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

Sunday Herald - - NEWS -

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

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