Unknown Pleasures Chapter 13: Woman Who Flies

Style: "Disable"
Style: “Disable”

A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exalting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.
Nona Hendryx – Skin Diver [Private 1989]

Vicki Wickham was right, as usual.  As soon as the Bluebelles ditched their frilly party dresses and middling romantic ballads for a harder Funk/Rock sound, everything clicked.  Renamed after their lead singer, Patti Labelle, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx made a splashy debut assisting cult genius Laura Nyro on her Gonna Take A Miracle album and started building a following in rock circles, eventually adopting a glam rock stage look that was all but unheard of for a black female vocal group.  Bolstered by a massive Allen Toussaint-penned single,  their ‘74 album Nightbirds sold platinum, conquering black and white radio [a feat at the time] and eventually becoming the first black group to perform at the Met.

After all that, the fall was steep. The trio broke up in 1976; Patti Labelle never felt comfortable with the “rock” direction of the group, while Hendryx [who wrote most of the group’s original songs] and Dash chafed at being stuck in the background.  With Wickham in her corner, Hendryx embarked on an epically eccentric solo career:  While her songs would be covered by artists as disparate as Santanna, Jefferson Starship, and Dusty Springfield, mainstream success would be more elusive, though she always managed to be around when someone cool was doing something new, contributing showy backing vocals to Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and a blistering cover of Sly Stone’s “Let Me Have It All” for downtown cult collective Material, who also produced her club hit “Bustin’ Out.”  She also managed to write songs for movie soundtracks, most notably “I Sweat [Going Through The Motions]” a smash single from the Jamie Lee Curtis/John Travolta film “Perfect”  Patti Labelle would always be the bigger Star and household name, but those in the know recognized Nona Hendryx as a creative talent with a serious CV.

Peter Baumann spent the 70s helping reinvent electronic music, german classical tradition and the concept of film scoring with Tangerine Dream, before decamping to NYC in the early 80s.  Once in the Apple, he founded his own label, Private Music, which helped pioneer an electronic/classical/jazz hybrid that would eventually be known as New Age Music.  Artists like Yanni, Patrick O’Hearn and Suzanne Ciani would make the label a bundle and allow Baumann to do whatever he wanted.

It’s easy to believe Baumann wanted to take electronic music back from the UK synth pop outfits which were everywhere at the time, and show everybody how to make arresting, contemporary, creative art with the same tools as the British haircut bands.  It’s also easy to see why he’d choose Hendryx, a committed eccentric with the talent to sing anything as his accomplice.  Hendryx, having been signed and dropped by more than one label with no idea how to market a black, bi-sexual [woman], rock-singer must have been thrilled  not having to worry what the label brass thought, because Baumann was the label brass.

71cbMBLu-YL._SL1200_From the very start Skindiver stakes out and stands its ground as both a Big Statement and a Work of Art..  Hendryx and Baumann are committed to using sound, not just notes as their creative palette, which frees them from being tied to any one style.  Realizing Hendryx is strong enough vocally to take on anything, Bauman surrounds her with sharp edges, hard surfaces, dark colors and steep angles on almost every track. There are long stretches…sometimes entire songs, where the only recognizable music is from Hendryx’ voice.  This probably sounds totally unlistenable, and might be coming from less talented collaborators, but Bauman and Hendryx make it work over.  The lack of conventional settings seems to free up Hendryx lyrically, allowing her to speak about emotion, sensuality, sexuality, politics and purpose as she sees fit.  Baumann’s synths and samples make Skindiver feel like it’s been constructed from base elements, scrap metal and found objects:  The opener “Off the Coast of Love” grinds and thumps and clanks as Hendryx wanders through the landscape, elevating Baumann’s sound sculpture into a kind of sleek, modernist plainsong of emotional yearning.  For “Women Who Fly,” Bauman builds frosty peaks of keyboards for Hendryx to soar over as she proclaims both her individuality and her solidarity.  In a smarter world, it would have become an anthem.  “No Emotion” sound like frozen clockwork, as the multitracked Hendryx vainly tries to convince us [and herself] that emotions are somehow controllable. On the title track, Bauman’s synthetics morph into rattling snakes, jungle drums and thunderclaps as Hendryx radiates at the eye of a sensual storm, always desiring more, strong enough to confess her weak moments.  “6th Sense” feels like prayers for inner peace beamed to gods who’ve forgotten how to listen.

More often than not the core theme of Skindiver seems to be the ways  we lose track of our personal Truth in the effort to find a comfortable space in the real world, something that Hendryx, a long time LGBT and women’s rights advocate working in a notoriously sexist [and often racist] industry probably knows a whole lot about.  Her ability to put that struggle into words and gestures that resonate with any of us is possibly her greatest skill.  While her voice can be strident and powerful, she rarely uses it that way, preferring to whisper, insinuate and infer. “Tears” and “New Desire” are both koans between the heard and head that haunt and chill with their intimacy.  Baumann’s settings never overtake her voice, though they’re anything but background noise.  His skill in building film scores serves well here as he uses invented and discovered sounds to punctuate, underscore and illustrate Hendryx at times.  Hendryx returns the favor by fully inhabiting each voice she chooses, often acting the songs as much as singing them, an approach that comes off as forced and phony in a lesser singer, but Nona’s well is deep enough to hold as many personae as she wishes to wear.

Skindiver was probably doomed before it was even released: An intimate art record with big and small “p” political messages scattered through it dropped in an era where Madonna, Michael Jackson and Bon Jovi ruled the charts and Milli Vanilli was poised to win a grammy for Best New Artist.  The few reviews it received were positive, but it went unnoticed by everybody but Hendryx’ most loyal fans.  You have to wonder what might have happened if the record had appeared a few years later, when the idea of a genderfluid artist of color would have much more appeal…Or at least internet word of mouth could push it into the public eye a bit more.  It wouldn’t be very long after the creation of Skindiver that Bjork and Tori and Alanis and Fiona would show up to garner both acclaim and sales with a similar approach to Hendryx and Bauman, which just proves there’s little reward in being first, especially not in a business where the “cool” thing is what people made money doing yesterday.

In the years to come, Baumann would become thoroughly disenchanted with the music business, eventually selling Private Music to BMG and devoting his time to philanthropy and academics.  Hendryx would continue to be an eccentric, nomadic artist, doing everything from hit ballads with Billy Vera to writing children’s’  books and even a stage play. When Vicki Wickham is right, she’s really, really right.

NEXT:  Art for pop’s sake…

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