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Grace Jones is the ultimate pop star; gorgeous, timeless, unearthly and endlessly inventive. She exists in her own time zone and as a live act, never fails to deliver a masterclass in theatrical splendour, says Stewart Who?
I can remember the moment when my best mate at school played me La Vie En Rose by Grace Jones. The album ‘Island Life’ belonged to his older sister, who was not only a model, but dating a rock promoter- which made her an undisputable arbiter of cool.
Already a fan of Piaf (a sure sign of dubious sexuality), the Jones version blew my teenage brain. It was French. It was erotic. It was disco. Adding to the revelatory experience was the fact that I was listening to it while smoking hash, in the sweltering bedroom of the bisexual, incredibly handsome, school football champ. Now That’s What I Call Music.
Gays and cocaine
Fast forward a decade or so to London’s Red Heart Party at the Hammersmith Palais. Promoted by a cabal of A-list queens, the boys set their little gay hearts on a PA from Grace Jones. Her rider, on top of the healthy fee was as follows: 6 first class flights, fresh sushi for 20 backstage, 10 grams of uncut cocaine and a black or mixed race personal security guard with a penis of no less than 10 inches. Such demands might have proved a struggle for some, but not for six rich muscle Marys determined to throw a party. Grace got the lot.
Despite being completely off my face, I stayed rooted to one spot on the dancefloor for hours. It was in the middle, right in front of the stage. My gurning patience was rewarded when Grace emerged. Inches from my face and awesome to behold, she opened her performance with La Vie En Rose. She was mesmerising, terrifying and compulsive. As my jaw churned and juddered, tears rolled down my cheeks. It felt like a religious experience.
Since that ecstatic visitation, I’ve seen her in Brockwell Park for the Purple in the Park Festival, Casa de Campo Park in Rome for World Pride and in Central Park NYC for the Body & Soul party. Every time, even after waiting for up to 3 hours for her arrival, she’s been outstanding.
While consistently working the gay clubs for the past three decades, she’d kept a low public profile, until the release of Hurricane, her tenth studio album. In addition to teaming up with old dub chums Sly & Robbie, Grace collaborated with Brian Eno, Wendy and Lisa and Bruce Wooley. Her shows at Bestival and Massive Attack’s Meltdown were widely hailed as the live events of that summer.
When she last performed at the Roundhouse, the room crackled with anticipation before the legend took to the stage. With a futuristic Philip Treacy mohawk hat that looked capable of sawing through flesh, she stalked onto the stage and to the crowd’s delight, opened with Nightclubbing. Originally released in ’81, it still sounded as dark, languid and revolutionary as it did back then. As did she.
It’s hard to process that the woman is a pensioner. ‘I’m not 60, I’m 70,’ she growls at one point. ‘Just don’t cut me open when I die.’ There’s no denying that Grace is sexier than most women half her age. Her raw sensuality stems from a terrifying confidence and effortless style.
When Madonna forces her muscled pubis in our faces, we say, ‘please, stop it!’ However, Grace Jones could stand naked on stage and look like a work of art. At the Roundhouse, she worked a basque, footless fishnets, spike heels and not much else, save for the hats. Every song delivered a different hat, though she, quite rightly, referred to them as ‘crowns’.
She performed most of Hurricane and in a live context, those dub basslines work a treat. Add to that, the fact that she has a stage presence which is astounding and it’s hard to imagine her singing anything that wouldn’t entertain.
I’ve seen her smoke joints on stage (donated from audience members) and then sit there for 20 minutes, mostly silent, occasionally moaning- and it was totally gripping. For Pull Up to the Bumper she dragged heaps of freaks from the crowd to dance with her. Somehow, Grace manages to channel the spirit of punk, disco, reggae and performance art just by stepping on stage.
Neon hula hoop
She exits after each song, but never stops performing. While undergoing costume changes out of sight, she continued to chatter and mumble into the microphone. She threatened to get her whip out, drinks copious amounts of vodka and scolds the audience,
‘You can look, but can’t touch. Actually, you can touch, but only when I tell you to. This is my fucking party.’
Perhaps the most surreal and inspiring part of the show was when she took to a podium with a day-glo neon hula hoop. She then sang Slave to the Rhythm while hula-hooping and didn’t lose time, nor did her voice falter. The unique scenario was avant-garde, impressive and utterly hilarious.
Sense of humour
Take note Madonna- sense of humour. When Grace tried to sing, hula-hoop and move from podium to stage simultaneously, she lost grip of the hoop. Her response to this? She picked up the offending sphere and continued the routine, but while whirling it round her neck.
In a nod to the underground club culture of which she is both an icon and a patron, Grace performed the Hi-NRG classic Love is the Drug while wearing a metallic reflective hat. An industrial strength laser skewered her head from above, forcing the ravetastic beams to lacerate the dark auditorium.
It was no less hardcore than anything The Prodigy or The Chemical Brothers might deliver. The notion of Grace Jones as queen of the clubs is undisputable. This isn’t a pop act trying to get cred with the club kids via glo-sticks and remixes. From Studio 54 to the Cockring in Amsterdam, she’s earned her stripes. Grace is disco.
First Published Jan 2009: TheHospitalClub.com