Sunday, February 13, 2011

Passion, Pleasure & Pain: In Praise of Gitane Demone's “Life After Death”

Passion and fluidity are two key ingredients for any great artist but are often the hardest to possess. Passion is vital for anything truly good since otherwise it's like faking an orgasm. You can give the best moan and grind all you want, but it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. Even more than that, you need fluidity to keep things interesting. Talent helps out a lot, too. When I think of all these factors, singer, musician and artist Gitane Demone comes immediately to mind.

I first became familiar with her work when a friend of mine lent me a compilation that had her single, “Incendiary Lover”, on it. The angel-sweet vocals made an instant impression on me, though the pop-ness of the production gave me little indication of what was in future store. There was her amazing work with the band Christian Death, at first with leader and founder Rozz Williams, resulting the essential albums “Ashes” and “Catastrophe Ballet.” Then after Rozz left, she continued with the band with guitarist and former Pompeii 99 band mate Valor Kand. This line-up resulted in such great songs as “Church of No Return” and “Believers of the Impure.” But if this is all you know of Gitane's work, it is literally just the tip of this brilliant woman's creative release. Her work with both incarnations of Christian Death displayed someone whose vocals range from ethereal banshee to rock goddess, all the while sounding effortlessly perfect. But nothing could have prepared the music world for the next chapters of Gitane's career, all lovingly captured and covered from the beginning of her solo work around 1991 to 1998 on Cult Epics lush special edition 2 DVD and 1 CD set, “Life After Death.” 

After leaving Christian Death, a band whose own work had done some genre-bending in both incarnations, Gitane's career went into the one trajectory that no one could have guessed. Utilizing her influences by such legends as Billie Holiday, she transformed herself into a torch singer with heavy jazz and blues influences (which is only one petal to this multilayered flower). While some jazz musicians initially looked down on this “rock and roll girl” back then, Demone is a talent that demands respect and this set will silence whatever naysayer that is left. Janis Joplin was a rock and roll force who could sing the blues as well as the talented old ghosts and so does Gitane.

Disc One begins with a biographical piece that was aired on VPRO, a Dutch Television channel, from 1991. It covers her intense childhood which included being surrounded by nature, aggressive, girl-hungry boys and getting her first taste of death. They soon go into her discovery of love, sex and music. We get to see Gitane at the piano while the camera passes lovingly but fleetingly over a Billie Holiday album in the corner. There is some footage featured here that I would kill to see more of including shots of Gitane singing live while playing with fire (literally) and breaking a mirror and then a TV set with a hammer. Like any artist worth his/her salt, she is a seeker and it is this artistic freedom that is going to shine for the rest of this set. Speaking of which...

Gitane in the Dutch TV Special "The Dark Side of Life."

Following that is a live, B&W clip from the Mazzo in Amsterdam shot in 1989 that includes a blistering version of Holiday's now-classic “Strange Fruit.” This song is a standard that, by the time the '90's hit, had been covered to death by x,y and z performers. It is a powerful song but like a great image, it cannot truly ring true unless the person expressing can actually feel the song. Anyone with the right training can pull this off technically but then you are going through the motions, which is an insult to the material and audience. Gitane is not a faker and brings the right amount of emotional pain and realness that this song warrants and deserves.

Mazzo, Amsterdam 1989

After that is a one-song performance of “Sound of War” for Dutch Television from 1992. It's classic and simple, complete with a great saxophone solo. Again, like “Strange Fruit,” the temptation to do an anti-war song and wring it like the grasp of death is upon it is too irresistible for most, but Gitane and her band find a great balance of emotion without letting any well-meaning but ill-plotted out cheese sully it.

Singing "The Sound of War" in 1992.

  Courtesy of VPRO Radio in Holland, we then get a three song clip from '93 featuring the great “Love for Sale” (excellent audio on this batch, by the way). The show following this one, from the ISC Club in Bern, Switzerland in 1993 is one of the best on this disc, featuring the show stopper, “I Have a Right to Sing the Blues.” Mein Gott, this is phenomenal stuff, featuring some great, experimental-type sonic horns, percussion and keyboards bleeding together and perfectly offset by Gitane's big, smooth and at times scouring voice. Screw anyone whose “blues” music is basically raping the corpse of Robert Johnson (Clapton, I am looking at you) and/or morphing what were once some good chords into Michelob-lite butt-bar-rock. This is the real blues (Also see, Pierce, Jeffrey Lee. Can you imagine if those two could have worked together? A girl can dream). This is raw and infernal and beautiful, which is really what all great music should be. Especially the blues.

Rounding up Disc One is a killer live-set from the Indie Tour in 1995. The six-song set includes a deconstructed, dreamy cover of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” Jimi Hendrix's “Manic Depression” and the original “These Vulnerable Eyes.” (The latter two are both featured on the collaborative album between her and the late, great Rozz Williams, “Dream Home Heartache.”) Seeing Gitane playing an open-air venue doing these gorgeous torch songs in broad daylight, dressed in a crimson-red evening gown and nose chain is a sight to behold. While typically these are songs that were born in the smokey hothouse of seedy clubs, it all works. When the material and performer are this good, it's proof that they can shine anywhere.

 Singing on the Indie Tour in Querfort, Germany.

Disc One is a great representation of the blossoming of the early stages of Gitane's solo career with a defined focus on the blues/jazz side of of her work. Disc two has some shades of this but goes further into the other sides of her 90's solo work and also her collaborative work with Rozz. It's all shades of brilliant blues, blacks and reds from here on out.

The opener for Disc Two is the promotional video for the single, “Heavenly Melancholy,” directed by Nico B. (Who also helmed the brilliant short film PIG and is the man responsible for giving us Cult Epics.) Made and released in 1992, its sonic sleekness and dance-floor friendliness is the perfect opener. There's some jazz tinge to Gitane's voice but the music is different, letting you know that you are in for a wholly unique ride. The video itself features a bewigged Gitane wandering the streets rejected until she finds herself welcomed into the arms of a large S&M club! (If only the rest of us would be so lucky when lost in large European cities!) The club scenes are contrasted with some beautifully lit scenes of Gitane, with her platinum hair close cropped, singing, while some other latex-clad lovelies of both genders dance around. There's some gorgeous jewel-tone sets and lighting going on here, with all that black vinyl and rubber looking especially shiny against cobalt blue and fire orange backgrounds. It may not re-invent the music video wheel, but it does add some lovely new tones to it.

Goddess in Vinyl: Still from "The Heavenly Melancholy" Video

Then there's a brief clip from the UK video magazine “Skin Two” from 1994 featuring a lot of preening S&M enthusiasts and a way too short clip of Gitane singing while tied up and blindfolded as a a Domme teases her with a whip. What you hear is great but undoubtedly the “Skin Two” folks were more focused on the obvious and less creative side of things.

After that, we get a short but chewy documentary from Denmark in 1995 entitled “Fetish Generation,” courtesy of Steen Schapiro. There's some good interview footage where Gitane talks about her involvement with the S&M community and how it is reflected in her music, noting that fetish is a facet of the her music, not the other way around. This take is so intriguing, since so many musicians have employed sexuality as a manipulative, borderline cynical tool of intention, with the music often being an afterthought. With Gitane Demone, it is refreshing because sexuality is just one of the many colors she is painting her music and words with. Featured here are the songs, “Tongue of Fire,” “Cool Domina” and “Perv,” which are all very strong. You also get to see Gitane ride a guy around like a pony on stage and then man-up with a willing submissive lass, all with the help of a luscious apparatus. (You'll have to buy the DVD for further detail, folks.)

Brief performance shot from "Fetish Generation" Documentary

Then we get some straight up live footage, with a killer set from a show in Hamburg in 1994. This is the show where we really get into the meat of the music from this era. Featured here are some crunchy renditions of “Tongue of Fire,” “Perv” (which positively smokes and crackles, here) and “Loveless.” The band is really great here, as is the striking image of Gitane belting out these saucy-raw rock & roll songs and wielding everything from a cat o'nine tails to a large double ended dildo with the total authority of someone who knows exactly what to do with them. This is definitely one of the best highlights of this already stellar disc.

 "Tongue of Fire" in Hamburg, Germany.

Segueing smoothly into the next aspect of her career is some choice footage from the “Dream Home Heartache” tour along with co-collaborator/conspirator Rozz Williams. Anyone who is a fan of the album will be extremely happy to hear these tracks live, complete with the non-album cover of David Bowie's “Time,” courtesy of Rozz. (An excellent cover to boot.) Even more lucky is that we get a healthy selection of material totaling 7 songs, which is basically almost the whole album sans Gitane's “Manic Depression” and the tune “These Vulnerable Eyes.” This is okay though since you get to hear them on Disc One. Hearing their soul-burrowing cover of Roxy Music's otherwise uncoverable song, “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” live is extremely special, capturing the cold claustrophobia of the original. The only hiccup is that the climax of the song is cut off, which is a total sonic interruptus.

From the "Dream Home Heartache" tour.

Given that this was far from a huge tour, having this type of documentation of this legendary collaboration complete with clear audio and video, is a huge gift. The stage set-up is as unique as the music, with the mise-en-scene being more of a beaten down European cafe than rock & roll club. Whenever it is a solo turn, the other one sits at a small table with a glass of wine and a lit candle, with the vibe being slightly decadent and melancholy. The only real annoyance is that there are various times where you can hear people loudly talking in the background. Seriously, folks, if you want to have a big conversation with your friends, go to a regular bar or coffee shop. Doing it at a live performance is just flat out rude. Anyone who has been on stage and exposing their art can attest to that.

Rozz singing Bowie's "Time."

That unavoidable nuisance aside, this is a great set and gives a sweet peek into another facet of both Gitane and Rozz's art. The beauty of these two geniuses coming together is that you have two equals with diverse abilities, raw talent and a total willingness to experiment and take a risk. Which is honestly the biggest reason why both the album and performance works so well. This whole set (and DVD) is a Stendhal Syndrome inducing experience of live art. 

Following that up is no mean feat but we get more rare footage with Gitane making a special appearance at a Christian Death show with Rozz at the Astoria II in London, 1996. The footage is good, the band's tight and Gitane sounds powerful. The big problem here is the audio on Rozz's mic. While he is absolutely on fire here, with a nice high-energy contrast to the quiet moodiness of the “Dream Home Heartache” tour, you can barely hear his voice at all. Which is a bit of a bummer but anyone who has to shoot video in a live situation can tell you that audio is a bitch-goddess that can give as much as she takes. That said, it is still great to have this preserved and hearing Gitane sing “Lament” off of “Ashes” is beyond gorgeous. There is literally nothing this woman can't do.

Gitane & Rozz during a Christian Death show 
 in London, 1996.

Rounding out this disc is a 1998 performance in Kato, Berlin. After all of the lush blues, lovely melancholia and sexual decadence, we get a stripped down but powerful mini-set of four songs, opening with “I Lost a Friend to Heroin.” A song like this could easily slip into sap but instead it is crunchy and appropriately gut level. Being someone who has lost some loved ones to addiction, this song pretty much nails the feeling. But even if you are someone who hasn't, it will still hit you. Continuing the great streak is “Speed” and “Incendiary Lover.” The live version of the latter is a vast improvement over the studio one I heard many moons ago.. The studio one is pretty but very polished. Live, it sparkles. But the true standout here is the final song, sung a-Capella and being the classic French song “What Now, My Love?” This is a song that has been covered by everyone ranging from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley, but it is Gitane's that is the most heart wrenching, finding that rare middle of raw emotion and a rich voice. There is no better note to end on than this hard hitting and beautiful song. 

Souring through "What Now, My Love?"

  Cult Epics has done an absolutely primo job of preparing and compiling material. This set is both a valentine to any fan and also to Gitane herself. There was some obvious good thought put into what material to mix and how it was placed. The real testament to this is that not only is it perfect for someone who is familiar with her work, but it is also a very good introduction to someone who is new.

In addition to all of this audio-video goodness, there is even a bonus CD featuring unreleased covers of such songs as “Time,” “Them There Eyes,” “In My Solitude” (a big favorite) and “Gloomy Sunday,” among others. It is beyond a treat.

One of the best things about this set is the idea of having this lovely and comprehensive documentation of a truly unique and great artist. Some of our best artists are the ones that often get overlooked by the mainstream press. But others can keep going through the motions while those of us in the know can celebrate and support the real artists. The cream will rise and the proof is in “Life After Death.” 

Now, here's hoping for a follow up disc in the next few years covering her post-1998 work, with the most recent being the amazing, jangle-indie rock band The Crystelles. The beautiful thing about artists like Gitane Demone is that both their past, present and future work only gets richer and more layered with time. 


© Heather Drain 2011

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sticky Sweet Music with Crunch: An Interview with Power-Pop-Punk Rock Legend Sammy Serious

I'm not entirely sure how the work of Sammy Serious and his classic power pop/punk band The Zeros (think Cheap Trick meets the Dickies with some Bowery Boys attitude thrown in for good measure) came into my existence, but I was a convert from day one. I can tell you that the first song I ever heard was the Zeros “Sticky Sweet Girls,” which is on their major label debut “4-3-2-1..Zeros” and it was instant love. There are songs that take awhile to properly woo you into their groove and then there are the ones where you are smitten with by the 10 second mark. Needless to say, it was the latter all the way for me when it comes to the Zeros.

But that album, as I was soon to find out, was only the tip of the iceberg, with the central figure being lead singer and songwriter Sammy Serious. Turns out, Mr. Serious has had an amazingly productive career as a solo artist as well as work in other bands, such as Serious Suicide. Most recently, his musical touch has popped up in a brand new Zeros album entitled “Zero In.” While Sammy is the only remaining member of the “classic” line-up (that being Danny Dangerous on bass, Joe Normal on lead guitar and Mr. Insane on drums), it will not disappoint anyone who is a fan of any of Sammy's past efforts. Thanks to the joys of social networking, I contacted Sammy about doing a little interview for my small but mighty blog and much to my happiness, he said yes!

So without further ado, here's a little Q&A with none other than Sammy Serious!

Question: Preaching to the Unconverted- How would you describe your sound and style to anyone who is new to all of the Serious works?

Answer: I would describe it as hold on to your life cause SAMMY SERIOUS is going to come in and rattle your brain.

Question: What were your original influences when starting the Zeros and how do they differ from what influences you now?

Answer: My influences when I started THE ZEROS are basically the same now as it was then. I still listen to all the same stuff today back when I started the band along with some new stuff out today.

My theory is what's good is good and if I hear something I like it doesn't matter when I started listening to it just matters if I like it or not.

Question: Being from the New Jersey area, was your life ever touched by the hand of the great Uncle Floyd?

Answer: Uncle Floyd was a great show growing up in New Jersey, you got to see some great bands on the show along with some funny skits it was really a show that I would say influenced a lot of shows on TV like Saturday Night Live and Mad TV.

Question: You mention DOG DAY AFTERNOON in the Zeros song “Pina Coloda Bang.” What other films have made an impact in your life?

Answer: Saving Private Ryan I must have watched that at least a 100 times
and every time I watch that movie I think about all the People who serve and protect us
I also wrote a song about the people who serve our country titled American Vets
which is on the CD LAST STOP OP HOTEL. Check it out. There are other movies that made a impact on my life but there are too many to name.

Question: Are there any records/books/films in your collection that would probably shock your fans?

Answer: Not really.

Question: In addition to the Zeros, you've also made a number of solo IDs and worked with Serious Suicide. What are some of the key differences between the three different parts of your musical career? Which albums would you recommend to someone first getting into Serious Suicide, the Zeros and your solo work?

Answer: That's a good question I don't really put one before the other its more like I have different extensions on my writing and they go into different avenues. I would think if you like one you should like the others they are all from the same brain just a different part of the insane.

Question: I have heard that with the latest “ZERO IN” that you ended up doing the bulk of the work with the music. What was that process like and how long did it take for it to be completed and released?

Answer: I wrote the album and recorded and produced the record and it took a few months for it to come all together to make the complete record. I also recorded the record at Hit Track studios in Las Vegas with studio mogul TOM PARHAM who I worked with on projects in the past, so that is a good thing to have a engineer who knows what your after and knows how to get it fast so things move quickly.

Question: Your work has been featured in a number of films,with the best arguably being the cult classic TAPEHEADS with the song “Mr. MX-7.” What was it like working on that song and that film? Did you get to work directly with Stiv Bators?

 Answer: When I wrote the song Mr MX-7 I did work with Stiv Bators on a daily basis. Stiv was a Icon, I loved the Dead Boys and Stiv was one of the coolest, kindest rock and rollers I ever met and worked with.

Question: I love how much name-play is used in your songs, like “I've Got My Name,” the Introduction and Good night portions on “4-3-2-1...” and most recently with “Now Sammy.” How did this come to be part of your style over the years?

Answer: The names are a big part of THE ZEROS along with some other characters who are in the band LIKE the Decantor, the Zeromonger, etc...
There are songs for these other characters I created but your just going to have to wait for NAMES VOLUME 2 to be released to hear these songs along with some other names that surround THE ZEROS.

Question: What advice would you give to any independent artist starting out in the music business?

Answer: Make sure you promote yourself wherever you can to who ever you can.

Question: You've done some really fun, borderline surreal, video work on You tube with The Moo Moo Serious Show. Any plans to take this part of your creativity further?

Answer: Moo Moo Serious is a character that is part of the Zeros family. She is one of our biggest fans that follows the members and gives them advice like a concerned mother and also has a cooking show on YouTube and she should be posting another episode soon.

Question: At the end of the day, how would you like to be described?

Answer: NOW SAMMY? SAMMMMMMMY? SAMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMY ? For everyone reading this going What! this is a part of the song on the new record “Zero In” by The Zeros .

Question: Bonus Barbara Walters Question: If you could pick any musicians, living or dead, to work with, whom would it be and why? What is the Sammy Serious dream team?

Answer: If I was to start a band and I could pick any musicians to be in it
I would get Burt Bacharach to play keys, Roger Waters to play bass, Roger Taylor to play drums, Alvin Lee, Jimmy Page, to play guitar, Bozo the Clown to play tambourine
and have Alice Cooper, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Johnny Lydon (Rotten), John Lennon hanging out so we can hang out after the session and have a party.

Also if anyone wants to check out The Zeros you can check us out on OR search Facebook for the Zeros.

Much thanks to Sammy for taking the time out to answer my Questions and for making some of the best and most underrated music to have come out in the past 20 years. If you like your music with lots of fun, humor, crunch and catchy, then go no further than the works of Sammy Serious. Plus "Zero In" is a really, really fun album.