Tag Archives: Ari Up

RIP Poly Styrene

Poly Styrene was not afraid to be an outsider among outsiders. She sang the anthem of the weekend warrior: “I am a poseur and I don’t care.” Long before litcrits and rockcrits got obsessed with the subject, the woman born Marianne Elliot Said — who died of breast cancer April 25 — interrogated notions of realness and authenticity. Never has there been a more riveting riposte against consumer culture and beauty myths  than when she wailed the opening mantra of X-Ray Spex’s “Art-I-Ficial,” then danced and duetted with sax all the way through Germ Free Adolescents, the classic 1978 album.  The punk-feminist anthem “Oh Bondage Up Yours” was X-Ray Spex’s calling card. But they were so much more than a one-issue band.

I was thrilled when I heard Poly was back with a new album, even more so when I got the advance of Generation Indigo. She sang about vegan sneakers and social media with the same wry, joyous energy and wit as she once sang about Woolworth warriors. Elliot dropped her punk name and went Krishna many years ago, but she was clearly back with Indigo. I was hoping to land an assignment and an interview.

Then I heard she had cancer. I didn’t realize how advanced it was.

Coming so shortly after the death of Ari Up, Poly’s passing has me worried that we are losing a generation of pioneering women. I hope more than ever I can document some of those voices in Queens of Noise. We’ve already lost Sandy West.

Full-figured and braces-clad, Poly Styrene fiercely rejected objectification — no corsets for her, thank you. Oh bondage, up yours. She was definitely a queen of noise. RIP Poly Styrene.

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Ari Up R.I.P.

Ari“The mud album came up because we’d been in the countryside recording, and we were eating, eating, eating. We weren’t usually that fat, but we said to hell with it, so we look a little fat on the album, so what. Point was to show that we’re naked and free and tribal.”

Almost a decade ago, Ari Up and I were walking the streets of Flatbush, Brooklyn. She was telling me about the germination of the Slits’ famous Cut album cover in 1979, which featured the all-girl English band naked and covered in mud. The music inside was equally provocative and primal: a bass-driven funked-up art version of reggae. The Slits were considered punk pioneers, but “the real punks didn’t even call ourselves punk,” she told me. The Slits were undoubtedly feminist ground/ball-breakers. “We were still suffering, even though we were able to come out and put our foot down due to the explosion that was happening. We still had all the females’ problems, like ‘Oh you’re not sexy enough, not tame enough, you bunch of people look like animals, you look filthy.’”

Keep in mind that Ari was 14 when the Slits started, and she was upsetting the apple carts of the music and media industry. Imagine Miley Cyrus posing naked on the cover of an album smeared in mud and calling herself a vulgar name for her genitalia. Okay, maybe don’t. I knew intellectually what an early starter Up was, but I didn’t really understand it emotionally until Wednesday night, when I found out that she had died at age 48. Ari was only two years older than I, and yet in the days of that interview, when we hung out quite a bit, I looked up to her as this amazing legend, this whirlwind of long dreadlocks with her strange German/English accent and bright outfits. This video captures that Ari well:

It’s a cliche, but Ari really did pack more living into those 48 years than the rest of us would experience in twice that time. The Slits blazed a trail that also burned its members; her memories of that time, as told to me, were painful. She fled to the jungle to recover, living in Belize and then Borneo, with the Dyak Indians. Then she became a dancehall dancer in Jamaica: Madussa (I spelled her name wrong in my BB Gun story), queen of the raunchiest moves, as you can see in this last Slits video, released this week:

That video was shot the last day I saw Ari, less than a year ago, when the Slits played in LA. She was crazy as ever that night, in her bright pink Madussa outfit. Her twin boys were there. (My other BB Gun gaffe was to say she had two daughters.) I hadn’t met them before, but my daughters once babysat her son, while we went to an Ari show, with our dear mutual friend Vivien Goldman. She seemed especially stressed and tired that night last year but happy to see me for the first time in several years. I promised I’d get in touch again, but I didn’t, and now I’ll regret that forever.

Ari called me many years ago on Valentine’s Day, after I had moved to Miami and we hadn’t seen each other in a while; she was contacting all her female friends to send her love. Wild girl that she was, she was also caring and affectionate. She was no angel; it took a lot of energy to hang out with her. As I recounted in BB Gun, the cops got called to the club one night we were together and she was throwing a fit. Ari had a fierce sense of herself and her right to be who she wanted to be. That’s what I admired about her most, and why her death is such a loss.

You can read my BB Gun interview, from issue #5, here. If you don’t own Cut or the Slits’ BBC Sessions or the Slits’ 2009 album, Trapped Animal, buy them and listen now. I’m lucky enough to have a copy of Ari’s solo work from the turn of the millennium, and I’m chanting her prescription for an ideal partner over a funky reggae beat: “A bad boy to society, a lover to his family .” It’s no substitute for her in person, but now, it’s all I have.

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