Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Grace Jones: ‘I can’t be bought – people hate that’
Grace Jones is not a diva. She says so in her new memoir, entitled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, drawling to her friend Kate Moss, “I am not a diva, I am a Jones,” and tells me that she loathes the word. “Diva is so overused. Diva, icons, the whole thing, legends… To be a diva, what is that?”
Jones is happy to own her past misbehaviour, such as her infamous chatshow slapping of Russell Harty in 1981. “I still laugh about that, but I was seriously upset by him ignoring me. What I really wanted to do was tilt him over in his chair. But I thought, you’re gonna end up in jail, you’re gonna break his neck, you’re gonna kill him on air!” At the same time, Jones doesn’t want to be defined by such incidents, turned into some kind of avant garde pantomime dame. “I don’t want to be a cartoon. I hate that.”
We meet to talk at a London riverside restaurant. I’m resigned to the high probability of Jones being incredibly late (lateness is one of her “things”), but (hallelujah!) she’s on time-ish (less than an hour late) and apologises profusely for this minor tardiness. A secluded table is adorned with a white tablecloth and wine in an ice bucket, and there’s that expectant bustle you only get with really famous people. Jones is dressed in a black flying suit and airman’s hat, and there are no signs of diva behaviour, unless you count the occasional coquettish eye-slide or languorous drawl. She’s friendly and warm, chatting easily in her hybrid Jamaican/ transatlantic/ Eurotrash accent, frequently letting rip with her extraordinary full-throated laugh.
Makeup free, with those signature geometric cheekbones, she looks astonishingly youthful for the 67 years she refuses to definitively confirm in the book (her age slides around all over the place). She puts her youthful looks down to the fact that she “doesn’t believe in time”. “People stress too much about ageing and that makes them age.” She has an anti-plastic surgery rant in the book and insists that she hasn’t had anything done. “Jerry [Hall, a friend from her early modelling days in Paris] looks at me and says, ‘How come you haven’t got no lines?’ And sometimes I go on TV and notice the camera is going back behind my ear!” They’re trying to spot scars? “Yes. I can’t even stand needles – can you imagine a knife?”
The memoir (as told to Paul Morley) took almost two years to produce. The title was taken from a lyric from a song, Art Groupie, which Jones wrote after a fight with her then lover, French artist Jean-Paul Goude (the father of her only child, son Paulo), with whom she collaborated on some of her most famous images (including her face shattered into elongated pieces, her eyes blazing alien-yellow, her leg tilted back at an impossible angle). Jones has a sense of humour about changing her mind about doing a memoir. (The acknowledgements section is titled I’ll Never Write My Acknowledgements). “I thought if I didn’t write the book, somebody else would. And if I’m going to do it, I’m going to give them one hell of a book.”
The memoir is a blast – a candid, funny, occasionally surreal antidote to the tediously safe and neutered modern autobiographies we are used to. It encompasses Jones’s traumatic Jamaican childhood; emigration to America; early days of modelling (with Hall and Jessica Lange); being a fashion muse for everyone from Issey Miyake to Jean Paul Gaultier; music (the early disco years, the renowned Compass Point sessions, Slave to the Rhythm, Hurricane, and more); visual art collaborations (Goude, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and others); and the somewhat patchy Hollywood career, including the James Bond film, A View to a Kill (Jones blames Goude for talking her out of doing Blade Runner). There is also some quite magnificent socialising, including being part of the inner circle at the Factory, and fabled New York nightclub Studio 54 (Jones was a close confidante of Warhol, and drops celebrity names as nonchalantly as sweet wrappers).
Along the way there are meditations on art, ambition, motherhood, love, sex, drugs, racism, sexism, money, decadence, success, failure, cruelty, fear and grief (when Aids devastated Jones’s social circle). There’s also an “open letter” chapter directed at younger female stars (the likes of Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj), with Jones giving them the benefit of her wisdom (this is putting it politely – it’s a bit of a ticking off). More of which anon.
Well, I say, your memoir certainly has a lot in it. “Yes, and there’s still lots NOT in it!” says Jones. She didn’t want the book to explain her fully. “I like the mystery of me.”
Beverly Grace Jones was born into a large religious/political family in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Before she and her sundry siblings joined their parents emigrating to Syracuse, New York, they stayed with her grandmother and step-grandfather, Mas P (Mas – short for “Master”), who meted out ferocious religious discipline, psychological and physical. It’s a harrowing story – Mas P obliterated their childhood. “I had no childhood, I’m having it now.” Does she view herself as an abuse survivor? “Absolutely.”
One of her brothers, Noel, became a bishop, but Jones does not follow religion conventionally. “I believe in God, everything I see is part of God, but not in thatway.” Still, even during the riotous hedonism of the Studio 54 era, Mas P’s fear of God remained hammered into her. “And all the guilt about sex, that whole thing,” says Jones. Her eyes narrow playfully: “I’m a hard woman to come, know what I’m saying? A very hard woman to come… and I’m not going to pretend.” She lets out one of her great roars of laughter. “I’m going to write a song about it. ‘Come, already, just come!’”
There’s a lot of sex in the memoir (awakenings, “love-ins”, disastrous threesomes). “They were different times, people just loving each other – pouring out love.” Jones thinks that society is repressed. “People would rather do violence than talk about sex. You see it everywhere in the world.” But she refused to go down the casting couch route. “I’m my own sugar daddy,” she says. “A lot of women were put into that situation, but I was a tiger. GRRRAAAAH!” She does a clawing growling motion. “I was just not into selling my soul. I couldn’t have lived with myself, I’d be so unhappy. I probably would have killed myself.”
Then there were the drugs. You’re barely a few pages into the memoir before she’s puffing on something strong in the grounds of the Jamaican villa belonging to her friend, and the Island Records founder, Chris Blackwell. At her hedonistic peak, Jones threw wild parties with different drugs and moods for each room.
You say in the book – you didn’t care what your guests did so long as they didn’t die? “Exactly. You do hear about that – can you imagine? It would be just awful karma to throw a party and have somebody die there.”
Jones might be too frank about drugs for some people, though she makes a distinction between her kind of experimental/mind-expanding drug use, and drug abuse. She took acid (“A super trip pill”) for three days under medical supervision in a commune. She did ecstasy for the first time with, among others, psychedelic guru Timothy Leary. “It was unbelievable for sex. And not just for sex, just for touching yourself.” She grabs her arms. “You know, ‘Oooh, that feels nice, ooooh, love, love.’”
She also experimented with heroin, but wouldn’t inject because of her hatred of needles. “So you chase the dragon, smoke a little bit, but I couldn’t move! I saw what all the fuss was about – it makes you go all warm and super lazy. If I was a lazy person, I’d probably go, yeah, this is the way to go. But I’m too active. And I was throwing up all the time and I hate throwing up.”
Jones says she was never really into cocaine and couldn’t understand how she ended up with a “coke fiend” reputation. “As soon as I went to the toilet in Paris, there would be a line of people following me!”
In the memoir, you say that you’d rather put cocaine up your bum than your nose. “Yeah, totally. It just made the whole area very sensual.” Did you do that quite often? “No, I don’t think one could do that quite often. Obviously there is something in there that would eat away…” She does scrunching actions with her hand. You mean, the same as when people rot their septums? “Yeah, absolutely. So you do it that way once or twice to try it, and that’s it.”
How did Jones avoid becoming a drug casualty? “I was lucky. I always say, God was watching me, someone up there was looking after me.” And you’re not an addictive personality? “No. The only thing I love is really good wine.” Should drugs be legalised? “Certain drugs should be. But for the addictive personality, they’re going to find it anyway, right?”
The memoir describes the racism Jones encountered as a young model in New York and Paris. She had a heated row with the late John Casablancas (founder of the Elite model agency) about the idea (still shamefully prevalent today) that there was only room for one big black model at a time – and that was Beverly Johnson, during this period. Dating white men (including Goude, actor Dolph Lundgren, and Hurricane producer Ivor Guest) also brought Jones criticism from sections of the black community. A female editor at Essence magazine told her that if she hadn’t starred in A View to a Kill, she would never have appeared on the cover because of her white partners. “Now she is with a white guy. It’s almost like someone has to break that door down for everyone else to go through.”
Jones says that one of her grandmothers was half-Scottish and looked white, and her own granddaughter is a blue-eyed redhead. “You see something like that and you realise that the world is pretty fucked up to put so much importance on that.” Obviously it’s a fraught, complex subject – I suppose very simplistically the feeling was that black people should stick together for solidarity? “Human beings should stick together,” retorts Jones. “Honestly, if I see a red-haired person with blue eyes now, I say, is your granny black?”
Right now, her personal life sounds complicated. There’s a new “man in Jamaica” that Jones is uncharacteristically coy about. She says it’s untrue that she married the late music producer Chris Stanley (who she claims was murdered in Jamaica). And she can’t find her actual husband (former bodyguard Atila Altaunbay, who she married in 1996) to divorce him. “Although we are divorced in our view.”
Jones seems to have remained on good terms with Goude, even though their relationship sounded extremely fiery and mutually dysfunctional – at times both of them provoking each other to violence. Jones couldn’t care less about political correctness. When I try to be delicate, and say I’m sure she didn’t provoke Goude as such, and that it wouldn’t have mattered even if she had, as it was up to him to control his reaction – she says cheerfully: “Oh, I did provoke him. Absolutely! I provoked him to get his attention.” In the memoir, Jones says that she felt that she had to be “perfect” for Goude – wasn’t that a burden? “I took it on as a burden because I loved him so much – I should have just said ‘Fuck you!’”
I tell Jones that I flinched reading about her doing pushups straight after birth to prove a point to Goude (she also went water-skiing with Blackwell). “I’m an athlete. I didn’t want to be the stereotype of when a woman has a child and it’s an excuse to get out of shape.” But she’d just given birth – if ever there was a time for a woman not to have to prove that she’s some “hot superwoman”. Jones says that pressure came mainly from herself – not least because she had a tour to do. “I wanted to be a ‘jungle mom’, where you’re giving birth and getting up and doing things straightaway.” In the memoir, she’s honest about being relieved to have a son because of how women were treated as inferior. Does she worry about her granddaughter now? Jones’s eyes glint: “No, I’m teaching her to be tough.”
Jones addresses sexism in the book, particularly regarding an incident in the mid-1980s, where she says that Capitol Records sabotaged her first-time directing of the video for the song I’m Not Perfect, pronouncing her unstable. Jones claims they even tried to get her sectioned. “The same old caveman shit,” writes Jones. She believes that all men should be penetrated at least once to know how it feels. What does she think they’d learn from it? “How to be vulnerable in a situation. I think you learn to be more gentle.” Not a sex thing, a power thing? “Exactly!”
Anyone reading the memoir hoping for confirmation that Jones’s song Pull Up To The Bumper relates to anal sex is going to be disappointed (“If you think the song is not about parking a car, shame on you,” writes Jones, teasingly). She’s one of those artists that seem deeply, organically bonded with the LGBT community. “Absolutely,” she smiles. “But they can probably turn on a dime too – I could easily piss them off.”
Jones has frequently adopted an androgynous image, and often refers to “feeling male” – what does she make of transgender reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner? “I can totally understand it. Sometimes I wish I had a dick too – just to know what it felt like. But I don’t have these awful crises.” Jones says, for her, feeling male was more a combination of growing up among brothers and rebelling against Mas P’s domination. Does she feel sympathy for Jenner? “No, I feel – finally you did what you wanted to do, and that’s great.”
She was less impressed when Goude photographed Kim Kardashian last year in a recreation of a celebrated image he took of model Carolina Beaumont in 1976, of her balancing a champagne glass on her posterior: “I understood his reasons. Kanye [West] was obsessed with Jean-Paul’s work, and would have done it anyway, so Jean-Paul might as well copy himself, and get it right.” But? “Personally, I would not have done it.”
At heart, Jones still seems to be a diehard “art groupie”, and follows her own code of integrity. For her, there’s a difference between straightforward commercial paydays and “selling out”. On the one hand, she has a steely reputation for refusing to turn up for any job (festival/gig/endorsement/appearance) until she’s been paid. (“Why are they holding on to your money?” she exclaims, not unreasonably. “I’m like, No that’s my money!”). On the other, she didn’t think twice about turning down The X Factor. “My agents get very frustrated with me. But there are certain things I’ll watch, and think, ‘Oh God, I really don’t like that, so why would I do it for money?’”
In the memoir, this manifests in Jones’s recurring fear of “Vegas” – not so much the place as the concept, being forced to behave and conform, in a demure wig and long sparkling gown. It’s her vision of creative death. These days of course the opposite happens in the music industry – females are generally called upon to “misbehave”/“act up”/“sex up”, whether they like it or not.
Her controversial chapter on younger female stars serves as a kind of “perils of fame” workshop. Jones positions herself as a sage elder counselling Gaga, Cyrus, Rihanna, Minaj, and others, about not overdoing sexuality and controversy, but she takes a few other swipes as well. She seems particularly infuriated about being copied by those who profess to revere her.
You end up feeling a bit sorry for Gaga (rebranded in the memoir as “Doris”), whose appeal to work with Jones was publicly rebuffed. Jones appears to be basically saying that Gaga isn’t up to scratch. “I’m basically saying, show me something that wows me – that makes me go, this is amazing, I’d love to work with you.” Jones also became upset with Gaga when milliner Philip Treacy made her the same hat that Jones was using on tour, only in a different colour. It felt disrespectful, vampire-like? “Yeah, I mean, come on, how can you do that? I’m still on tour with this, do something else!’’
“I’m disappointed in them,” she says of the young female performers she addresses. “I would like to see some originality. You listen to a record and you can’t tell who is singing, because they’re all the same, in the same key. It annoys me, but I still don’t give up on them. I think, well, maybe you’re going to find yourself, maybe not now, maybe not in 10 years, but maybe later. I like to believe that.
“I had to find my own voice. When I started out, they had me singing too high, so I had to find my real voice, and I have a DEEP voice. So I dropped it, and everybody thought I was a man.” You have that in common with Gaga – she was accused of being a man too. “Oh really? She doesn’t sing as deeply as I do, darling!”
What about Taylor Swift, who took on iTunes for their unfair treatment of artists, and Minaj who addressed racial bias in the music industry? On the latter issue, Jones shakes her head sadly: “That’s never going to go away – there are just demons there.” Her advice is to put your message into your music. “Normally I stay away from politics – unless I’m going to run for president.”
Would any of the current crop of female artists have appealed to Andy Warhol? Jones smiles fondly. “Absolutely. He’d have been, ‘Gaga, she’s great, Rihanna is great!’ Andy would have loved everybody! That’s what I loved about Andy.”
Suddenly, Jones’s phone goes off. “Leave me alone!” she yells at it, but in good humour. Her people are starting to hover now; the interview time is nearly up. So far as the future is concerned, Jones is involved with several intriguing-sounding projects, including Bjorn Tagemose’s silent movie project Gutterdämmerung (involving Iggy Pop, Lemmy, and Henry Rollins), a film with Sophie Fiennes (featuring Jones’s bishop brother, Noel), a longstanding venture with acclaimed video artist Chris Cunningham, and a new album with Guest (that may be her last).
If Jones gets time to relax, she’ll be watching tennis (she adores Rafael Nadal), doing complicated jigsaw puzzles, or unwinding in Jamaica, with which she reconnected after her devastating childhood. Her main priority is just to keep moving forward. “I like new challenges. If I don’t have that, I’m bored. I’d rather go and learn how to build a house!”
Before she leaves, I ask her – what does she think helped her survive all those years in worlds that have chewed other people up? “Again, it’s that thing of selling your soul – that would chew you up. I can’t be bought and people hate that. Everybody has their price – but not me.”
I’ll Never Write My Memoirs by Grace Jones is published by Simon & Schuster on 24 September (£20). Click here to order a copy for £16
1948 Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica. The daughter of a politician-cum-Pentecostal cleric, she attends church three times a week and is raised mainly by her grandmother and (allegedly abusive) step-grandfather, Mas P.
1961 Jones and her siblings leave Jamaica to join their parents in Syracuse, New York. She graduates high school and enrols at a local college as a Spanish major, but is persuaded by a drama professor “who thought I had a voice” into dropping out of university to work with him on a play in Philadelphia.
1966 Moves back to New York and is signed to Wilhelmina Models, but continues to audition for acting parts. Finding she doesn’t have the “black American sound” sought by casting directors, she tires of New York and moves to Paris after three months. Teased at school for her “skinny frame”, her angular androgyny is well received in the modelling world, and she appears on the covers of Vogue and Stern. She befriends fellow models Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange.
1977 Signs with Island Records. Her first album, Portfolio, is not a hit in the US (reaching 109 on the Billboard album chart), but climbs to No 10 in Italy and the Netherlands.
1981 Nightclubbing, widely considered her best studio album, is released. The album moves the singer away from increasingly unfashionable disco towards new wave, reggae and pop.
1982 Jones selects tracks for One Man Show, a 47-minute performance artwork devised with her lover, the photographer Jean-Paul Goude. Starring Jones alongside a cast of lookalikes, the video is nominated for a Grammy.
1984 Stars with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Destroyer and is nominated for a Saturn award. She is nominated again the following year for her “scene stealing relish” in James Bond film A View to a Kill.
1985 Island Life, her first compilation, is released. Its famous cover photo is manipulated to depict Jones in an anatomically impossible position. Nicki Minaj will mimic the pose in her 2011 video for Stupid Hoe.
2008 Jones releases Hurricane, her first studio album in 19 years, after having claimed she would “never do an album again”. She releases a dub version of the album three years later, to critical acclaim.
2015 Collaborates on the contrarily titled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs (a promise she made in the 1981 song Art Groupie), saying if she didn’t write it “someone else would”. Rivkah Brown