Monday, December 13, 2010


Lizzy Mercier Descloux died on April 20, 2004 from cancer at the age of 47. She was a French singer and musician (and sometime writer and painter). I really didn't know much about her until a few months ago I ran into this:

The song ("Room Mate") is from her 1981 album Mambo Nassau. Amazing stuff. Some kind of weird mutant no-wave disco post-punk Afro music hybrid.

I look at her picture and I'm not sure what to think. I love these old black-and-white pictures from the first punk generation in New York in the mid-1970s. They're so rich with expectation. Mercier Descloux first visited New York in 1975 and became close friends with Richard Hell and Patti Smith, both of whom contributed to her first book Desiderata. A biography reads:

Self-taught as a guitarist, Mercier Descloux revealed herself as a supreme minimalist within the no wave genre, concentrating on spindly, single-note lines combined with wrong-note harmonies and funky rhythms. Mercier Descloux's singing voice, while limited in terms of carrying a tune, was devoted to rhythmic chattering, humming, and chanting lyrics that serve to cheer the music on and to build a quirky sense of excitement.

I actually read about her long before I'd ever heard of her. A long long time ago, I read Richard Hell's novel Go Now (1997). It's a really brilliant book--beautifully written--which I'm sure lots of people read when it came out and then promptly forgot. William Gibson (he of Neuromancer and cyberpunk fame) called it "vile, scabrous, unforgivable, and deserving of the widest possible audience." The main character is a dude named Mud, clearly modeled on Hell himself. A review noted, "Capable of moments of profound personal insight and revelation as well as acts of profane indecency and sexual deviance, Hell's character both seduces and repels."

Hell himself, of course, had been ground through the New York punk scene in the 1970s, forming the incredible Television with Tom Verlaine, and single-handedly creating the punk aesthetic of ripped shirts and safety pins that would be appropriated by the Sex Pistols. After Verlaine fired him from Television, Hell formed Richard Hell & The Voidoids, recording one of the best songs of the class of 1977 ("Blank Generation"), before succumbing to an eon of heroin addiction. Believe it or not, he was was a brilliant prose writer, much better than he was a musician.

Anyway, what does this all have to do with Lizzy Mercier Decloux? When she died, Hell published a statement on his website:

Lizzy Mercier Descloux has died. She was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. I met her in 1975 when she came to New York from Paris at the age of eighteen to investigate what musicians were doing on the Bowery (she would eventually make some albums herself). She was the primary model for the "love interest" Chrissa in my novel Go Now. These lines from that book are based on those first weeks I knew her:
In the course of the three weeks she first spent here she'd moved me and removed me and then moved into me, leaving me gasping--I can still feel it in my stomach when I think about it--like I was the invaded victim in a space-parasite movie, as if my heart and lungs were furniture she might be throwing out but would certainly rearrange at whim. She seemed to come from another dimension.

She was little, with matted hair. She had--she has--a strong jaw and these big marshy lips. Eyes like drains, like reality drains, like in Psycho where Janet Leigh's blood whirlpools away down the tub along with everything else in the movie. Her nose is flat, her whole face is flat. A slim body, nearly hipless [...]

She was a spectacle: carnivore and prey in one, like a walking wildlife film, with that riveting amoral charisma of nature. A complete mystery. At 17 she was more sophisticated than anyone I'd ever known, while also seeming utterly unaffected. Or at least her affectations came from such a stubborn confidence and will to defy convention that they were irresistible [...]
Having read what Hell had to say, I went back, listened to her album again. Looked at the picture above and tried to discern some secret of life. A life. A death. And all that came inbetween.

Richard & Lizzy, sometime in the mid-1970s

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