Thursday, May 13, 2004

Lizzy Mercier Descloux

Sometime around 1979 or 1980, I found myself at the New York club TR3 watching Lizzy Mercier Descloux play with her band. I had just been introduced to the post-punk No Wave sound and I liked it. I had her album "Press Color" and was amused by her performance. She was my favorite girl bass player: she cut a boyish figure and took no shit!

Lizzy died at the end of April, but her passing away at age 47, after a battle with cancer, has just been reported.

A Brief Career In Punk And World

Paris, 29 April 2004 - French singer Lizzy Mercier Descloux died a week ago at the age of 47, but news of her demise did not filter through to the media until yesterday. For the mainstream music public, Lizzy’s name will forever be associated with her one and only chart hit, "Mais où sont passées les gazelles." But committed fans will recall other Lizzy classics such as "Wakwazulu Kwezizulu Rock." In trendier circles, Lizzy Mercier Descloux will be remembered as one of those protean figures who pioneer cultural revolution.

Lizzy Mercier Descloux was born in Lyons, but she soon moved up to the capital to follow the trends, launching her professional career in a boutique in Les Halles (a neighbourhood which was at the centre of swinging Paris in the mid-70s). Lizzy managed the boutique Harry Cover, an outlet for T-shirts and records, with her partner, the producer Michel Esteban. The couple established themselves as the Parisian equivalent of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood and Lizzy soon earned a reputation as the muse of the city’s burgeoning punk movement. Lizzy had acquired essential avant-garde experience in New York, picking up on new ways of living and playing rock as correspondent for the magazine Rock News. Her articles found her at the cutting-edge of the music scene, reporting on two new ‘schools’ that emerged from the same origins: punk and new wave. Lizzy was on hand to witness the rise of Blondie, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, The New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders and Patti Smith.

On her return to Paris, Lizzy became the driving force behind Harry Cover, the boutique which the city’s first punks adopted as their HQ. Lizzy, in her early 20s at the time, thrilled to the raw new sound pioneered by her new friends, future members of Les Stinky Toys and Asphalt Jungle. Caught up in the musical whirlwind of the time, Lizzy went into the studio on her own account to record a debut album, Press Color, in 1979. This was followed by Mambo Nassau in 1980. With the French punk movement burning out in the late 70s, Lizzy began looking to new musical horizons, however. In the early 80s there was a general buzz around what journalists at Actuel and Libération dubbed "la sono mondiale" (long before anyone coined the term "world music"). And Lizzy found herself a pioneering force on this burgeoning new Paris scene. Indeed, in 1984 she rocketed up the French charts with a single entitled "Mais où sont passées les gazelles," an adaptation of a South African song immortalised by Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens.

Lizzy’s album of the same name was, for the most part, recorded in South Africa with the crème de la crème of local musicians. This was an unprecedented move in those days (two years before Paul Simon embarked upon his Graceland venture!) Lizzy’s album, released on CBS (one of the major labels of the time) went on to win the prestigious French rock award, "Le Bus d’acier." And although the album never made it past no.30 in the Top 50, Mais où sont passées les gazelles made an indelible mark on the French music scene. How could it not, when for the first time in music history a French artist managed to chart with a non-European sound, which had not been bowdlerized or watered down to suit French tastes.

The album "Mais où sont passées les gazelles" featured a number of South African songs which were as remarkable for the vibrant energy of Lizzy’s performance as for their hard-hitting lyrics. On "Wakwazuku Kwezizulu Rock," the single which followed "Mais où sont passées les gazelles" (with far less chart success), Lizzy raised the issue of colour, singing "Je te le dis noir sur noir/Laisse tomber les mots et la couleur de peau" ("I’m telling you black on black/ Drop the labels and the issue of skin colour!") However, despite Lizzy’s pioneering musical and social spirit, the success of the album was short-lived and her subsequent albums - One for the Soul (1986) and Suspense (1988) - failed to rouse the same interest amongst the general public or industry professionals. Over the ensuing years, Lizzy Mercier Descloux increasingly distanced herself from the music world.

Lizzy eventually left France and made her home in Corsica where she devoted herself to a new career as a painter. (Incidentally, an exhibition of her work is due to be held in Japan, in a Tokyo gallery shortly). Lizzy continued to paint while bravely battling against cancer, but it was the disease that finally won in the end. According to her last wishes, her family scattered her ashes in the Saint-Florent
Bay in Corsica. And it was only after this last promise had been carried out that an official announcement was made about her death. RFI Musique takes this opportunity to pay its respects to a true music pioneer. Adieu, Lizzy!

No-Wave Icon Lizzie Descloux Dies

The influential no-wave musician, Lizzie Mercier Descloux, died on April 20th of cancer. She was cremated and her ashes put into the Mediterranean Sea. The French-born Descloux emigrated to New York in her youth, and there fell among the avant-garde crowd and released two albums on the Ze Records label, 1979's Press Color and 1981's Mambo Nassau. Press Color contained covers of "Mission Impossible" and Arthur Brown's "Fire" which were much loved by the scenesters of a generation past. Mambo Nassau is the album she is most remembered for, and contains elements of both no-wave and traditional world music, as well as a Kool & The Gang cover, and was a great influence upon the Talking Heads.

Described in her Ze Records biography as "a French boyish poetry cute girl singer living in New York," Descloux was a friend and fellow artist to Patti Smith and was admired by many. In 1981, an article was written about her and Mambo Nassau in Sounds magazine, entitled "Sex with Style." Let it be her eulogy now: "Lizzie Mercier Descloux is a cunning naif, an aware waif, an experienced virgin, a tipsy teetotaller and a star in the shoddy, shady niche of obscurism... These songs are the current number ones in Heaven... Mambo Nassau is an album to be cherished, to be over played, left alone and then returned to. It is the tastiest sweet in the shop. It embodies the heavy thudding of a heart in love."

Rest in peace, Lizzy.

Some links:

Richard Hell

Ze records site

Her Tiger Sushi entry

A Lizzy Discography

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