BOOK REVIEWS: Chrissie Hynde & Grace Jones

The run up to Christmas is traditionally marked by a flood of celebrity memoirs, but rarely are the bookshelves this fabulous. On my bedside table, waiting to be devoured, are memoirs from Elvis Costello, Paul O’Grady, and Eve Babitz. All in good time, my pretties.

Here are two I have read.

Reckless
Chrissie Hynde
Ebury Press, £20

9780385540612

In the 1980s, American novelist Madison Smartt Bell wanted to use Pretenders’ lyrics as chapter-heads for his first novel. He wasn’t 100% sure what Hynde was singing, but caught enough to know it fit. Hynde (or her people) refused permission because, she explained, she didn’t want her parents to know what she was saying.

Similarly, Reckless is the book she could not — would not — publish during their lifetime. Whether she underestimated them we’ll never know, but one thing’s for sure, this is not a pretty story.

No one wants or expects pretty from the woman who sang, “I shot my mouth off and he showed me what that hole was for.” But what surprised this particular fan, given the glorious brashness of that first Pretenders album, was the glum tone of regret.

She claims three parents: father, mother, hometown. Early chapters linger over every leaf and tree of Akron with a wistfulness that will be familiar to fans of the song Back to Ohio.

Eventually the story picks up speed, taking the rallying cry, “Sex, drugs and rock and roll” to heart. A music mad teen, Hynde chased bands instead of homework. Though smart, she was unfocussed — scholastically, at least — and despite loving Akron, couldn’t wait to get away to see the world.

Drugs were one way out. Local radio was another. It was progressive and diverse, and touring bands were welcomed by a swarm of musically sophisticated kids when they arrived for what they thought was a throwaway warm-up gig in the provinces.

Anyone who’s ever dreamed big but lived small will identify with Hynde’s descriptions of unfocussed yearning. She wanted adventure and excitement but couldn’t figure out how to achieve her ambitions. What she did do often proved dangerous.

She first encounters the fearsome Heavy Bikers standing guard at a concert. (Why so coy about their name? Presumably there are legal issues.) Their bikes and bad boy personas appealed — and would do so throughout her life — but they were dangerous “friends.” The most publicised instance, picked up by the media, was her gang rape at their hands while off her face on drugs. I won’t wade into the controversy over her insistence on taking responsibility for what happened. We have no right to tell Hynde what or how to feel.

The event received so much media attention that its arrival in the narrative is actually a relief — thank god we’re getting this out of the way. But less reported is a later encounter with another biker and different drugs, which is no less frightening. Hynde wasn’t kidding when she gave the book its title.

Perhaps this very recklessness is what infuses the book with sadness. Hynde is frank about her sexual encounters, but equally up front about her sexual ambivalence. She never wanted a period, worried about her competence (though not her own satisfaction, which is a shame), and relied on booze to release her to become the aggressive, up for anything sexual tyro she felt the age required. Or as she says: “Any experience is better than no experience, was my motto.”

This rings hollow, like pure bravado, for she alternates between pride in her ‘balls to the wall’ approach and wistfulness about lost dignity, opportunities and friends, not to mention the countless times she ignored her dreams in favour of sparking up another bong. Reckless demonstrates deeply ingrained passivity — though that’s not to be confused with laziness, for Hynde has a demonstrable capacity for hard work.

The book meanders, as life meanders, taking us back and forth across the Atlantic and the English Channel, as Hynde comes to London, initially falling in with Nick Kent (who gave her forty kinds of clap) and a job at the NME: “The more dismissive and poorly written my reviews, the more the NME applauded me. They wanted the bad publicity.” She quit after a year, tired of slagging off bands, and keen to love music again.

Much of the time her circumstances were so grubby that the book almost feels sticky to the touch, and there’s a sense, as well, of someone picking her way across a battlefield strewn with corpses, as the lifestyle takes its toll on her friends and peers.

Thinking herself too old to start a band, she “advised” musicians instead, while briefly working for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood as a shop assistant.

Eventually Hynde finds James Honeyman-Scott — Ray Davies christened him “the hook man” — and The Pretenders are born. Though she writes, “I never got over losing Pete [Farndon], never talking to him again,” she begins and ends the book with Honeyman Scott, the man who made her “more than she could have ever been on her own.” Long after his death he remained her lodestar. “I found that any musical question I had could easily be answered. I just had to imagine what Jimmy would do.”

Perhaps that is true, but it’s frustrating to see how quick Hynde is to chastise herself (she made an obnoxious drunk, among other things) and how slow to acknowledge her talent and charisma. Perhaps she finds it unseemly and is genuinely modest. But throughout the book she describes going away and being called back — by friends in Paris, by McLaren — invitations that arrive with plane tickets and opportunities. If she was the utter wastrel she describes, that wouldn’t have happened. Others saw what she does not report: her star quality. We, her fans, see it too.

If those early albums mattered to you, if that era mattered to you, then you’ll want to read this memoir. It’s full of juicy stories and famous names (Iggy, Lemmy, Johnny Rotten, Mick Jones, and more), full of memorable adventures and misadventures. What it’s short on is joie de vivre. 

grace_jones_memoir_cover

I’ll Never Write My Memoirs
Grace Jones
Simon & Schuster, £20

To be fair, Grace Jones didn’t lie — she hasn’t written this book, but told it to Paul Morley, a collaborator since her Slave to the Rhythm days. Alas, a big problem with the text is the sensation that it is Morley’s voice on the page. The best ghostwriters — even those famous enough for a credit — are expert mimics. Their job is teasing out the stories, giving them shape to make the messiness of life less confusing and more coherent.

Then again, this is Grace Jones. Early on she says this isn’t a corrective, an excuse or a defence. “I don’t want to spoil any image people might have of me being out of control, demanding, crazy, offensive, indulgent, chaotic, depraved. I can be a pain, but most of all, I can be a pleasure. . . . . What follows is the me that I have made up, rather than the one made up by other people.”

She doesn’t care what people say as long as they “don’t smooth me out or reduce me.” Yet that’s the effect Morley produces, reducing Jones by making her as repetitive as the drunk at the end of the bar. Where was the editorial red pencil? Who resisted those ministrations, him or her?

We shouldn’t be asking those questions; we should be raptly caught up in the proceedings. When we are, the book takes flight. Jones is one for crazy, contradictory pronouncements and wacky mischievous adventures and they’re more enjoyable than the wearisome philosophising. Begging the question: am I reacting that way because I expect to encounter Jones’s public persona on these pages? Is this other voice hers as well? That’s a possibility, nevertheless, something feels off.

Jones’s wildness is a reaction to a childhood characterised by restriction, religion, and abuse. She was one of six, raised by her grandmother and step-grandfather after her parents emigrated to the US in search of opportunities. It’s understandable that a child beaten for minor “transgressions”, such as sweating in her school clothes, who was also beaten in anticipation of the transgressions she might one day commit, would grow up doing whatever she damn well pleases.

Eventually (most of) the children were sent for, joining their parents in a suburb of Syracuse, NY. Grace discovered her mother had blossomed in the States, providing an appealing vision of female confidence at this crucial stage of her development. Though she refuses to be pinned down, she says it was the 1960s, and that she was “more or less a teenager.” (Online sources give her birth year as 1948 and 1952; pick the one you like.)

A rebellious teenager, she discovered alcohol and was introduced to gay nightlife by her older brother Chris. She felt like his twin, wondering if they were scrambled, leaving her more masculine and him more feminine. It left her believing in the fluidity of sexuality. Her motto in this and all other things became, “Try everything at least once. If you like it, keep trying it.”

There were years of modelling in Philadelphia and New York city, and attempts to get theatrical work. She was deemed too “exotic”, code for Black, so she signed with Wilhelmina, a modelling agency famous for its off-beat beauties. Then promptly enraged the boss by shaving her head. Jones loved it. “[It] made me look more abstract, less tied to a specific race or sex or tribe. . . It set me outside and beyond. . . I liked that it was a way of expressing that I was flexible. . . I was always becoming someone else.”

And famously, “shaving my head led directly to my first orgasm.” It seems her hairdresser did know for sure how to please a woman.

Always a party animal, Jones hit the clubs every night. This was just before the glory days of clubbing, when DJs played Motown and R&B music.

Paris was next. She modelled, but had no illusions about the business and no intention of making it her final stop. Agencies were where wealthy men “looked for their female possessions.” Jones didn’t want a rich husband, yet took strength from the idea that if she wanted to, she could marry a millionaire. Not a bad fallback position to have, but a self-deceptive one, for she preferred to be her own sugar daddy and retain her independence. Even after having a child with Jean-Paul Goude, she maintained her own Manhattan apartment, and she writes: “If I want a diamond necklace, I can go and buy myself a diamond necklace.”

In Paris she befriended Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange. She worked with Helmut Newton and soaked up his knowledge, learning how to tell stories via images. She carried her own butter — the French never put it on the table — and later, half a dozen eggs to throw at taxi drivers who wouldn’t pick her up.

She recorded her first tracks there, and Paris was where she met Issey Miyake, who taught her about Kabuki and let her sing at an early fashion show. While it’s tempting to think of this stylised creature arriving on the scene fully formed, like Athena, she’s clear about her influences, and explains that at least initially, she was far from in charge.

She built her image to accentuate the positive and play down her weaknesses. Songs are theatre for her. She’s not much of a dancer, so chose stillness, and when she did move, it was to crawl, hiss, or bark at the audience, even taking swipes at them. Thus she built a reputation for outrageousness, and a fan base.

It’s worth pondering what might have been had Jones been more malleable, and succumbed to the vision her first publicists had: starting her out as a disco singer and progressing to “singing in Hilton hotels in long glittery ball gowns before getting to Vegas.”

She was embraced by Warhol and his crowd, and on the spot when disco took hold. These passages, charting the rise and fall of disco, and the headiness of the Studio 54 scene (and later downtown venues such as Paradise Garage), are fascinating (despite their repetitiveness), and should appeal to everyone interested in social and cultural history. Jones says, “This was a frenzied fantasy world I felt very at home in.”

Island Records founder Chris Blackwell — a close friend to this day — finally brought Jones and Goude together when he asked the French artist to create an image to accompany a magazine article. That photo — Jones naked and shining with one leg in the air — became the blueprint for their relationship: “Something impossible made possible.”

Goude emerges as a man more entranced by the fantasy of a woman than the real thing, and Jones admits that she was often insecure about his love, fearing that he preferred the illusion he created to the real Grace. The rest of the time they hit one creative peak after another. He may have solidified her image, she stresses, but he did not create her. She had three disco albums before they began collaborating. “Each of us was the one the other one wanted. I was, after all, an art groupie. . . . He wanted a living person to whom he could apply his ideas.”

The years roll on, though not in any recognisable order, which makes for confusion and much page flicking trying to reorient one’s mental time line. It seems that the narrative shares Jones’s resistance to mundane notions of time.

There are many more affairs and relationships. There are hilariously graphic revelations — one backstage encounter at a benefit concert with Pavarotti is scandalously hilarious — and there are many musings on the nature of life, love, and stardom. We learn about Jones’s pharmaceutical preferences and hear her version of the Russell Harty fight.

There are too many vivid, seemingly random, often insane and occasionally poignant anecdotes to cite, if this review is ever to end. She and Goude are tied up and robbed at gunpoint; she gets a knee infection from crawling around on a dirty stage; she is arrested; she takes her clothes off whenever possible; she makes a Bond film. For years she doesn’t record a note, and then starts up again. Friends die of AIDS and overdoses. She becomes a grandmother. She marries (just the once) and cannot divorce because her husband has disappeared. She performs for the Queen — more than once. Trevor Horn calls the house at an inopportune time: “just when I was setting fire to Dolph’s trousers.” And so it goes.

Grace’s rider is reprinted at the back of the book (fascinating!) and we learn good lessons about putting a value on one’s services — and making sure you get paid. “My mantra remains, No cash, no show. You learn over time that if you don’t get the money immediately, you will never get the money.”

Jones survived on corporate parties for years. Her rule is: find out what they pay for flowers and make sure to get a little more than that. “You find out they have paid $200,000 to fly flowers in from some exotic country, but they only want to pay the artist $50,000. I say . . . ‘I should be the big flower, that costs the most. The people are not there waiting for the flowers to appear.’ That’s one way of putting value on what you do.”

These days Jones remains untamed when she’s out in public, but at home in London she’s likely to be doing a jigsaw puzzle, cooking, or watching tennis. She is smart and funny and, as bonkers as this might sound, appears well grounded, with a pragmatic understanding of the limitations of fame, and how to use it to her best advantage without sacrificing or damaging herself in the process.

The overriding message here is: No One Puts Grace Jones in a Corner — or a Box. She answers to no age, no race, no gender. There’s no label you can slap on her to fit all circumstances. Like the water surrounding her island birthplace, Jones is fluid. She can be placid and tranquil or as devastating as a tsunami. She can give back your reflection or defy you with shivering ripples. None of this is surprising: water is the strongest element, after all.

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