Lizzy Mercier Descloux: An Uncompromising French Bohemian Finally Gets Her Due
by David Chiu
If you caught Patti Smith during her tour last year that marked the 40th anniversary of her landmark album Horses, you most likely saw the most poignant moment of the show — the singer’s performance of “Elegie,” a haunting and somber meditation of fallen friends. Midway through that performance, Smith solemnly mentioned in tribute the names of several deceased musicians and artists from her life and in rock history. During one particular performance of “Elegie” at a show at the Olympia in Paris on October 20, 2015 — ironically almost a month before the deadly terrorist attacks in that city — she referenced the following people:
“James Marshall Hendrix… Jim Morrison… Janis Joplin… Brian Jones… Joe Strummer… Kurt Cobain… Lizzy Mercier…”
Of all the people Smith mentioned, the French singer Lizzy Mercier Descloux, which was the name she went by on her records, was most likely the least known. Yet it was appropriate that Smith would pay homage to Descloux in Paris because it is the city where Descloux grew up. The two women have much in common aside from their friendship: both were poets who emerged during the ’70s punk explosion; they were influenced by the 19th-century French revolutionary poet Arthur Rimbaud; and at one time the two lived together in New York City. Years later, Smith and Descloux appeared together on a song titled “Morning High” for a project spearheaded by the musician Bill Laswell.
(Photo by Seth Tillett)
Descloux, however, never really achieved the long-lasting fame of her American counterpart — she died in 2004 in Corsica, long after she traded her career as a singer for the life of a painter. During her lifetime Descloux recorded five wildly, if under-recognized, eclectic-sounding albums– Press Color, Mambo Nassau, Zulu Rock, One for the Soul, and Suspense — that were characterized by her distinctive talk-singing style, bohemian flair, and varied musical palette drawing on No Wave, tropical and South African sounds. Last summer Light in the Attic Records re-released Descloux’s magnificent Press Color, and this past February, the label reissued the singer’s four remaining albums — each of them containing bonus tracks and liner notes by Vivien Goldman, a New York University, rock journalist, and former member of the early ’80s New Wave act the Flying Lizards.
“She was a lesser-known artist and her work is very scattered,” says Goldman, who had heard of Descloux back in the day but never met her. “And it’s also very sort of changeable. She was very much an artist blowing on the winds of — if not external fashion — what was fashionable to her. Her work is quite fragmented in a sense or very eclectic maybe, very changeable itself.”
(Lizzy Mercier Descloux in New York City, circa 1980. (Photo by Edo))
Aside from her eclectic musical tastes, Descloux projected a charisma that attracted men to her romantically — including some who played a role in the development of her music. One of the men who was caught under Descloux’s spell was the punk rocker Richard Hell. In his 2013 memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, Hell wrote a chapter about their relationship. He recalled first seeing her wearing bright slippers and a men’s white dress shirt sometime in the mid 1970s at the downtown New York City club CBGB:
“Right away, it felt like we were uniquely linked, even if we half imagined ourselves into our relationship. Our life together was walled off from everything else in the world. In our conception of ourselves we were inseparable; we were lovers and the only family in the world, like Adam and Eve, if he were a seedy addict poet of a musician private eye, and she was an intellectual sex-kitten chanteuse adventuress little girl.”
A couple of years before Descloux (who was born in December 1956) ended up in the Big Apple, she was living in an apartment in Paris raised by her uncle and aunt. It was in her neighborhood that she met Michel Esteban, the man who would become her lover and loom large over her musical career. Back then Esteban operated a boutique called Harry Cover, which sold bootleg punk apparel and 45s. How he describes meeting Descloux now reads like a romance story.
(Photo by Michel Esteban)
“I was living in the same building of my shop,” Esteban says, “which was on the first floor, and she was on the balcony of her apartment in the building in front of my building. So I saw her on the balcony and I thought, ‘Wow, she looks great.’ I saw that she had a bicycle, so I put a note on the bicycle saying, ‘I got a shop in front of your apartment, so let’s meet.’ And she came.”
According to Esteban, Descloux loved music but was initially not interested in becoming a musician — she rather preferred writing and drawing. “She was very shy and very wild cat. Have you seen the film of Truffaut, L’enfant sauvage (The Wild Child)? She was like that. Lots of hair. She was hiding behind her hair — a very shy girl but with a very strong character.”
At that time, Esteban was drawn to America, particularly for its music, movies, and literature. In addition to visiting New York, he traveled through the U.S. in a car (’Let’s see what’s happening there,’ he thought). When he and Descloux moved together to New York in 1975, they naturally gravitated towards the city’s punk scene. “Because that was [the] music happening at that time,” he explains. “And it was very easy because places like Max’s Kansas City or CBGB — there was not so much people there. It was always the same people, mainly musicians at that time. So it was quite easy to meet everybody because the scene was very small.” (Both Esteban and Descloux made a magazine called Rock News).
(Patti Smith and Lizzy Mercier Descloux circa 1976 (Photo by Michel Esteban))
Among the downtown denizens the two encountered included the aforementioned Hell and Smith. “I met Patti Smith in ‘74,” says Esteban, “and when I came back with Lizzy in ’75 we all lived together. Patti Smith was very fond of Lizzy. She said, ‘Come on, you should make a band, you got a great look.’ It was the punk times so everybody could make a band even if you didn’t know how to play any instruments. So that’s how it started.”
Around this period, Esteban and British businessman Michael Zilkha formed the record label ZE, which would be the home for such avant-garde acts acts as Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Lydia Lunch, James Chance and the Contortions, and Descloux. Her solo debut for the label was 1979’s Press Color, recorded at Blank Tapes studio in New York (Before that, Descloux was one-half of the duo Rosa Yemen, which included Estban’s brother Didier). Dominated by Descloux’s talk-singing style and yelps (the latter which Goldman describes in her notes), the stark and minimalist Press Color was a documentation of the No Wave scene — its tracks included the Velvet Underground-ish “Torso Corso,” the slinky funk of “No Golden Throat,” and the Beat-sounding “Jim on the Move.” “Press Color for me is really a soundtrack of what happened at that time,” says Esteban. “It was a little bit of No Wave, a little bit of mutant disco, because it was not really classic disco.”
The record also highlighted some interesting cover versions of Lalo Schifrin’s “Theme from Mission Impossible,” Peggy Lee’s “Fever” (reworked as “Tumour”), and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Fire,” which was stylistically world’s away from the original. “We both did because we loved the original,” Esteban says of “Fire,” “and we said, ‘Let’s make a disco out of this,’ because there was no interest in doing the same thing. And it works.”
Fronting the music were Descloux’s photogenic looks and and visual presentation, especially her large hair and two-toned outfit. The sexy charisma she projected was very reminiscent of her friend Patti Smith and another rising star from the downtown scene named Madonna. “If you look at those early shoots, very stylish, she was consorting with photographers thinking a lot about image,” says Goldman. “That’s why she always stood out somewhat in the New York Club scene by being super stylish with that Parisian edge on being a punkette. She had this very strong sense of style.”
Yet in a somewhat rather about face, Descloux and Esteban decamped to Nassau’s Compass Studios, owned by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, to make the tropical-sounding Mambo Nassau. In contrast to the black-and-white tone of Press Color, Mambo Nassau, released in 1981, was a vibrant-sounding record full of color, augmented by some rhythmic groove-oriented material (among them “Sports Spootnicks,” “Five Troubles Mambo,” and “Funky Stuff,” a Kool and the Gang cover). “We have that French idea: never repeat what you did before,” Esteban explains about the stylistic shift from Press Color to Mambo Nassau. “We had this idea to do an album in every city with a different context every time. So you lost your fans a little bit because it’s different with every album. But we like that freedom. It’s boring to repeat the same thing all over again.”
“She was one of those artists who was the following the mood wherever it went,” says Goldman, “which much more better known and more epochal artists like Bowie did too — sort of following the feeling of where music and youth culture was going, and she was a prime example of that in her work.”
For their next record, Descloux and Esteban embarked on probably their most ambitious musical undertaking: recording in apartheid-era South Africa for 1984’s Zulu Rock, two years before the release of Paul Simon’s classic Graceland. Made with South African musicians in Johannesburg, Zulu Rock, produced by Adam Kidron, another one of Descloux’s lovers, was a dynamic, rich-sounding sounding effort drawing on South African pop music — some of its exuberant-sounding standouts include “It’s All Imagination,” “Momo on My Mind,” and “Queen of Overdub Kisses.”
“It was forbidden for an artist to go to South Africa because there was an artistic boycott,” recalls Esteban. “We really liked the South African music, which was a bit different than most of the African music from Nigeria and all the places. It’s short songs, they’re not playing 15-minute solos. They’re doing some kind of pop music for us with a feeling and a sound. We felt we were mixing this, plus what we were trying to do with them could work.”
The record also yielded a cover of Obed Ngobeni and the Kurhula Sisters’ “Mais Ou Sont Passees Les Gazelles,” which became a hit single in Descloux’s native France. Admittedly the song’s success caught Esteban off guard. “We never thought about that,” he says. “We never saw Lizzy could be popular anyway because she never did anything for that. She always did what she wanted to do. Success is always a surprise anyway. It’s very rare. So for us it was a huge surprise.”
Esteban looks at Zulu Rock as one of his favorites. “The first week, the musicians didn’t understand why two white French people from came to do with them. But after a while, they understood. It was so much fun in the studio and I think that you can feel it on the album, too.”
Following their work in South Africa, Descloux and Esteban’s eyed New Orleans as the setting for their next project due to the similarities between Cajun music and South African sounds (the song “Wakwazulu Kwzizulu Rock” from Zulu Rock reflected that cross-pollination). The two were hoping to bring the South African musicians to the Big Easy, but visa issues quashed that idea. Thus Descloux and Esteban’s went to Rio to record what would become 1985’s One for the Soul — a very sensual and romantic-sounding album. The record was noteworthy for “Fog Horn Blues,” featuring the legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker a few years before his death.
“He was playing at a festival in Rio and we were big fans of his for years,” Esteban says. “So we went to see him at the concert. I went backstage and talked to him and I said, ‘We’re French, we’re in Rio, and we’re recording an album. Would you like to come to play with us?’ And he said, ‘Let me hear and the song and we’ll see what happens.’ And he came and liked it come and he played on 5–6 songs. It was great.”
One for the Soul marked a turning point in the musical relationship between Descloux, her longtime manager Esteban, and producer Kidron as both men felt Descloux could be a much better singer. Compounded by the lack of commercial success surrounding “Fog Horn Blues,” the album turned out to be the last time all three would work together.
“We had been friends all our lives,” Esteban says about himself and Descloux. “Lizzy and I were just fans of music, we didn’t know about the technical things…we just learned everything. After 4–5 albums, you start to know a little bit…and I was not happy with Lizzy’s singing because I thought she was capable of being a better singer, and she didn’t want to do more. And we started fighting around this. She would always sing 2–4 times maximum in the studio. And I know a good singer would spend lots of times in the studio to do the best vocal that they can get. So I was getting professional and she didn’t want to lose her freedom. That was a thing between us.”
Without Esteban’s involvement, Descloux was on her own for what would be her final album, 1988’s Suspense, recorded in London. The results yielded rather a conventional pop record— its use of synthesizers was a reflection of the times. Still a few songs provided some momentary flickers, such as the upbeat and poppy “Guele D’Amour” and the stark ballad “The Long Goodbye” (a favorite of Esteban’s). Fittingly the original album concludes with the whimsical and cheery-sounding “A Room in New York,” a homage to the city where Descloux started her music career 10 years earlier. While Suspense didn’t make any waves, it really showed the evolution of Descloux’s singing that really improved over the course of her five albums.
“It’s on the last one where she finally stands alone,” says Goldman about Suspense. “In the previous albums with Adam Kidron [Zulu Rock and One for the Soul], it was very frustrating for him because she couldn’t sing conventionally. She wasn’t a like singer’s singer. She was more like somebody expressing herself in that medium. And that was very much appropriate for punk, so there was nothing wrong with that. But in [Suspense], I think you hear her resolve some of that.”
Esteban says that Descloux didn’t end her musical career because she was fed up with the music but rather the lack of support around her to keep it going. “To record an album,” he says, “you need a record company, you need some people to some money to put into it, you need a producer, and you need the whole thing around you. It’s not a very easy thing especially at the time. Now you have a computer, you can do that in your bedroom. At that time you need a studio, you need musicians, and Lizzy was not somebody who could organize all these by herself. She was not involved in that kind of thing. So she stopped.”
As Esteban recounts, Descloux retreated to Guadalupe and later spent time at his home in the south of France. Devoting her life to painting at that point, Descloux spent her final moments in the island of Corsica, where she died from cancer on April 20, 2004. Yet there were indications that she didn’t completely give up on music. “She did an album, which was never totally finished in 1997 in the U.S.,” Esteban says. “EMI Publishing put some money for this album but it was never mixed. She fought with them and the album never got out.” Esteban adds that he plans to release the posthumous recordings sometime next year.
(Photo by Michel Esteban)
“At the very end,” says Goldman, “she was in dialog speaking to people and there was some sense of a possible musical coming back, people had an interest in doing things with her again. I thought the music business chewed her up and spit her out…but on an underground level, which was always her basic foundation, it seems like that wasn’t the case, and she could’ve had another bite of that apple, conceivably.”
Aside from the music, the intriguing aspect of Descloux’s life is how she was able to navigate between her musical and personal relationships — with her former lover Esteban in the background. “We are from a [different] generation,” he explains. “Lizzy and I were only a couple for three years before she started recording. When she started recording, we were not couple. We had affairs. Being faithful in the sex department was not important. It was more important to be faithful in spirit and friendship. It didn’t affect us too much.”
“She lived her life,” Goldman puts it quite simply. “It’s absolutely not abnormal to get involved with people in the workplace, especially when you’re being so intimately and intensely creative together. It seemed to dominate her creativity, and arguably quite a lot. The guys seemed to shape her sound quite a lot, and there’s a lot of conflict with them pushing her in directions. But there was a lot of love there.”
(Photo by Michel Esteban)It’s speculation, but could Descloux have achieved some modicum of mainstream success — apart from “Mais Ou Sont Passees Les Gazelles” — in today’s music scene that seem more tolerant of under-the-radar artists than it did perhaps 30–40 years ago? “Maybe,” Esteban says. “But on the other hand, she was so free. To be in the music business, if you want to be a successful artist, you have to make a lot of compromises. And I don’t think she was ready for that. I don’t think she was ready to pay the price. Maybe I’m wrong, because you never know when the big money and big success comes…which never happened to Lizzy. But I think I know her character pretty well, and she was too wild and too free to accept those all compromises that you have to make to be very successful.”
As for Descloux’s legacy, Goldman says it is a work in progress, as these recent reissues of the five albums have contributed to the conversation. “[She’s] kind of an underground marginal person who had some lightning flashes of mainstream success illuminating her career,” she says. “Her legacy is being brought forward only now to be assessed. It’s never been put together in this way.”
Bohemian, risk taker, musical sponge, global-trotting adventurer — Descloux were all of those things and more. But perhaps the best example that sums up Descloux’s essence has nothing to do with her music but rather an endearing eccentricity. In his memoir, Richard Hell recalled visiting Descloux at her New York apartment back in the ‘70s. He opened the refrigerator door to only find little jars of baby food: “strained carrots and mashed peas and pureed plums. She’d seen the stuff in a market and bought some and discovered she liked it. She did hardly anything like other people.”
(Lizzy Mercier Descloux In New York City, circa 1980. (Photo by Edo))
Special thanks to Michel Esteban and Vivien Goldman for sharing their thoughts and memories about Lizzy Mercier Descloux.