Saturday 16 November 2019

Books: Amazing Grace is a real shocker

Autobiography: I'll Never Write My Memoirs, Simon & Schuster, hdbk, 304 pages, €29.50

Lick performance: Grace Jones poses for the media at an awards ceremony in 2008.
Lick performance: Grace Jones poses for the media at an awards ceremony in 2008.
Grace Jones - I'll Never Write My Memoirs.

It's not at all easy to talk about Grace Jones - disco queen, new waver, Bond villain, diva, android, androgyne - as if she is a real person. Both odd and reassuring for the reader of her memoirs is the sense that Jones herself has the same problem.

Here's a passage from near the end of the book: "Even death won't stop me. It never has. You can find images of me from centuries ago. Faces that look like mine carved in wood from ancient Egypt... I have been around for a long time, heart pounding, ready to pounce on my prey... and I always will be."

This turn for the mythic comes at the end of a chapter about why nearly every current music star we have is a shameless Jones rip-off. (Rihanna earns contempt for wearing "a painted bodysuit", unlike Jones who used her bare skin).

If she is often copied now, it's partly because she was always so adept at surfaces, masks, personae. Images of her from the 1980s still look risky and futuristic. Her friend Andy Warhol, she writes, "knew what was coming", and clearly, so did she. No surprise, then, that the book, ghostwritten by Paul Morley, doesn't do much self-examination.

Indeed, the moments when she does analyse her own history and emotional life are often the most generic. When her parents left Jamaica for America, she and her siblings remained behind, so Jones spent much of her childhood living with her religious relatives, primarily her grandmother and the grandmother's much younger, abusive boyfriend; but hearing that Jones learned to be rebellious in response to early constraints, or that she channelled her abuser to achieve her intimidating stare, doesn't seem much more intriguing than what we can glean from looking at the pictures.

Jones makes a point of obfuscating her age, but by the early 1970s she was modelling for major Parisian designers, and by 1980 she was an established musician, already abandoning disco and adopting new wave.

In the book, Jones hops from the US to Paris and back, shot by Helmut Newton, dressed by Issey Miyake, rooming with Jessica Lange and Jerry Hall. She advises Michael Jackson on how to break away from his family, hangs around Studio 54, and frequently takes off all her clothes, whether in the recording booth or for airport metal detectors.

We tend to hear much more about what she wears than what goes on inside her. Here and there, she complains about being made into a cartoon character when cast in Hollywood movies. Yet there is, and always was, something deliberately cartoonish in her self-presentation, not only in her exaggerated looks but also in the aura of invulnerability she projects.

Here, every bad thing done by or to her is either blown out of proportion or barely registers. On the one hand, "being black didn't hold me back in Jamaica, and I rarely thought of it in America". On the other, she's frequently arrested for driving with a white boyfriend.

Still, the book's abiding mood is nonchalance. She mentions the producer Trevor Horn calling her during an argument with her then boyfriend Dolph Lundgren.

"The relationship had reached a turbulent period," she notes. Trevor "called just when I was setting fire to Dolph's trousers. I was in a very bad mood".

I'll Never Write My Memoirs is more an extended performance than a conventional autobiography. Her sheer bravado carries us along; it seems vaguely irrelevant that we get little sense of what it feels like to be Grace Jones. The title is a tease, but it's also apt - in a way, she still hasn't written her memoirs.

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