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Artist Info

Lizzy Mercier Descloux

Lizzy Mercier Descloux
Image from Discogs
Powered by Audioscrobbler™Lizzy Mercier Descloux (1956 - 2004) was a French singer born in Paris.

She died in obscurity in April 2004, 20 years after what was ostensibly her musical heyday. A Lyon-born art school dropout and devotee of Rimbaud and Godard, she was every bit the romantic French archetype, as well as an innovator and witness to numerous pivotal moments in musical and cultural history.

She saw Patti Smith and Television at CBGBs and Basquiat at the Kitchen. She recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau while Grace Jones made Nightclubbing next door. She collaborated with Soweto musicians in apartheid-era South Africa years before Graceland. She persuaded Chet Baker to play trumpet on her penultimate album, which turned out to be one of his final recordings. Though expert archivists Light in the Attic recently reissued her discography, she has mostly remained a footnote to other people’s careers.

In his 2013 autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, Descloux’s former lover Richard Hell invokes her memory with grim fetishization: “She was an intellectual sex-kitten chanteuse adventuress little girl.” Most of her old paramours still bitch about their rivals’ dreadful influences on Descloux’s career, each claiming a different account of how she truly felt and how much control she wielded. Stories abound of various collaborators pushing her in this direction and that while she griped about being worked so hard, yet she freely made five albums and one EP, followed her whims across the globe, and never conveyed anything less than a steely sense of autonomy, engagement, and intent in the many interviews she did during that period.

If there is a conclusive riposte to whether she was mused and used by the men around her, it’s in the consistency of her work over that decade—as suitors came and went—which defines her as a visionary, forging unconventional marriages of sound and attempting to push her singing to non-verbal transcendence. When examining Descloux’s unique voice, her strong and ever-shifting image, and her considerable achievements, one question becomes immediate: How could such a person possibly have been forgotten by history?

For one night in Paris, on July 8, 2004, Patti Smith elevated Descloux to her rightful stature as a French musical institution. Smith’s name was above the door at the venue Le Bataclan in the 11th arrondissement, but her stage backdrop bore Descloux’s name and the dates of her life: “1956–2004.” During the concert, Smith dedicated “Easter” to her old friend, who had died a few months before, after being diagnosed with cancer the previous year.

In 1978 Smith released “Easter” and the album of the same name, both of which heavily referenced the life of Arthur Rimbaud. A year earlier, she and Descloux had made a more lighthearted tribute to the French poet: A set of photos from 1977 depict Descloux suited up as Rimbaud and Smith in a white dress playing his sister, Isabelle. They dangle off one another like besotted young female friends do, capering around the Soho loft decorated with Soviet flags and Sex Pistols iconography that they shared when Descloux moved from Paris to New York in 1977 to start her musical career.

Descloux with Patti Smith in 1976. Photo by Michel Esteban.

Smith had arguably introduced Rimbaud to New York’s burgeoning punk scene a few years earlier—his dissolute artistic self-sacrifice making him a natural punk godfather—and in Descloux, Smith found someone equally interested in, as Greil Marcus put it in Lipstick Traces, “[destroying] the line in favor of the word.” At the end of 1977, Descloux made her first release, a book of poetry and collage called Desiderata, in which she began pursuing her delight in the rhythmic, nonsensical potential of sound. “I will not stay in one place,” she wrote in the untitled French poem that opens the collection. Then, several lines later: “The ‘bourgeoisie’ is an invention/ To kill the weapon of my soul.”

Descloux’s final recorded output was a bilingual recitation of Rimbaud’s “Matinée d’Ivresse” (“Morning High”) with Smith in 1995 for composer Bill Laswell. Both women sound notably older: Smith’s voice is a scathing scrape, while lifelong chainsmoker Descloux has dropped several octaves and smoulders seductively. Although they had lost touch in the intervening years, one line felt like the perfect summation of their late-’70s friendship: “We know how to give our life fully every day,” they intone, palimpsest-style.

Descloux got her cultural awakening thanks to another forgotten French musical institution. In 1972, 21-year-old Michel Esteban rented a store for his mail-order rock merchandising company Harry Cover at 12 Rue des Halles, in a working-class neighborhood of Paris. It became the place to go: Kids would convene around the free jukebox, while Malcolm McLaren would visit to keep up with les branchés.

Across the road at 11 Rue des Halles lived Descloux with her aunt and uncle. (Her mother wasn’t interested in children; her father didn’t know she existed until she found him online and met him a few months before her death.)

In spring 1975, Esteban spotted the 18-year-old Descloux on the balcony of her aunt and uncle’s apartment. Enchanted, he left a note tied to her bike, and she came into his shop. Disillusioned with school and barely showing up for her classes at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, she dropped out completely after falling in love and moving in with Esteban.

The success of Harry Cover had enabled Esteban to start visiting America, and on a trip to New York in 1974 he befriended the Ramones, Television, and Patti Smith. “I knew something was really happening there,” he says. “Nobody was saying anything in the French press, so I thought, why not make a magazine?” He and Descloux started Rock News in January 1976; the first issue featured Iggy Pop on the cover, and they distributed 10,000 copies nationwide. After the magazine’s launch, the pair continued to make frequent reporting trips to the United States.

Although Descloux described her journalistic endeavors as “completely crap” to a Belgian weekly in 1984, her observations and prose in Rock News were unquestionably sharp. On Patti Smith: “Women are usually groupies or the silent circle of photographers, managers, or the soul sister of rock’n’roll. The myth of the sexy pin-up, unthinkable regarding Patti, has been crushed beneath the foot of this strange, neurotic person, who is possessed of a sexual power as unknowable as it is vast.” Describing the Sex Pistols: “My kingdom for a vibrator! What is bad taste? That’s what the Sex Pistols are asking you. Alors! The hugeness of their destitution and the coldness of their boredom freeze our bones in the prime of life.”

A mere six months after starting Rock News, Esteban and Descloux had already appeared in Amos Poe’s documentary Blank Generation and commissioned Kim Fowley to interview the Runaways—but then they declared punk dead and closed the magazine. A year later, the couple moved to New York, where Esteban partnered with Michael Zilkha to start the pivotal no wave label ZE Records, and Descloux acquired a Fender Jazzmaster. The couple split up, pledging to keep things strictly business.
Descloux in 1980. Photo by Seth Tillet.
Descloux in 1980. Photo by Seth Tillet.

Descloux explained, “Once I found myself with a guitar in my hands it was inevitable—I was committed to singing [...] It’s easier for me to convey something in song than in writing.” Having never played a note before, she embraced her amateur aesthetic (perhaps especially its Rimbaudian rejection of convention?) but remained acutely aware of rock’s transcendent potential hidden beneath the prevailing hoary old tropes. Similarly, she told Creem, “Very often now when a woman plays guitar they really try to be equal to men, so they’re just gonna practice so they sound like Jimmy Page. I think women have a certain sensibility that could make them approach guitar in a very, very different way, in a beautiful way.”

“Beautiful” is not quite the word for the approach she took in Rosa Yemen, the duo she formed with Esteban’s brother Didier in 1978. She explained the band’s two-guitar lineup in an interview with New York Rocker: “We couldn’t get a drummer—all the drummers we were auditioning, they were almost scared of the music [...] It was just too weird.” They started playing ferocious shows at clubs like the Kitchen, the murderous intent of their namesakes (European anarchists like Rosa Luxembourg and Germany’s Baader Meinhof Group) echoed in their vitriolic and discomfiting performances. Harrowing vignettes were needled out on guitar while Descloux yelped fragmented declarations in French and English.

Rosa Yemen recorded a single, self-titled EP at Bob Blank’s Blank Tapes studio. In July 1978 it became ZE’s fifth release. Descloux rejoiced, saying: “ZE knew [the EP] wouldn’t go anywhere, that nobody would buy it, and they were just doing it and paying for it and it was great.”

In February 1979, Descloux returned to Blank Tapes for 10 days to record her solo debut, Press Color. The record’s fusion of no wave and disco was notably more melodic than Rosa Yemen, and the change in direction was partially the result of ZE’s “vision of what their artists should be and how they should do things.” Descloux’s labelmate James Chance avers that the label was pushing disco on their artists but letting them interpret it however they wanted. In Descloux’s case, this meant yoking her newfound love of African and funk music to disco’s strong rhythmic foundations, while she pursued guitar tones that sounded nothing like rock.

Press Color was released as Descloux’s first solo album, but it was originally intended to be a group effort. “It felt natural to put her name on it,” says Esteban. “She was the main character.” But she told a Belgian paper that there were songs on the record she didn’t like, including her cover of Arthur Brown’s “Fire.” It’s at this point that questions begin arise as to who was making the decisions. “Michel, from the very beginning, always saw her as his ticket to stardom, as his big star,” says Seth Tillett, a former boyfriend. “She always didn’t really give a fuck. If anyone was a reluctant singer, that was Lizzy. There’s that famous photo of her in black and white, practically strangling herself with her guitar amp cord on stage—it’s the perfect image for me about Lizzy’s ambivalence.”
Descloux with Lydia Lunch at a show in New York City in 1980. Photo by Lisa Genet.
Descloux with Lydia Lunch at a show in New York City in 1980. Photo by Lisa Genet.

Yet Descloux was adamant when a Creem journalist asked whether she felt exploited: “No, not at all. I mean, I write the music that I’m doing, I’m not only performing… I mean—I’m not just used by some male musician who’s going to dress me up and have me to dance just to look sexy on stage and just be a support for some kind of music.” But Esteban admits to pushing her so hard in the studio that they fought frequently. He wanted her to sing rather than yelp, imagining that he was encouraging her to reach her full capabilities, but Press Color shows her revelling in the potential of her naïve approach. “I’ll never have a golden throat!” she whoops, leaping between high and low notes on every opposing syllable of “No Golden Throat.”

“Right now I’m not at all a writer of words,” she explained. “I’m using the words completely for what they sound like, how they fit with the rhythms. I’m not interested in writing a love song, or a political statement about what’s happening with Ireland, like people are gonna listen to my lyrics and it’s gonna change the youth of the world… What’s beautiful is that I don’t speak perfect English but I can get lost in the dictionary and just discover the words.”

After Press Color was released, Descloux says she “did all the clubs in New York,” first as support, then as headliner. Despite the practice, a feature in New York Rocker from July 1980 indicates that her performances of this material were hesitant in comparison to the unhinged Rosa Yemen shows that she had relished. Sally Dricks wrote: “It’s frustrating to want to goad a performer as talented as Lizzy Mercier Descloux toward what only time, experience and confidence will make possible, but it won’t be long before she learns to command that space before a crowd by pushing herself just a little bit further than she thinks she’s able to do, further than she knows will make an easy return.”

It’s hard to find any indication that Descloux craved attention or adoration; she left Paris in order to escape the stultifying working-class life lived by her aunt and uncle, the latter of whom worked in the Renault factory by day and played boules at the Jardin des Tuileries after hours. By 1980, Descloux had become bored of New York’s self-limiting attitude: “You get exhausted very quickly because there’s no way of getting out of the club scene [...] You can be huge there and nothing in the rest of the world. Thousands of groups never get out, they try to play Boston and California but it’s a disaster. Look at the Lounge Lizards, no label wants to sign them and they get the best crowds, sell the most tickets, it’s been nearly two years. They said to me the other day that they reckon they earn $30 a week, so they are going to stop.”

Likewise, she railed against indifferent audiences: “They stand there holding a beer. It’s young Americans who come out on Saturday night because they’re bored. You’re just an attraction.”

A chance to move on came when Island Records licensed ZE’s catalog and label head Chris Blackwell invited Descloux to record in Compass Point Studios in Nassau on his dime. She readily accepted, having become a big fan of the African and Caribbean music she’d heard on compilations released by French label Ocora. Esteban assembled a band (including producer Steve Stanley and French synthesizer giant Wally Badarou), and recording began. Badarou describes the sessions as largely improvisation-based, with Descloux functioning as a “one-of-a-kind catalyst, enabling creative forces to blossom without any preconceived ideas. She had the kind of drive and charisma that would make anyone involved more focused on trespassing boundaries.”

Released in 1981, the tightly wound Mambo Nassau is Descloux’s greatest record: It bounces on the same kind of pancultural groove with which M.I.A. would make a name for herself decades later, blaring with the sound of city sirens reinterpreted by lusty brass. She yips in a kind of pidgin Franglais, unleashing joyous trills and impish taunts. And for the first time, the vivid music on the record matches the exuberance of her live performance. Talking Heads’ Fear of Music was talked up for its Afro-beat credentials, but the music was fundamentally recognizable as New York art rock. As potentially commercial as it seems now, Mambo Nassau is an uncontainable masterpiece that genuinely sounds like little else that was around at the time.

Despite the record’s promise, its release was marred by chronic distribution problems and Esteban’s departure from ZE (though he remained Descloux’s de facto manager). “You spend eight months of your life making something, then at the end you realise it will never come out because three bankers are arguing over a bit of vinyl,” Descloux said.

With no distribution deal and two poorly selling albums, it was difficult for Descloux to secure another contract, but Alain Levy, then at CBS, liked her records and offered a deal. The move to CBS led journalists to ask pointedly whether she had sold out. Descloux refuted the accusations, reasoning that ZE was an imprint of the major-owned Island. For her, the very notion of selling out vindicated everything she thought about the underground: “The underground—that so often means that you just lack means [...] It was good at the time when I was doing my musical apprenticeship, but it doesn’t interest me any more. Those who refuse to get out of the underground are often bitter and stubborn.”

Descloux wanted to record in South Africa with black mbaqanga musicians in the midst of apartheid, despite the UN’s cultural boycott: “It all came from one day when a friend played me some South African records that knocked me over [...] Straight away I said I wanted to work with these people. And voilà: it’s a record of a meeting between different worlds, not just the story of a European woman who goes to Africa. I wasn’t there to find the sound of tam-tams or the hissing of snakes, or, like an anthropologist, resuscitate ancient cave rhythms. Their music is very alive.”

Uncertain, CBS funded demo sessions in Paris with producer Adam Kidron, but he and Descloux were unable to find the sound they wanted. Determined to get to South Africa, Mercier found reduced plane tickets and a cheap studio; CBS signed the check, and Descloux, Esteban, and Kidron—whom she was now dating—toured Africa before arriving in Soweto to record.

Initially, the mbaqanga musicians regarded her suspiciously. This was the aftermath of Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock, on which he had sampled music from South Africa, South America, and the Caribbean without crediting some of the musicians—which landed him in court. However, after a week the musicians decided that Descloux’s intentions were honorable and began to jam with her, though their collaboration had to remain within the studio. Descloux was shocked by the realities of apartheid: “You can’t go to the cinema with a black person, sleep at their house, embrace them, dance with them in clubs [...] Racism exists everywhere. In New York, I have black friends who can’t get a cab in the evening. But the terrible thing in South Africa is that racism is part of the system. There are white people, then Indians, then the Métis, and finally black people.”
Descloux in South Africa circa 1983. Photo by Michel Esteban.
Descloux in South Africa circa 1983. Photo by Michel Esteban.

The resulting album, Zulu Rock, earned Descloux the Bus d’Acier award for Best French Rock Album of the Year (an accolade she found hilarious given how unlike French rock the album actually was) and spawned a hit single, “Mais Où Sont Passés Les Gazelles,” an impressionistic protest song about apartheid based on her band’s re-recording of the music of Obed Ngobeni and Kurhula Sisters’ “Ku Hluvukile Eka Zete.” She used the song’s video shoot as an excuse to spend eight hours interviewing Soweto locals about their experiences of apartheid, intending to release it along with a book on her return home, though it never came out.

“I’ve always been aware of racism and intolerance, but the project very quickly became political,” she said. “But I think being subtle is better than barbed wire and a black fist on the cover. The fact that the record exists is significant enough.” She is more unequivocal on “Sun’s Jive,” however, singing of the Afrikaners,“They should go back and disappear forever/ Where? The middle of nowhere/ The bottom of the sea.”

Unfortunately, her good intentions unravelled when it became clear that some of the South African source material had not been credited. “We listened to the top records in South Africa at the time, took the melodies, re-recorded them with a bunch of musicians and she just put French lyrics on top of them,” says Kidron. Esteban refutes his claims: “Some songs are covers. The rest were studio jams. I made the deal with the musicians there and did the publishing there, everything was normal.”

French monthly Actuel gave Zulu Rock a rave review one month, but on learning of the controversy, retracted it the next. Descloux said, “They accused me of having stolen traditional songs like Malcolm McLaren. It’s not true—half of the music on this album is credited to its authors, and the other half is made up of popular music that I rearranged and re-adapted to such an extent that nobody has the right to put their name to it. Nobody would be able to recognize them, the songs have changed.” (In this way, perhaps, she is as much the original Diplo as she is the original M.I.A.)

The incident tarnished the only small success of Descloux’s career. She had gone to Soweto with good intentions and wanted to take the South African musicians on tour and then to New Orleans, to record an album fusing mbaqanga and Cajun music. CBS put up the money, but the Praetorian government wouldn’t let the musicians leave. The project was shelved. Exhausted by the amount of promotion CBS made her do, Descloux disappeared for a while to Asia, where she was popular.

Alain Levy, Descloux’s champion at CBS, left the company, which put her at the mercy of a major. Before he left, he gave her the money to go to Rio de Janeiro to record One for the Soul in 1986. It’s a total sea change from the bright rhythms of her first three records; instead, “Lizzy sings the blues” says Kidron, who once again produced. A drug-ravaged Chet Baker gave one of his last recorded performances, imbuing the record with a mournful tone. Unlike its predecessors, One for the Soul has aged badly; Descloux is drowned out by the overblown ’80s production. “I thought she could have sung better on this album,” says Esteban, who stopped managing her after its release.

Descloux with Chet Baker in 1985. Photo by Michel Esteban.

There are few interviews from this period, so it’s hard to tell how Descloux felt about the record: fairly annoyed, one assumes, given that it went nowhere. But “she wasn’t fed up musically,” insists Mars’ Mark Cunningham, who joined her for her final record, 1988’s Suspense, which they recorded in England with producer John Brand. “She put herself into it 100 percent, with no distractions from boyfriends or managers.”

Where One for the Soul was unrecognizable as the same artist who once shrieked on stage with Rosa Yemen, there was more of Descloux in Suspense, which proved to be a happy marriage between her unconventional rhythms and the gated synths and snares of ’80s production. The first single, “Gueules d’Amour,” was another flop. “As soon as the label saw they didn’t have a hit, they withdrew the promotion to reduce losses,” says Cunningham. “They destroyed her career, in a sense, by burying the album.”

It’s almost incomprehensible that Descloux was allowed to release as many unsuccessful major label albums as she was. Nonetheless, she had grown accustomed to handsome recording budgets and label heads who were willing to finance her exotic excursions, so after Suspense was DOA, it’s little surprise that slinking back to the underground held no appeal. She threw herself into painting, briefly coming out of musical retirement for 1995’s “Matinée d’Ivresse” with Patti Smith. That same year she recorded an album for EMI, which was never released.

It’s difficult to piece together Descloux’s movements during the last nine years of her life. One friend reports that she worked on a tourist boat on a tropical island and dated a stockbroker whom she didn’t particularly like. She lived in Guadeloupe and later in Happonvilliers, France. In 2003 she was diagnosed with stage-three ovarian and colon cancer but refused conventional treatment. Determined not to die in a hospital, she spent time with Esteban at his home in the south of France, had a brief spell in a Parisian hospital, where she and Esteban said goodbye, and lived out her last weeks in Corsica, passing on April 20, 2004.

“The public were unmoved by her death and French newspapers barely mentioned it,” says French journalist Simon Clair, who is writing a book on Descloux. France is not exactly rich with great musical exports (as John Lennon once put it, “French rock is like English wine”), so one would have expected the press to deify her. However, she and the French press perceived each other as being snobbish, and deserters never fare well. If her legacy wasn’t recognized, her wake—which took place in CBGBs, organized by Richard Hell—demonstrated her influence. “It was really funny to see how many people felt they were totally possessed by Lizzy, how she was capable of making everyone feel that way,” says Seth Tillett.

“Lizzy never thought she had something to prove,” says Esteban. “I don’t think she was ambitious in the pejorative sense. She didn’t have that big ego to become a superstar.”

Descloux was never jaded about her lack of recognition. For her, music was not about success but rather a refusal to accept the limitations of genre, geography, or any other convention. She chose to live like an endless seed of mystery on the breeze. “I don’t work in terms of fashions,” she once said. “At the very limit I might contribute to creating them. But that isn’t intentional.”

Works cited: Télémoustique, June 28, 1984. Rock News, May 1976. La Dépêche, March 1984. Creem, May 1980. New York Rocker, July/August 1980. Undated clip from Invitation Rock & Folk, August 1980. Télépro, 1984. Chanson, 1984. Le Soir, April 27, 1984. Le Quotidien, August 1984. Nice Matin, April 1984.
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Source: http://pitchfork.com/features/from-the-pitchfork-review/9828-lizzy-mercier-descloux-behind-the-muse/
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