Grace Jones’ new autobiography, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs (written with Paul Morley), is about longevity. It’s a spiritual guide on how to survive the art world without selling your soul. If you want to know how to remain original and relevant, Jones will show you the way.
Jones’ journey begins in post-World War II Jamaica and continues through hippie communes in Boston. She was around for the birth and death of disco and a regular at legendary New York nightclub Studio 54. She was at the Paradise Garage with Larry Levan during the beginning of house music, integral to the New York art scene with Andy Warhol and Keith Haring and part of the Ibiza rave scene. She even starred in a blockbuster James Bond movie. And she has yet to show any signs of slowing or stopping. “I will never retire,” she declares in the book. “When I retire, I’m dead, and even then, I will be reincarnated. I will remain on the move. Even death won’t stop me.”
Jones took daring risks in her career so that Madonna and Miley Cyrus didn’t have to. Her 1981 tour One Man Show stunned audiences. It was ahead of its time: a mix of minimalism, expressionism, cubism, avant-garde film-meets-pop art, Japanese theater, opera and circus all rolled into one with a dash of robotic seduction. “[The audience was] quiet because they were seeing something new,” Jones explains in the memoir. “Not because the didn’t like it, but because they were concentrating on what on earth was going to happen next. It was a show that created a series of incidents, and you wanted to see how it ended.”
I doubt Jones spent 50 years discovering herself and honing her art so that commercial artists like Rihanna could spend a couple of hours copying it, but she holds no grudge. She sees herself as a teacher: “What is teaching but passing on your knowledge to those who are at the beginning?” she wrote in an oft-quoted excerpt from the autobiography. While so many entertainers today conform, play it safe, and quickly become predictable, Jones had vision.
How does one channel the spirit of Grace Jones? Well, in her own words, “to be tough, you need to be vulnerable.” She was subjected to heartbreaking abuse as a child when her parents left Jamaica to set up a better life for themselves in the U.S., leaving Jones and her siblings in the hands of a strictly religious grandmother and her extremely violent husband called Mas P. Every night was church night with Mas P, and the children were under constant surveillance. “It was all about the Bible and beatings. We were beaten for any little act of dissent, and hit harder and harder the worse the disobedience,” Grace remembers. From the day she left Jamaica to join her parents in the States, she swore never to to conform again. Performance became a form of escapism for her, a way of moving beyond the whips and prayers. All the abuse had formed her character and prepared her for dealing with authority, including the mad dogs of the music business.
I was surprised to discover that it isn’t just vocalists like myself who have to endure working with ignorant producers who think it’s fine to sample your voice and chop it up into loops of repetitive nonsense. I’ve featured on over 40 house and techno releases in my time. Still, some of these producers don’t treat you like a human being. They’re quite happy for you to send your voice and words via WeTransfer for free and never speak to you again. It’s a surreal experience that even Jones has had to suffer. “The idea of music had been destroyed for me after some flavor-of-the-month producers had ruined an album I was making,” she writes. “They were more interested in staring at screens, tapping and clicking their lives away…They treated me like I wasn’t there, excluding me from the making of my own record…It put me off making music.”
If I would practice any religion, it would be the religion of the almighty Grace Jones. Here are excerpts from her book that could be interpreted as her 10 commandments:
1. You’re not getting older, you’re getting wiser.
2. Be your own sugar daddy.
3. Always have your own apartment, even when you’re married or in a relationship.
4. Try everything once, and if you like it, keep trying it.
5. Explore a world of no watches.
6. To live an artist’s life, you must always be traveling.
7. Crave freedom.
8. Be alone, but not lonely.
9. Fame doesn’t make you somebody; you already are somebody.
10. Ego can get in the way of growth because it makes you think you know it all.
And, as a bonus: Live a long, fast and fabulous life.
Read a recommendation of a recent Grace Jones reissue by dance music historian Tim Lawrence here.