeve of the “Nipple to the Bottle” 7 inch features a strip of white paper as bone-in-your-nose, cool equally to the strip of white cigarette in the “Nightclubbing” image.
Then on “Slave to the Rhythm,” your work remaking remodeling yourself done, you can unwind in the bubble bath of celebrity and have someone sounding like a foreign press guy interview you between beats, relaxed, shimmering beats. You sound good, you’re relaxed and even hinting at a past. And you still look mahvelous, even though your flat-top could kill a man. Picture you as a wall hanging with that hair, in a Manhattan penthouse: one night you fall off the wall and take the head off the wife of a hedge fund manager…but that warm laugh echoes off the glass and it’s nooooo problem, all part of the plan. Sometimes you eat the corporation, and sometimes…
But then what? A new album comes, but doesn’t make much of an impression. “Inside Story,” it sounds like a tabloid, but tabloid stuff is made up in the wrong way, you’ve pulled us in and we want to know more, but this slick music pulls the shades down. Even with your favorite bands, some of the work remains distant, a desert island disc wrapped in a sarong sitting in its deck chair right next to a dud in cargo shorts. It’s a hair’s difference in a way, you balanced on the one foot one moment—your name gracefully describing your static dance–and tipping over the next.
And then the music stops.
Along with us neglecting her in times of not-so-great albums, where was our attention in all the years between “Bulletproof Heart” and “Hurricane”? Did we think They just hung her back up in a closet or put her back in one of those 2001 suspended animation coffins like a superhero who wasn’t needed in a time of peace?
Recently I paused in reading Greil Marcus’ “The Basement Tapes” so I could listen to the music the book actually refers to. The two disc album released normally is what I thought the basement tapes, and I’d become semi-immersed (which is what, afloat?) in Marcus’ flights of fancy about songs that sounded a lot more fun than I’d remembered them. Having bought the album last year and listened to it once, I sold it–some pleasant-enough honky-tonky numbers where the Band and Dylan sounded like they were having fun and paying weird homage to the canon didn’t hold my interest. However, the “real” tapes are indeed bootlegged recordings, from which the most polished and finished sounding were culled to form an album that would make sense to the masses. Not just be a wild, disorganized record of post-traumatic artistic crisis pickled in brandy.
At any rate, I’m still going through the Basement Tapes, which are found online under the name “A Tree With Roots”, having four discs, 108 songs, totaling over 5 hours. It’s good to put on huge headphones, close your eyes and focus on music for once for the art form it is. And not just do dishes to it. Plus you need the headphones to hear all the deeply symbolic inter- and intra-song banter and performative nuances upon which Greil Marcus builds his critical sand castles.
So, in trying to figure out what the hell happened to Grace Jones between 1990 and 2008, I first begin to think of the period as an extended basement tapes period. Surely having a child(ren) was involved in this career blackout, as were probably disputes with record companies, divorces and remarriages, the focus on an acting career (I saw “A View to a Kill” about six times in the theater, even though it was bad, but Grace and a D2 theme song, come on!), failed projects, etc. But the editorial We don’t care how the period happened as much as what happened during it to create the deep and powerful music of “Hurricane,” right? Which but first you have to find the tapes. Please excuse me while I go down to the basement.