RIP Ari Up- "You have never seen the like of me before!"
It's not easy to write about punk goddess/Slits leader Ari Up, because words on a computer screen can't do her justice.
When I heard that she died yesterday, I was crushed. I'd known her for several years and watched her drive band mates, managers, waiters and friends insane with the whirlwind of her personality but even then, you were totally awed by her. Even people half her age couldn't keep up with her as an indomitable force of nature. There was no time and no patience for bullshit with her and no half-stepping either- as a singer, songwriter, performer and fashion designer (known as Madussa in Jamaica), she was absolutely tireless. You'll note in the picture above, she's the one who just did an energetic show while I'm the one ready to pass out just from watching her.
I'd met her backstage at a New York show and later interviewed her and wrote about her for the Village Voice and elsewhere. As we became friends, I decided that I couldn't objectively report on her anymore but could instead support her with some advice and connections.
Anything I'd read or heard about her hadn't prepared me for being around around Ari. She was a character to say the least. She demanded a lot from other people but also demanded a lot from herself in her work. When she reformed the Slits this past decade, I'd see her leading the rehearsals, putting the band through the paces of her songs until she felt it was just right. Even decades after the fact, her voice was still mind-boggling- in one line, she could do a sweet sing-song and in the next line, there'd be atonal howls and screams and yet she'd still make everything sound right.
That kind of range extended to her life too. One message on my answering machine (which I wished I saved) was an extended angry swear-filled rant about her former manager, who had ripped her off and screwed her pretty badly. Another time when I spoke to her and I was sick, she actually sang me a lullaby over the phone to send me some good vibes. On her answering machine for her apartment in Brooklyn, she always had a gleeful message about some upcoming show she was doing. Other times I'd speak to her, she was down about trying to get a tour booked or a record released, plus in recent years, she had problems with her home in Jamaica that was blown apart by a storm.
She also had a somewhat strained relationship with her step-dad, Johnny Lydon. It's not worth going into trashy detail but there is one funny story I'd like to share. I called Ari at home once and was talking for a while until the voice on the other line merrily told me that she was not in fact Ari but instead Ari's mother (aka Lydon's wife) who just happened to be there house sitting. It turns out that mom and daughter not only sounded almost exactly alike but both had similarly playful personalities. After her mom related that hubby wasn't one much for holidays (go figure), she also mentioned that sometimes he would go to his bedroom to hide when he heard that Ari popped in to say hi, mostly because she was quite a handful.
And that she was. At first, I put her number on my cell phone's address list so I knew when she was calling me and I could brace myself for the conversation, which was almost always intense. Once when I arranged for a gig for her, to make sure she was in the right mood, I took her out for a meal beforehand, taxied her to the gig and even printed out lyrics for her for a song she was supposed to sing there that she hadn't sang in years ("Man Next Door") and ran interference between her and the sound guy before the show. It was pretty draining but exhilarating too. There's just certain people that drive you crazy but you love them anyway for who they are.
The last time that I spoke to her was around March and we promised to speak again after I came back from SXSW, asking me to help figure out some way to get the word out about her work. After that, I called occasionally to leave messages but didn't hear back. That wasn't unusual since she was a pretty free spirit, running around to Jamaica and visiting friends in London all the time. Her answering machine would make you wait through a dozen beeps, representing other people trying to get in touch with her too. I had no idea about how sick she was then- not that there was much that I could do, even with a few years of nursing but I would have liked to have been supportive of her, just as she had been when I was sick.
The thing that really boggles my mind is that she was so alive and of the moment, that it's almost incomprehensible that she's gone now. My favorite memory of her was a show she put on in Brooklyn in an art space where she had a camera crew following her around. She'd occasionally stay in one place for a moment to do a few songs, then should would MC other acts or drag the crew around to interview people and show some art pieces or talk a bit about whatever else was on her mind. That was the kind of freewheeling spirit she was.
As I think of her right now, she reminds me of the Ghost of Christmas Present from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." When Scrooge meets him for the first time, the Ghost exclaims "Look upon me... You have never seen the like of me before!" And that just as well applies to Ari.
After dinner with my girlfriend, Lower East Side, NYC
Live at CBGB's, 2006
Backstage at CBGB's 2007
This and video below taken from camera phone (sorry about the quality) as Ari explains her plans in the depths of the NYC subway system, November 2009