Windy City Times
BOOK REVIEW I’ll Never Write By Memoirs
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Vern Hester
I had yet to forget seeing Grace Jones for the very first time. It was 1975 and I was a barely closeted 15-year-old trapped in a boarding school in small town Camden, South Carolina. The only fuel for my innate queerness was a steady stream of Elton John singles, Bette Midler TV specials and a single viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Then I saw Jones splashed across the pages of After Dark Magazine and nothing, literally, was the same since.
It was not so much that Jones was a striking, very tall, incredibly beautiful black-black woman ( which at the time were pretty scarce in entertainment ) but that she projected something so powerful and off-putting that I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Tina Turner may have had the same disarming drop-dead ethnic beauty; Tamara Dobson may have had her height and fashion sense; and long-forgotten rocker Betty Davis may have had her suggestive freakishness, but Jones had attitude. In fact, she had it before anyone knew what it really meant or how to use it but for her, that was just the start. Jones projected a degree of danger and androgyny that arrested men ( gay and straight ) and women ( ditto ). Next to Jones, silly hussies like Joan Collins’ Alexis Carrington on Dynasty would wilt.
In a few short years, Jones went from being a joke ( her visual image was too freaky for the masses and she found herself stuck in a number of pedestrian Eurodisco singles that highlighted her expressionless and limited voice ) to a killer icon ( her musical and visual re-emergence at Island Records starting with Warm Leatherette ( 1980 ) ). And, she did it in such a way that she literally became a brand unto herself. Even when she found herself in crap movies ( Conan the Destroyer, A View to a Kill, Vamp ) none of it clung to her and it was easy to assume that Jones really was her imageâ€”cool, stylistically cutting, insular, and clearly larger then life.
All of this makes her autobiography, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs ( Simon and Schuster ), such a fascinating and engaging kick to read. This is a book that is much larger than what it appears and it works on a number of levels simultaneously. The most obvious is that it is the first recording of who Beverly Grace Jones really is behind that image. It is also a book about reinventing oneself, taking the risk of being yourself ( even if it can be construed as recklessness ), owning your life and actions ( yes, even if it means breaking hearts or “betrayal” ), and searching for the right components and people to make things happen in a big way for all concerned. The book also records history of a particular queer time and place: New York and Paris during the 1970s and ’80s, when disco, New Wave and house were all the rage.
There is plenty of fun gossip and adventure throughout the here ( her impressions of Studio 54, her escapades as a young model with pals Jessica Lange and Jerry Hall, her trans-Atlantic fight to land modeling jobs, her showing up late with Andy Warhol to Arnold and Maria Schwarzenegger’s nuptials with all those Kennedys in attendance, even meeting The Queen Mother ) and a virtual parade of legendary personalities ( Chris Blackwell, Jack Nicholson, Sly and Robbie Dunbar, Keith Haring, Mick Jagger and Steve Rubell ), but those are hardly the best reasons to read the book. The real reason is just hearing Jones’ story in her own words.
Born in Jamaica to a family entangled in the Pentecostal Church, Jones felt oppressed while being force fed a diet of what she “should be.” Once her family moved to Syracuse New York in the 1960s, she threw off those expectations and went in search of the artistic life that she imagined for herself. Not seeing what she thought she wanted to see ( obviously at the time it did not exist and Jones never mentions role models which implies that she knew she had to invent herself ) and not cozying up to the civil-rights movement ( as, being from Jamaica, she did not share an African-American history ), she pursued a career in theater. Modeling was a way to pay the bills but an unexpected foray into music led to everything that she could want.
Jones casually talks about all the highs and lows of her career ( going into great detail about the change in her musicâ€”a major highlight ), but what are clear are her senses of self and direction. She dumped her first managers because they felt Vegas was the ideal destination for her talents. She started a romantic partnership with artist Jean-Paul Goude that would change the destinies of both of them. ( He made his name by “designing” Grace Jones, and he provided her with the look that would turn her cheesy disco flash into cold, buffed high art. ).They shared a son, and then there was the business of turning Grace Jones the person into Grace Jones the object d’art.
It is all a thrilling ride, but the one revelation in the book that I have never seen in her is her heart. When she speaks of the AIDS epidemic in New York in the ’80s, she still has a pained sense of loss. There is an almost haunted vibe of sadness as she talks about her friends and partners in crime, Haring and Warhol, passing away before her eyes.
And then there is an episode near the finish of the book that is so sincere and touching that it makes everything about her seem like a major fabrication. After being estranged from her father ( who was a bishop in the church in New York and, no, he did not approve of his daughter the rock star ), she was able to make a dream come true for him. It is a section of the book that is so enrapturing and sincere that it really did force me to look at Jones with a new perspective.