She Loves You But You're Dead: Niagara Detroit in Profile
Rick Chesshire cartoon
January 27, 2008 - If the impending (2008) return to live performance by premier Detroit art-punk chanteuse Niagara isn't enough to get you excited, you're browsing the wrong website or you're a cadaver.
If you're neither of the above, get your obviously enlightened personage to The Crest Hotel in Sylvania, Sydney, Australia, on February 23, when Niagara teams with our own homegrown Hitmen for a not-to-be-repeated show. If you're still in the dark, knucklehead, read on and be convinced.
This is something special. Niagara singing live. This shit does not happen very often. Why will be revealed in a minute, but first an introduction...if it's needed...
They say you can judge a person by the company they keep. In that case, Niagara's both pretty out there and a high-energy rock and roll eminence.
She first came to note as a University of Michigan drop-out in a weird Ann Arbor noise collective called Destroy All Monsters. This was the first version of the band. Mainstream - or musical in the conventional sense of the term - they were not. Spent more time learning their prescriptions than their scales. Made strange home movies.
Members of DAM Mk I (most notably Mike Kelley, Carey Loren and Jim Shaw) have gone on to various visual art and music activities. The line-up's also reconvened a few times. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore thought some of their recordings were unique enough to issue them on his own Ecstatic Peace label. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. There's a missing piece or two that had to come into place before DAM would make it past basement rehearsals and the odd party.
Back in his hometown Ann Arbor in 1977 and at a loose end, Ron Asheton (late of the Stooges and his subsequent project The New Order) was bribed with beer to join a DAM rehearsal. Captivated by Niagara's unique, deadpan delivery and stunning presence (she reportedly popped pills like peppermints from a container around her neck as she sipped constant cans sof TAB cola) he signed on as Stun Guitarist - and wasted no time wooing her and bringing in in ex-MC5 bassist Michael Davis, who in turn recruited drummer Rob King.
DAM shed early members along the way as they morphed from avant gard art punks into a serious rock and roll band. As much as those ex-members have lamented being pushed out and the onset of conventionality, having an ex-Stooge on board lifted their commercial stocks immeasurably - well, at least in the underground.
Asheton's firestorm guitar outbursts blended perfectly with Ben Miller's edgy sax and Niagara's atonal, ethereal vocals. Mini-skirts and hard liquor. Lyrics about pills and gore. DAM Mk II attracted as much attention for their savage if under-produced recordings as much as the presence of that former Stooge and an MC5-er/survivor. Creem's Lester Bangs was a convert and Niagara appeared as the pin-up girl in Punkmagazine.
Forays through the American Midwest and and one as far as England followed. DAM signed to UK label Cherry Red. The rippling impact of 7" singles (remember them?) like "You're Going to Die" b/w "Bored" and "Meet The Creeper" b/w "November 22nd 1963" (made even more popular by Aussie/American super group New Race) was considerable. (I still have the DAM vinyl I bought from Phantom in Sydney in the early '80s, so it even made it Down Under.)
With a little bit of help from his friends, Iggy was rightfully recognised as a punk precursor in the late '70s. DAM Mk II, however, always remained firmly underground, and called it a day in the early '80s, livers still functioning. Just.
Fast-forward to 1984. Niagara's beau (now her husband), the imposing ex-racing car driver Colonel Galaxy, convinced her and Ron Asheton to form the nucleus of a rotating collection of Michigan underground musical notables, under the banner of Dark Carnival.
Members of The Mutants, Bootsy X and the Lovemasters, the Ramrods and the Cult Heroes filled the ranks. Guests abounded. Stooges drummer Scott Asheton was there sometimes, too.
Late 1991 saw Dark Carnival come to Australia, sharing a 34-gig bill with a re-constituted Hitmen whose singer, Johnny Kannis, promoted the shebang. It was a killer bill sometimes fleshed-out by openers like Bored! and the Lime Spiders.
Stripped-down to a five-piece line-up (Niagara, Ron Asheton, drummer Larry Steele, bassist Peter Bankert and guitarist Greasy Carlisi) and armed with songs from the Stooges, DAM as well as their own repertoire, the Carnies gave awestruck Australian audiences a taste of Detroit's best rock and roll medicine. Along with "a few rock and roll tricks", as master of ceremonies Colonel Galaxy is apt to say.
(And if you want some more first-person reflection, The Barman proposed to The Barmaid at one of the final shows at Sydney's Sylvania Hotel. Awww.)
Dark Carnival spawned a couple of live albums, a self-titled, Australian-only studio/live effort (on Kannis' own Zeus Records) and 1997's relatively polished "The Last Great Ride" (on Sympathy For The Record Industry) before Asheton's pursuit of a solo deal (largely via movie soundtrack band The Wylde Ratz) and Niagara's burgeoning art career forced a halt.
(If you're looking for a compilation of Dark Carnival and DAM, go no further than the five CD/one DVD "Hot Box" set, procurable fromNiagara's website.)
Niagara's Warhollian art graced covers of many DAM/DC releases but has coalesced into a genre of its own. It's in the Pop Art tradition but with a strong current of violence and feminist self-assertion running right over the top, like a Motor City muscle car.
Quintessential American noir women with knives, booze, guns, pills and warnings that they're not to be fucked with, the images have become visually brighter and stronger down the years, yet thematically darker. That'll be my last sage pronouncement as a visual art critic.
Exhibitions in Tokyo, Melbourne, Sydney and a slew of US cities now fill out the annual calendar for Niagara and the Colonel.
Their last visit to Australia a couple of years ago - and it was no coincidence that it ran parallel to appearances by the Stooges on Big Day Out stages - was such a success that Outre Gallery is hosting a return in February 2008. In Niagara's words, expect "the regular, violent beautiful stuff".
Niagara's last live show was in 2007 with a Japanese band in conjunction with a Tokyo exhibition. So does rock and roll still row her boat?
"Once in a while, if I'm listening to certain music, I think, oh God, I could really do this," Niagara says from her Detroit home. The Colonel's back from a weekend at Ron Asheton's Lake Michigan weekender. It's early evening - cocktail hour - and our interview is a prelude to a couple of hours of painting.
"Music was always fun - even though we always complained about going to practice! Ronnie (Asheton) and I - we're big complainers and really lazy.
"But once you were there, there was nothing like it. It all pulls together."
Destroy All Monsters had a reputation for being a portable cocktail party. Niagara concedes it was well-earned. She should know. She's had the honour of being interviewed by Modern Drunkard magazine. I'm jealous.
"Everything was a party. All these things that would happen to us. We didn't make that much money. We'd got lost, things would get stolen, we'd get busted. We'd just laugh at it. Anything that would happen was laughable.
"You have to get that attitude. Then everything's OK.
Exhibitions do mean going on the road, and Niagara is no fan of long-haul plane trips and crowded airports.
"I go to a show once in a while if it's an amazing group show or I have to. We fly three or four times a year.
"With an art show, once you do the work you're OK with it. At the time of Destroy All Monsters, spending time in a van was doable. Now, I don't know how good I'd be about that.".
Being named in Classic Rock magazine's Top 100 Rock and Roll Frontmen (sic) doesn't pay many bills. And rock and roll at most levels doesn't pay as well as successful art, right?
"That's for sure. I compare when I had my first-ever little art show in the window of a hip store around here. I made more money from one show than I did in the whole of my music career."
Back to matters rock and roll. The Tokyo show was the last time?
"That was last April. Who did I play with? Oh God, I have to ask Colonel. They were such nice guys. They were so particular about getting every last note right. Colonel, what was the name of the band I played with?
"He can't remember. It was such a weird name and we're both hopeless!
"One guy spoke English better than the rest. At practice, he'd go away and talk through the arrangements with the rest of the guys and they'd work them up."
If Niagara's brand of Nico-like, high-energy punk rock cool was a culture shock for the Japanese, the same applied in reverse.
"Everybody seemed to love to work. The harder they worked the better they loved it. It was not like America at all.
"It was so clean there! Colonel said at one stage that there wasn't one piece of trash there. It was so different. We're from Detreoit where there's more trash than city! bIt was so crazy. It was my job in Tokyo to find one piece of trash. It was incredible."
The decline of Detroit is a strong thread in both Niagara's music and visual art. Born and bred, she has no desire to flee.
"Detroit's just so weird. We go a lot of places and see 'real' cities and Detroit is, like, empty. I love it though because it's empty! There are so many vintage buildings from the '20s and the '30s. They can't even afford to tear those buildings down. They're just beautiful.
"You go to other cities and it's all modern architecture. That's why I love Detroit.
"In the city, forests are taking over. There are deer running around and trees growing through houses. There's a population explosion going on and we're losing people. So what's not to like about it?
"And we're on top again baby because we're again to being the most violent city - the Murder City Capital of America! We are back!"
That noteworthy return to notoriety occurred in November 2007 when Detroit was (again) named the most dangerous city in the country by the Morgan Quitno report published by CQ Press, a private group.
New Orleans might yet knock them off yet (their figures are still being collated) but with the Murder City homicide rate running to about 200-plus killings a year - more than twice the number for the whole of Australia - you obviously can't keep a good killing field down.
Rest assured that if your number's going to come up while holidaying in Detroit, Niagara says you're going to go out having a good time.
"Detroit is hard work and hard partying. Full of sincere people. Even the ones that rip you off - they're great too! I must be too happy! Something's wrong.
"We're doomed, you know, but what can you do? We're all doomed. it's not just Detroit. We're just the first again!"
As to the role of violence in her art, Niagara says: "I just thought it was normal stuff and then I realised it wasn't what everybody thinks of all the time."
So what are her memories of the Australian Dark Carnival tour?
"Was it '91? I was wondering. That was probably the best tour and the most fun. I picked this certain group of people (for the band) because we got along. In the past there were problems but these guys were so great and funny.
"Kannis was fantastic. I just loved him. I still do. It's nice to be able to something with him again.
"Was it 34 shows? God. I remember we played almost every day. I don't remember it being a stress or anything. You sleep all day and get up. Colonel swims all day. You get up and get on stage. It was a really cool tour."
Tourist Greasy Carlisi was subsequently diagnosed with a serious heart condition and the Detroit musical community raised money to help cover his health costs. Ironically, the run of Australian shows with the Hitmen had to be pared back when Johnny Kannis was found to have a rare genetic heart complaint.
"He (Greasy) is doing so well. He's healthy. He used to chain smoke. Like I do now. Some do, some don't some can and some can't. That's how I look at it now."
Only a week previously, Carlisi appeared on Letterman with singer Robert Gordon (ex-Tuff Darts) as part of his band with Chris Spedding, Niagara recounts.
So Niagara's a name in art and hi-energy rock. There's also a magnificent coffee table book, the biographical "Beyond The Pale", documenting both her careers in text, prints and lavish photos (buy it online or at her exhibitions.)
Next is a line of shoes from the Vans company, of skater footwear fame and US outdoor festivals.
"Except for Ronnie, I'm the only person that didn't know what Vans was. I was like: 'OK, I'll design some shoes'.
"I think the owner of Vans was in Tokyo and happened to see something of mine there. So I'm working with them. There'll be give different kinds of shoes and a party in LA in July.
"They picked out paintings and I OK'd which would be good. They have lo-tops and hi-tops and they did it well. I just had to plan the party and the catalogue.
"If it's not high heels, what is it? I dunno!!!
"They're great guys to work with. They're like surfer dudes. They call and say: 'Hi Niagara, I'm going surfing at the weekend, I wish you could be there'. I'm like: 'Don't you know ANYTHING about me? I don't go in the sun, I don't wake up in the day!'"
The Hitmen featuring Niagara played The Crest Hotel at Sylvania in Sydney on Saturday, February 23, 2008 with special guests The Visitors and Southern Preachers, proudly presented by Lenny Flotski and the I-94 Bar.