Monday, October 26, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: I'LL NEVER WRITE MY MEMOIRS


Many years ago, at what was probably the zenith of her career, Grace Jones made an appearance on the Arsenio Hall show. The other guest was middleweight boxer Thomas Hearns. Jones was there to promote a movie, perhaps Vamp, or A View to a Kill.  Hearns, most likely was promoting a fight. Late in the show Jones brought her mother out and introduced her to the studio audience. Hearns, a gentleman, stood up and gave Jones’ mother a warm hug. Jones complained that she hadn’t received similar treatment. As the audience roared, Hearns grinned and said, “I got somethin’ for you later, baby.” Jones bared her large white teeth.  She looked as if she might reach over and devour Hearns whole, stopping only to spit out the glass jaw. 

That was Jones’ image in those days, that of the carnivorous man-killer, stomping her way from fashion modeling, to singing, to acting, as if her talents were too large to be contained in a single genre. In films, she’d gone toe-to-toe with Conan the Barbarian and James Bond. You don’t get to do that that unless your image reads: Amazonian eater of souls. 

The bulk of her highly readable new book, I’ll Never Write my Memoirs, has to do with dispelling that image, which she insists isn’t the real Grace, but a heightened version of herself that is both impossible to categorize and timeless.

She writes, “You can find images of me from centuries ago, faces that look like mine carved in wood from ancient Egypt, Roman times, the Igbo tribe of southern Nigeria, and sixteenth century Jamaica, fierce enough to turn people pale, to shrink their hearts.”

Funny, angry, earnest, and vulnerable, Jones keeps her age a mystery but is forthcoming about everything else. Writing with surprising ease and beauty, she tells the tale as she remembers it, sometimes fudging the timeframe because the year something happens isn’t as important as why or how. She creates a fascinating trip through four decades of her life and the pop culture, from the disco era of powder blue Rolls Royces and buckets of cocaine, to the AIDS-wracked 1980s, to her several brushes with controversy, including a number of nights spent in dirty jail cells, and the time she roughed up a British TV host. She also offers candid remarks about various colleagues, saving her most savage commentary for her longtime partner and hindrance, celebrity itself. 

The book, written with her journalist friend and frequent collaborator  Paul Morley, covers more than prickly showbiz trivia.  It’s also a heartfelt recounting of a black woman trying to define herself in an era where black female entertainers were supposed to look like Diana Ross and strive for a career in Las Vegas. It’s an inspiring howl from a human hurricane who shares the secrets of her hard work and her unique art. And it’s the frequently sad story of a woman who escaped an oppressive childhood of “serious abuse,” only to find herself constantly battling more oppression elsewhere. If it seems Jones pauses too often to congratulate herself on one triumph or another, it’s well-deserved. When you fight like she did against such incredible odds, it’s reasonable to step back and marvel at yourself. But then, Grace Jones has always been a one-woman victory parade.

Hardcore Jones fans, of course, will scour the pages for the naughty stuff, the sex, drugs, and scandal, the romance with Dolph Lundgren, for instance, and the “contagious, transgressive abandon” of disco’s early days. It’s all in there. But the book will also dazzle those who may think of Jones only as a cartoonish relic of the Studio 54 era. The book is that captivating, and well-told. 

Jones was always a visual performer, and her storytelling is filled with flourishes that nearly match the outlandish fashions she’s been known to wear. How much of this story was shaped by Morley is unknown, but it’s such a joy to read that it doesn’t matter. The collaboration results in a narrative that is both pointed and poetic. “Fireflies scatter into the night,” she writes after an outdoor sex romp, “each with its own incredible story to tell.” It’s as if Jones decided that even dishing on herself deserved the most thoughtful presentation. 

Though Jones devotes considerable attention to her artistic processes, it seems her proudest accomplishment was the gradual creation of the “Grace Jones” character, which she describes as “a little bit of Kabuki stillness, a warrior slash of drag debauchery, a dash of black humor, shoulders out of a gothic fantasy, and a load of tease.” Of course, she had help from designers, photographers, and producers, but the ultimate fruition of her character came from her own tangled depths. This great alter-ego she wore could only be hefted by a woman like Jones, “a snake with the upper body strength of a galley slave.” 

In these 21 chapters, we see Jones through every evolution of her being. There’s the tomboyish girl in Spanish Town, the girl who endured regular whippings by her sadistic step-grandfather, the girl who seemed suspicious of her very surroundings, including the giant moths that were allegedly the reincarnated spirits of ancient ancestors, the feral dogs roaming the streets, and the rough Rastas lurking “at the edge of vision, as tangible as phantoms…” There’s the girl who escaped to Philadelphia and became an acid dropping go-go dancer, a voracious sponge absorbing every experience imaginable. 

And later, the disco queen known for her outrageous costumes and hostile behavior. 

“The craziness was a fire I lit to keep danger at bay,” she writes.

Danger seemed everywhere, even in the underground clubs where she first became a star, where “it seemed like there were bodies on bodies, some of them so close they were penetrating each other, lubricated by their own sweat.” She conveys the exhausting rigors of performing, the heartbreaking failures at auditions, and the ongoing frustration at meeting men who’d fallen in love with her image but seemed less enamored of the real Grace, a woman content to sit at home and watch tennis on  television, or sprawl on the floor with a 1,000 piece puzzle. Her best relationships seem to have been with older male mentors, such as Chris Blackwell, the Island Records founder who was behind some of her best music. Mostly, the men in her life flaked out on her, grew egotistical. One held knives to her neck and threatened to cut off her head.

Of the movie years, when she starred alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Roger Moore, Jones recalls them as a fun time, though the film industry was “a motherfucking beast.” Casting directors didn’t know how to use her. When the movie roles dried up, she returned to music. By then, the music business thought of her as a golden oldie. A contract with Capital turned sour. And just like that, her heyday was over.

Fame’s hideous side was always apparent to Jones, and she’s spot on when she describes the antics at Studio 54 in the 1970s as “a harbinger of the haywire shamelessness of reality TV – minor celebrities fighting among minor celebrities to avoid losing their fame, demented role playing, the not so famous doing whatever it took to get some attention, the truly famous and aloof and immune watching it all as a kind of sport for their amusement.”

Though Jones, now a grandmother, remains busy with interesting projects, she’s earned a steady paycheck in recent years by appearing at corporate events. Apparently she jumps out of cakes, dressed as a leopard, or something along those lines. She cracks the bullwhip a few times, sings a couple of the old hits, and calls it a day. But don’t think of this as a comedown. To appear at these silly events, she demands to be put up for three days in the presidential suite of a 5-star hotel, and doesn’t perform unless she’s paid in advance. She once learned that a company had spent more on floral arrangements than they’d planned to pay her, so you can imagine how that went down. Once, when a group had failed to come up with her performance fee, a desperate woman offered Jones a newborn baby to hold as collateral until the money was raised. These anecdotes show the corporate world to be as silly and grotesque as the entertainment business. 

Jones’ observations of various friends and contemporaries are equally vivid. She writes that Andy Warhol “surrounded himself with action…as though he was more active than he actually was.” She describes model Jerry Hall as having “a head full of blonde hair and a mouth full of Dallas.” As for Lundgren, “People started to fill head with stuff because they saw a chance of making money with him, and he believed it.” She describes couples therapy as “satanic nonsense,” and pans women who undergo cosmetic surgery as “self-hating,” and being part of a “mass panic.” 

In the course of I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Jones also shares a lot about her family, a conservative lot of self-appointed Pentecostal bishops, in a surrounding of “Bible-black ugliness.” Much of her scowling stage presence, she reveals, is an aping of her horrific step-grandad. Yet, two of the book’s most moving chapters involve her return, in her adult years, to Jamaica, which she grew to appreciate, and a touching tribute to her father, a bishop who often felt backlash in his community because of Jones’ capers, as if her reputation was spitting out poison that reached all around the world. 

Jones also worries about current singers, from Lady Gaga to Kanye West. While acknowledging that many present-day performers have borrowed liberally from her, she wonders if they have her instincts for survival and reinvention. Her own story is littered with tales of suicide and accounts of friends who were mysteriously “swallowed up.” Jones doubts the new generation possesses her own tough hide, and fears there are many more casualties to come.

One of this electrifying book’s many strong points is Jones’ ability to describe the madness that comes with fame, and how it slowly eats one from the ankles up. Whether you’re being mobbed by admirers, or simply gawked at by a few dozen devotees in a sweaty club, there’s something categorically ghoulish about it. The only good thing about being famous, Jones declares, is that you can meet other famous people and discuss how awful it can be.

“When you walk through that door, through to other side, where there is fame, you cannot believe how different it is,” she writes. Fame, she says, “passes through you as you pass through.”

 
- Don Stradley


 

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