"I'm not here to be liked. I'm here to be heard." ~ Ari Up
On Sunday January 16, an eclectic, progressive crew from the worlds of punk, reggae, jazz and hiphop, all-stars from above and below the radar, will gather for Ari Up's Punky Reggae Birthday Party at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg. A benefit for her family, the show will celebrate a woman who showed 1970s London how to be a punk: Ari Up, founder of The Slits and the soul of what Bob Marley called the Punky Reggae Party, who died of cancer in October 2010, aged 48.
The turbulent, arresting Slits album, Trapped Animal, was recently nominated for a Grammy. Curiously for a London punk band, it's listed in the Reggae and World Music categories. After a three decades plus (on and off,) career, those darn Slits and their daring, dreadlocked singer/songwriter, Ari Up, nee Ariane Forster, are still tough to pigeonhole. That contradiction is, well, typical for the band whose trademark track, 1978's Typical Girls, has become an anthem for generations of feisty females.
Yet despite a 1979 chart hit with Marvin Gaye's I Heard It Through The Grapevine, (deconstructed as I Heard It Through the Bassline,) the Slits always remained resolutely underground.
Prior to Trapped Animal's release, the Slits hadn't had an album deal since 1981's tribal Return of the Giant Slits, on CBS. A year later, the band broke up, re-forming in 2006. Here's the poignant kicker: when the career-affirming Grammy nomination was announced, Ari was already confronting the cancer that killed her.
But the Slits' influence can't be counted simply in CD sales, because it is incalculable. As prototypical rude girl pioneers, the Slits' creative daughters include every self-defined, assertive post-1970s pop female, from Madonna and the Riot Girlzzzz to Ke$ha, Rihanna, Pink and Lady Gaga. The cognitively dissonant style they virtually invented back in Punk London -- ripped fishnets worn with ballet tutus and "bovver boots" (Doc Martens) -- is now a staple in malls across America, and is regularly rocked by today's chart-topping riotous grrrllllzzzzz.
So woe to those who never got the glory of Tessa Pollitt's rumbling, reggae-bred bass counterpointing Ari's dramatic vocals, shifting from operatic trills to a husky howl on New Town's eerie depiction of project junkies; and Babyfather, her lament for the father of her youngest son, Wilton, murdered before the child was born in 1994.
Ari's catchy, clever songwriting was often overshadowed by her establishment-threatening persona. The Slits were always a crew, a tribe, and Ari was aided and abetted by Pollitt, guitarist Viv Albertine, singer Neneh Cherry (making a rare U.S. appearance at the Punky Reggae Birthday Party,) and later, Hollie Cook, daughter of Sex Pistol's drummer, Paul. The Slits always attracted outrage, starting with the provocation of their name. During the oft-cancelled White Riot tour of the Sex Pistols, Clash and Slits in 1976, the rambunctious girls so alarmed the bus driver that he kept trying to leave them behind.
Making media with Ari was always amusing. The cover of Cut, their classic first album on Island, freaked out my editor at a music weekly; re-claiming a woman's right to get naked her way, the Slits wore nothing but mud. The producer of a radio interview we did was maddened by Ari's insistence that her dreadlocks were a tree -- though according to Rasta cosmology, she was right.
She all but invented the movement, yet Ari was dropped from the lyrics of Bob Marley's 1978 song, Punky Reggae Party, replaced by Dr. Feelgood. Maybe it was just the rhyme scheme; but I always wondered if the Union Jack knickers Ari wore over tights rather appalled Marley, who was conservative when it came to female attire.
Other times, the anger got personal. Ari favored baggy men's overcoats because their folds deflected the knives of attackers who tried to stab her.
During the band's long hiatus, as well as a stint living with indigenous tribes in the jungles of Belize, Ari moved between London, Brooklyn and Kingston, Jamaica. Everywhere she went, she made music, with outfits like NY's True Warriors and London's New Age Steppers; old associates keep finding new songs. In Kingston, Ari recorded a 2005 dancehall album, Dread More Dan Dead and re-invented herself as a wind'n'grinding dancehall queen called Madussa.
Such cultural shifts came naturally to Ari, a second-generation wild child from a bohemian home. Her striking blonde mother Nora, dropped out of her wealthy German publishing family's milieu to become a rock'n'roll promoter, befriending Jimi Hendrix.
Nora took fourteen year old Ari to see a skinny singer known as Johnny Rotten and his band, the Sex Pistols, whose demos were being produced by guitarist Chris Spedding, Nora's boyfriend. Very soon, Ari was on stage with the Slits; in 1978, Nora and Rotten began a relationship that led to marriage, making Ari's early inspiration her stepfather.
Emerging from this unconventional milieu, Ari embraced both her outsider status and her sub-cultural eminence. Stubborn integrity and genuine artistry sustained her through every challenge.
In one lyric, she shouts defiantly, "Hated by many, loved by a few." We happy few -- and not that few, either -- found her a constant inspiration, as evidenced by the very diverse artists who'll be celebrating Ari at her Punky Reggae Birthday party on January 16, all confident that our numbers will keep on growing. Like dreadlocks. Like a tree.
Vivien Goldman aka The Punk Professor, is the Adjunct Professor of Punk and Reggae at NYU. "The Book of Exodus: the Making and Meaning of Bob Marley's Album of the Century," is the latest of her five books. A fellow New Age Stepper, she sang reggae backing harmonies for dubmaster Adrian Sherwood with Ari and Neneh Cherry.
Event Info: ARI-UP PUNKY REGGAE BIRTHDAY PARTY
WHEN: Sunday January 16, 2011
Doors: 7:00 PM
Show: 8:00 PM - 10:00 PM
WHERE: Music Hall of Williamsburg,
66 North 6th Street,
TICKETS available at http://bit.ly/ariupshow
Cost: $15 in advance; $20 day of event