Amazing Grace is still a slave to the rhythm
Artist, provocateur, muse – Grace Jones has been a cultural icon since the 1970s. With a new fly-on-the-wall documentary released about the Jamaican singer this month, Barry Didcock unravels why she has kept the world entranced for decades
GOOGLE the phrase “pop culture icon” and you’ll find it applied to everyone from Christina Aguilera to Winona Ryder to South Park’s Cartman. With apologies to fans of all of them, the only proper response is: “Yeah, right”.
Take one look at the life and times of Grace Jones, however, and it’s clear those three words fit her perfectly. As perfectly as the figure-hugging clothes designed for her by Yves St Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld or Giorgio Armani, all of whom she has modelled for; as perfectly as they ever fitted Bowie or Marilyn or Madonna – as perfectly as if they were made for her, in fact. Whether staring out from a provocative album or magazine cover, dancing naked in a bright red wig in camp 1980s horror classic Vamp or saving James Bond’s life in A View To A Kill, her blend of sexuality, physicality, androgyny, strength, artfulness, aggression and – yes – grace have made her a touchstone for feminists, fashionistas, artists, musicians and cultural theorists alike. When we call Grace Jones a pop culture icon, there is no hype or bombast to the claim. How can there be when she has been muse, model, singer, actress, performance artist and living work of art? Today she is also a 69-year-old grandmother. But interest in her and her career – both past, present and future – is undiminished. If anything, it’s picking up speed. In 2013, fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier presented a Grace Jones-inspired spring-summer line. In 2014, influential fashion magazine Paper famously “broke the internet” with a cover of a naked Kim Kardashian shot by Jones’s former lover Jean-Paul Goude in the style of many of the images he made of her. Two years on, Paper put another classic Goude image of Jones on its cover for an issue devoted to what it called “Nowstalgia” and which it defined as “the ways we can look into the past to see what the future will be and create, and remix old ideas into something thrillingly new”.
Last year in Milan, meanwhile, Goude had a major gallery retrospective with a significant section given over to his many images of the Jamaican-born singer, model and actress. Among them were famous shots such as his Blue-Black In Black On Brown (a doctored photograph of Jones naked under a boxy tuxedo, her hair cut into a severe flattop, a white cigarette hanging loosely from her lip) and Slave To The Rhythm (a collage of headshots of Jones which turns her open mouth into a snarling scream). Writing about the exhibition, fashion magazine i- D celebrated Jones’s legacy – her work with Goude would “go on to define the visual landscape of the 1970s and 1980s”, it said – and hailed Jones’s visual impact as being “etched into the landscape of pop culture”.
Rolling into 2017, Edinburgh College of Art recently hosted a two-day symposium with the title Ladies And Gentlemen: Miss Grace Jones. It examined Jones’s influence on fashion, her role as a muse, her contribution to music, her continued appeal to younger artists and musicians, her epic 1981 live performance film A One Man Show and – how could they not talk about this? – her infamous spat with British chat show host Russell Harty in 1980. Appearing with Old Harrovian photographer Lord Lichfield, the Queen’s cousin, she takes exception to Harty’s tone and demeanour towards her and ends up slapping him – though it’s actually more like a series of playful flaps.
And next up on the conveyor belt of Grace Jones-inspired offerings is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about her made by filmmaker Sophie Fiennes, sister of actor Ralph and director Martha. Released on October 27 it follows Jones as she travels from gig to gig; catches her backstage, at home in Paris, on visits to family in Jamaica and in the studio working on new songs; and intercuts these segments with live footage in which she
performs hits like Pull Up To The Bumper, Nipple To The Bottle, Love Is The Drug and Slave To The Rhythm. We watch her trying to get legendary reggae bassist Robbie Shakespeare on the phone when he has failed to turn up for a recording session – “Wha’gwan, Robbie?” she says, when he finally answers, then, sternly “don’t call me baby” – and enjoy her sipping champagne and eating seafood in the make-up chair ahead of a TV appearance in France. “I wish my p**** was this tight,” she muses as she tackles an oyster with a shucking knife – this is a woman who delights in both shock and physicality. As an aside, Jones revealed in her autobiography, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, that her dressing room rider requires she always be presented with two dozen unopened oysters, either Findeclare or Colchester, and six bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal champagne. When I ask Fiennes why she wanted to make a documentary about Jones she simply answers: “Who wouldn’t?” I see her point, though Fiennes admits she has long been fascinated by the androgynous singer. “My brother Jake had [the 1985 album] Island Life,” she tells me. “It was quite incongruous that he did, but he did. I’ve actually got it myself now, I managed to snaffle it years ago. But I remember looking at it and for me – I’m 50, so I was about 15 at the time – it was like looking at a woman and thinking there were messages there, like she’s virtually naked but she’s strong. She’s athletic, yet she’s elegant. And it immediately sears itself into your visual image bank. So that’s definitely my first memory.” That iconic album cover image was shot by Jean-Paul Goude and shows Jones, oiled and naked except for a bandage round her breasts and others round her knee, ankle and elbow. She’s clutching a microphone at a considerable distance from her head and holding an impossible-looking arabesque – one foot on the ground, the other curled up behind her. It’s an extraordinary photograph and has been mimicked and referenced by Nicki Minaj, Kylie Minogue and American model Amber Rose among others. For as long as Fiennes has been interested in Jones, other people have been writing about her and critiquing her too. One early admirer was the venerated British film critic Raymond Durgnat. In a 1986 essay titled Amazing Grace: Keeping Up With The Jones Mystique, he wrote that “watching Grace Jones’s video performances reminds me of the great Luchino Visconti’s remark that he’d happily make a whole movie with just one actor before one stretch of wall, so rich and varied the human body in performance be”. Durgnat, says Fiennes, “gives a great reading of her as a cultural figure. So I think she has always been interesting in that way because there are layers to unpack in terms of how she works culturally”. But although the interest in Jones was longstanding, Fiennes didn’t finally meet her until she made a film about her brother, Noel Jones, the charismatic pastor of the Greater Bethany Community Church in South Central Los Angeles. The two women became friendly, though, and the chance to finally turn her camera on an apparently willing subject became too good for Fiennes to pass up. So for four years she followed Jones from America to Jamaica, from France to Denmark, from Holland to Japan, and to Dublin, where she filmed her in concert. The resulting documentary is Bloodlight And Bami, the title referring to the Jamaican slang words for the red studio light that means recording is in progress, and for bread, the stuff of life.
“She’d ring me and say I’m doing a gig in Moscow or Japan and it’s in three days’ time, do you want to come?” says Fiennes. “So she would just put me on the entourage of the private corporate gigs she was doing or the parties that she was singing at, like the Love Ball in Barcelona.” And what was life like in a Grace Jones entourage? “Generally in every city you get to with Grace, she’s got a whole bunch of friends there,” she says. “She’s a warm but very intense person. She’s discerning, so those people who are close are very close. Her friendships go deep. So that’s why those people resurface. It’s that notion of family which I think comes from her church background and that sense of a community, and I think that’s what she feels about the audience.”
ODDLY, Fiennes says Jones doesn’t see herself as an icon of any sort. “She doesn’t identify with being iconic so I always feel a little bit guilty by going along with the ‘she’s an icon’ thing, because for her it embarrasses her. But I think it’s because her persona is archetypal but quite a rare archetypal female persona. There’s a complex intersection of different aspects of femininity. For a start there’s femininity which is Amazonian, or very strong or almost like a devouring woman. Frightening, but compelling in that sense of fear.”
More than that, she adds, “there’s something about her personality and her willingness to undertake a performance of self that most of us don’t really dare do. For her it’s oxygen to live every moment as if it’s intensified moment. She is an intense person to be around and I think she does live life in a very heightened way, which is quite fascinating. It’s not like the persona is something she isn’t. It’s not really a mask in that sense. It’s like a reduction, like you would reduce a sauce to a strong tasting flavour. It’s a resistance to being kept down by the Jamaican patriarchal church system and her step-grandfather, and to seeing women having to be a certain way, and finding a way through performance to break that down.”
That step-grandfather was the man Jones knew as Mas P and who dominated her grandmother’s household when Jones’s parents, Marjorie and Robert Jones, left for New York leaving their six children in Jamaica. A strict disciplinarian and devout churchgoer, he beat Jones and her siblings. In her autobiography she recalls her childhood as being “all about the Bible and beatings. We were beaten for any little act of dissent, and hit harder the worse the disobedience. It formed me as a person, my choices, men I have been attracted to”.
Given all that, it’s easy to see why the Russell Harty incident happened. “She felt treated like a child and she felt she was being put
Grace Jones’s image can only be described as iconic. Her album covers, including Slave To The Rhythm and Island Life, are instantly recognisable