In four decades I haven’t tired of Gene Simmons’ tongue as much as I’ve grown sick of seeing Miley Cyrus’ in the last four weeks. While I’d rather let her lick me than contribute any words about her ballyhooed but belabored and rather pathetic attempt at reinvention, I’d at least like to thank her for contributing to the great week I’ve had. Seeing all these photos of Cyrus skanking around with her faux flat-top and wagging tongue reminded me of one of my New Wave touchstones, Grace Jones (and obviously a new inspiration for Miley, though perhaps for the wrong reasons), which sent me spelunking back through her wonderfully snarling but celebratory catalog.
A pop interpreter akin to the classier Bryan Ferry (and she herself did a number on his "Love Is the Drug"), Jones was a striking figure emerging from the Studio 54 disco scene of the late ’70s. It wasn’t until three albums in, though, that she really took on the androgynous, android-Ray Charles look that made her an icon of fashion, film, and music. As Jean-Paul Goude recounts in his memoir, Jungle Fever — portions of which are read aloud by actor Ian McShane (yes, the “Deadwood” guy!) on Jones’ own version of an inventive memoir, the ’85 album “Slave to the Rhythm” — here was a striking woman looking like a man and singing songs like “I Need a Man” to an initial audience of gay men. (Small wonder this was the era that produced “Victor/Victoria.”) She banked the attention to become something of the Marianne Faithfull of Gen-X, a slightly marginal figure that everyone kept talking about, and one who managed to collaborate with an impressive array of current stars — Tom Petty writing an extra verse for her cover of "Breakdown," Sting giving her first crack at "Demolition Man," working with Warhol and Haring, who then appeared in another of her videos declaring her perfection.
Some favorite old chestnuts: "Walking in the Rain" remains an alluring, modern noir-ish take on a rainy day; "I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)," likewise, takes the romantic notion of an evening in Paris and inverts it with reggae and tension, two things that don’t often go together; her cover of the Pretenders’ "Private Life" accentuates the lyric’s attitude beyond even what Chrissie Hynde projected, and that’s saying something; a slightly psychedelic reggae cover of "Ring of Fire," people; and I’ve really enjoyed her latest album, “This Is Life,” which I originally reviewed as “favor of a kinder, gentler but no less alluring vamp” and still hear as one of her most musically serious and vibrant outings.
As eager as I am to read Morrissey’s forthcoming autobio, I’m almost as excited to hear that Jones has announced a forthcoming memoir — after opening the song “Art Groupie” by declaring, “I’ll never write my memoirs”! — planned for next year. Here’s hoping it discusses how a woman in her 60s performed “Slave to the Rhythm” at last year’s concert for the queen’s jubilee, during which Jones sang the entire song while twirling a hula hoop around her hips. “Keep it up, keep it up,” indeed!
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.