What’s your favourite venue? It’s a rather muso question, isn’t it? I’m not sure I can answer it really. I do know that some of the best gigs I’ve ever been to were at the Roundhouse in Camden. Roisin Murphy danced the robot and wore a lampshade (Lady Gaga avant la lettre and all the better for it). John Martyn mumbled and giggled into his beard (rest in peace, John). But nothing comes close to Grace Jones sticking a microphone down her cleavage. Actually, nothing much in life has come close to that.
Such behaviour warrants only one response: ‘well, that’s Grace for you’. These days she’s an institution, and we all know what that means. Institutions are unimpeachable, immune to criticism. They’re also homely, even cosy: the Queen Mother, Dolly Parton, Thora Hird. Institutions are above the law. They carry the diplomatic bag through customs. Grace Jones could turn up at Heathrow painted head to toe silver, carrying a Gucci bag full of drill heads, and security would just wave her through. It’s a shame really, as I know she’d like nothing better than to be frisked by a severe man with a scanner.
Most recent interviews have emphasised this fun-loving Grace, baying at the moon with a bellyful of champagne, or confessing her superhuman capacity for oyster consumption. Her appearance on Jonathan Ross’s BBC show a couple of years ago was so full of warmth and bonhomie that you could almost forget the infamous 1981 incident in which she slapped Russell Harty for turning his back on her. I’m chuffed that Grace is now being feted by younger generations, not only in matters of style, but also as a musical influence. Still, we shouldn’t lose sight of just how otherworldly she was at her early eighties peak. She was a true sci-fi pop star, seemingly without origin or precedent. For a black female performer, this was highly subversive. Though more recent songs, such as the autobiographical ‘William’s Blood’, dramatise her strict Christian upbringing in the Caribbean, the albums she produced with Sly and Robbie from 1980 to 1982 offered no back story to explain her. Instead, they ironised her heritage. ‘My Jamaican Guy’, for example, is perfect postmodern pop. She sounds like an arch anthropologist experimenting with the patois; the production behind her is a new type of reggae-funk crossover, studied, drained of authenticity. Within this sound world, all nationalities, allegiances and identities are performances. It’s the perfect sonic fingerprint for an artist who has variously seemed feminine, masculine, sexy, asexual, Jamaican, French, American, British, or all and none of these at the same time.
The ‘Private Life’ video riffs on this beautifully, grandly, austerely. Grace wears a mask of her own face, a simple gesture that can be interpreted in manifold ways. We might think of the African masks of modernist ‘primitivism’, re-appropriated and owned (this rather suggestive imagery also drives the later ‘Slave to the rhythm’). We might also take the mask as slyly self-referential; Jones was a model, a muse for Andy Warhol, before she ever recorded a note. And more than anything, the mask is an assertion of singularity, for Grace is sui generis. If she continued to unpeel herself, there would no doubt be further, identical Graces underneath, like a sequence of Russian dolls, and each would be as inscrutable as the last. You could spend a lifetime keeping up with these Joneses. I’m surprised Judith Butler hasn’t published a monograph on the subject.
Readability is one of the song’s key concerns. Grace is irritated by a friend or lover because he or she refuses to hold anything back. ‘J’en ai marre with your theatrics’, she intones, in a kind of monotonous Sprechstimme. It’s wonderfully, knowingly ironic, for nothing is more theatrical than this Brecht-Weill shtick, yet the deep pulse of reggae bass and the enigmatic delivery contradict Grace’s throwaway confession, ‘I’m very superficial’. I suspect it’s more that she’s too deep to care. She, of course, would never reveal her private life to anybody. The listener waits for the mask to shift out of alignment, for the voice to reveal a hiccup of doubt or vulnerability, but only gets withering disdain. ‘Attachment to obligation…that’s so wet’, spits Grace, a stately Siamese cat hissing at a raggedy mog. ‘I just feel pity when you lie, content when you cry’. Blimey. This character would never guest on a charity record. She knows full well it’s Christmas, and you, mister, aren’t getting so much as a Satsuma.
The beauty of all this is that ‘Private Life’ isn’t Grace Jones’s record at all really; she annexed it and made it speak her own language. The Pretenders prototype is atmospheric but awkward, another product of the New Wave fetish for the Kingston offbeat (blame The Police if you like). Almost as soon as Chrissie Hynde heard Jones’ version, she decided that this was the way the song was meant to sound, making ‘Private Life’, like Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ or Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2U’, a cover masquerading as a de facto original. How could it be anything other than uniquely Grace? There’s a world of difference between hearing the boyish-but-girly Chrissie Hynde sing ‘Your acting’s a drag’, and listening to the same line delivered by a suited woman with a flat chest and an even flatter buzz-cut. Drag indeed.
The fact is, though, that most of Grace Jones’ greatest recordings are covers which look bizarre on paper but come up gloriously on vinyl. Her ‘Warm Leatherette’ is even funnier than The Normal’s original electro sex-drone, while Iggy Pop and David Bowie’s ‘Nightclubbing’ retains the lonely, drugged-out feel of The Idiot version but douses it in a dark wash of dub. There’s Piazzolla’s ‘Libertango’, in which Sly and Robbie somehow manage to broker a trade deal between Argentina, Jamaica and rural France, and a belligerent take on Bill Withers’ ‘Use Me’ (not just belligerent but disingenuous – I refuse to believe Grace was ever used by anyone, unless she’s addressing the song to herself). Most impressive of all is Sting’s ‘Demolition Man’. He wrote it especially for her, then decided he would ‘cover’ it with his own band. Grace’s songs were covers before they were covers – get your ears round that, Jean Baudrillard!
But it’s ‘Private Life’ that I love best. It’s the space in the sound, its glassy surfaces and the ripples of colour underneath the wave. It’s the droll, self-centred message, so prescient of the Eighties to come: leave me out, I have my own back to watch. Most of all, it’s just the fact that this track, as much as ‘I feel love’, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ or ‘Blue Monday’, plants a little flag on the moon and waits for the crowds to catch up. Actually, it goes even further than that. Light years ahead of us, in Kingston, Jupiter, where gender and race have (thankfully?) been deemed dangerously earthly parameters, some beautiful being is stalking the rocks in Jean-Paul Goude shoulder pads, sticking microphones down her cleavage. Your private life drama, baby? Count me in.