I’ll Never Write My Memoirs
Grace Jones, with Paul Morley
Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Chael Needle
[dropcap]G[/dropcap]race Jones likes doing jigsaw puzzles, as we learn in her new memoir I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, its title culled from lyrics to her song, “Art Groupie.” Jigsaw puzzles, like watching tennis matches, are one of her off-stage obsessions. She will stay up all night sometimes to finish them; they are a go-to when she needs a bolt of inspiration about a project she is trying to complete. It’s a startlingly mundane detail, but one she shares in an effort to separate her public persona from her private life. Both are “her,” but that she is outrageous as a performer and very normal at home is a point often lost on others, including, sometimes, the men she has dated, who want to freeze her in one of her minimalist poses. She resists being reified, being turned into a thing, from an early age struggling against who the world expects her to be.
What comes to the fore in her stunning and vibrant memoir is that she contains a multitude of selves, ones that she fashions and refashions, setting up house within and migrating from that which binds her, as is evidenced by her self-styled iconic look as a Wilhemina model: “My shaved head made me look more abstract, less tied to a specific race or sex or tribe, but was also a way of moving across those things, belonging while at the same time not belonging. I was black, but not black, woman, but not woman; American, but Jamaican; African, but science fiction.” Under the religious thumb of relatives in whose care she and her siblings were left as her mother and father went on ahead, moving from Spanish Town, Jamaica, to America, Grace started to only truly break free once she was reunited with her parents in Syracuse and had the freedom to explore who she might become—teacher? singer? model? actress? performance artist? jigsaw puzzle completist?
Jigsaw puzzles are a process, and that’s her point. So is art. So is living. Like everyone else, she is just another human being in the process of becoming, embodying a unique perspective. Unlike everyone else, she is able to express that unique perspective in continuously creative ways. About her approach to performing new material alongside the old hits, she writes: “I am not going to keep repeating myself without introducing where I have moved to now, visually and musically, which will connect with where I have been, and with where I am going. There are still missing pieces of this jigsaw puzzle to find. I’m still planning my next assault.”
The memoir itself is a jigsaw puzzle, each moment mused over and placed where it connects to four other pieces. Each moment is a small dash of color, some odd angles, and retains the mystery that Jones helps cultivate as part of her art, yet each moment speaks to the bigger picture. That’s part of her manifesto, as the reader finds out. Whether Grace is walking the runway as part of an Issey Miyake show, finding new voices for new rhythms as she moved from disco to post-punk and beyond, designing her look for A View to a Kill, directing the video for her song “I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You),” dueting with Pavarotti, or performing “Slave to the Rhythm” while hula-hooping at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert, she is dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the whole. It’s a portrait of artistic empowerment—how to hold onto your underground roots amid pressures to go mainstream; how to claim creative control in the face of corporate cannibals; how to create images when those images can be appropriated by others for their own purposes.
The memoir, one of the more insightful ones I’ve read of late, is more critical self-reflection than a tell-all. I’m not sure Grace Jones would need to write anything of that sort—she has already told all about her life, or, at least, what she wants to share with us, through her music, her performances, her videos, her images, her style, her public life. With collaborators along the way, among them Chris Blackwell, Andy Warhol, Jean-Paul Goude, Trevor Horn, and Ivor Guest, she has lived a life immersed in art, she has created art immersed in life, always eschewing selling out in favor of the beautiful truths and fictions of authenticity.
Along the way, the reader is swept up in a more-or-less straightforward chronology, accompanying her as she gal-pals around Paris with fellow models and roommates, Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange; smokes cigars with “Arnie” Schwarzenegger; enjoys motherhood and grandmotherhood; and rediscovers, later in life, a Jamaica that she can call home.
By the time she arrives at the onset of the AIDS epidemic and its subsequent devastation of the arts communities dear to her heart, one cannot help but see what she sees, mourn what she mourns. Artists like herself—stopped dead in their tracks. The creative momentum that built through the seventies and flourished in the eighties—stopped dead in its tracks. Sexual liberation and gender play—stopped dead in its tracks. The steadfast AIDS advocate (Grace has lent her support and talent to the Elton John AIDS Foundation and amfAR, among other organizations) writes touchingly and honestly about losing friends to AIDS-related causes, focusing in on three friends: Keith Haring, Tina Chow, and Angelo Colon, her film double. She understands that she could have easily been counted among the dead, and planned on being the next to die—until she wasn’t, and continued on as a survivor, remembering, paying tribute, an unexpected witness, the artist turned historian.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.