Monday, December 19, 2011

Memories of Ari Up

Written December 2010.


At the start of September 2005 I moved into a new place: a rather Agatha Christie-esque 1930s apartment block at the posh end of Ladbroke Grove. I was there on a wing and a prayer, and so it has remained to this day but I very nearly got chucked out within the first week and here's how...

A couple of days after moving in I was walking down Golborne Road with a couple of friends when I saw Ari Up high stepping along towards me. She looked as striking as always. For Ari, there was no separation between the stage and the street. Tall and thin, with her light brown ginger dreadlocks  - some wound round her head, some reaching down to her backside - her freckled, sunburnt face, her clothes a unique mixture of Rasta and high fashion. People stared as she walked by. No changes there, no doubt they always had done. I smiled and waved at her.
  "Ari!" I called out. I didn't know her personally but like just about everyone who regularly attended her shows, I felt as if I did as she had dragged me up onstage several times (along with sundry other members of the audience) to sing backups for her. She stopped and smiled and said hello but she looked a bit perplexed. I asked her what she was doing.
  "I'm waiting for a guitar player to reform The Slits with," she said, her voice just like on my old Slits records - an insane mixture of accents: hoarse, posh English, precise Bavarian and foul mouthed Rastafarian Jamaican. She said she was supposed to meet this girl somewhere on the corner of Golborne and Portobello but so far she hadn't been able to find her. It was a lovely late summer Saturday afternoon and I thought how perfect it was to bump into Ari Up looking to reform The Slits at such a time and place. My friends and I wished her luck and we left her there on the corner while we went off to The Lisboa - the Portuguese cafe at the end of Golborne Road.

Now It so happened that one of the friends I was with was a young female guitarist with dreadlocks of her own, twenty years or so less extended than Ari's but enough to mark her out as an, um, enthusiast of Jamaican culture. My other friend and I had had the same thought and we were quick to vocalise it:
  "You should have told her that you played guitar!" But the girl suffered from shyness, which was understandable, given Ari's commanding presence. How does that old Morrissey lyric go? "Shyness is nice, but shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to." We sat outside the cafe drinking coffee and talking of this and that when suddenly Ari re-appeared with a young woman in tow. The young woman had a guitar case on her back so obviously Ari had made her connection. Ari greeted us warmly and described how Steve Beresford had recommended this girl to her as a good prospect.
  "Are you looking for a guitarist?" my young friend suddenly piped up. She had obviously made a resolve and fought down her shyness. It was a big deal for her, I knew. Ari beamed at her.
  "Yes! Do you play guitar?" My friend nodded in thinly disguised terror. "Competition!!" Ari virtually shouted in delight at the prospect. There was a pause you could have cut with a knife.
  "I don't do competition", said the girl with the guitar case on her back, archly.
  "Cooperation!" I blurted out in an attempt to diffuse the embarrassment. Ari immediately started rhyming something about "cooperation/ ease frustration" and giggled. The moment passed. I saw one last chance to get my friend and Ari together.
  "Why don't you come up to my place and have a jam?" I suggested. "I only live round the corner on Ladbroke Grove". I wrote down the address for Ari and gave it to her. I could sense guitar case girl glaring at my friend. "The posh end".
  "The Posh End", Ari repeated in mock-significant tones as she took the scrap of paper, but made no commitment. They wandered off. Oh well, we all exhaled. At least we'd given it a shot.

We didn't suppose they'd turn up but we thought we'd better go back to my place and wait awhile just on the off chance. Sure enough, lo and behold, an hour or so later, there was a ring at the doorbell. I answered it.
  "The Posh End", came the same unmistakable mock-significant tones through the intercom. In walked Ari Up along with guitar case girl and a photographer pal she'd picked up along the way. It became immediately obvious that Ari Up in a confined space was a very different proposition to Ari Up on the street. She was far and away the loudest person I have ever met. Larger than life, or thereabouts. She wanted to put a tape on, something she wanted to play us. I obliged. No sooner had I done so than she reached across me and turned my hi-fi amp up louder than I thought it was possible to go. Just as I was certain my speakers would blow she declared my hi-fi system "shit" and turned it off. I didn't mind. She was right. Besides, Ari Up was in my living room, what was I going to do? Argue with her?
  "Let's play", she said. I sorted out leads and amps for two guitars, a bass (that it seemed I was going to play) and a vocal microphone. I sneakily set my friend up with a better sound than guitar case girl and struck a rudimentary sound balance. "Music teacher at de controls!" mocked Ari, giggling. (How did she know I was a music teacher? Was I wearing tweeds? No, I must have told her.) Then Ari took charge. She sang a reggae bassline to me and instructed me to play it. This I did. She sang it perfectly accurately and in tune about four octaves up. Amazing. Whilst I played it, she instructed the two guitarists in their parts - one skanking chords, one echoing the bassline. They messed up a couple of times and Ari corrected them with the vigour and briskness of a German schoolteacher. Very quickly, the groove took shape.
  "Are you going to sing, Ari?" I asked, with just a hint of impatience.
  "Music Teacher! Musi-cal Pimp!" she responded. She laughed one of the most mischievous laughs I'd ever heard.
  "I'm not sure I want to be your musical pimp, Ari,” I said, in mock indignation, all the while trying to keep the bass part going.
  "Well if you're not going to be in The Slits you'll have to get your share", she said, reasonably. Before I could respond she started singing: "I'm an Island Girl" - and it sounded so lovely. All the ramshackle doodling noise in the room focused at once. Here was Ari Up - one of the world's most unique singers, one of my favourite singers in the world, whose voice I had made friends with a quarter century before, that had accompanied my squatting days, my druggy days, a voice that had helped me decide who I was and what I wasn't - singing in my living room. The reverie was short lived. Ari broke off and demanded another tune. I thought fast and found a little cassette recorder and set it going. Ari seemed pleased at this and repeated all her mock abuse of me for its benefit. But more than this, she seemed over the moon at the prospect of two guitarists working on her material rather than one. Cooperation, I had suggested, and so it was.
  "Wait till I play it to Tessa!" Ari kept saying, indicating the tape recorder. Tessa Pollitt, The Slits original bass player, the best white reggae bassist I'd ever heard. I had met Tessa at Ari's shows. She had all but stopped playing in the twenty plus years since The Slits had split. I had expressed incredulity, told her what an inspiration she had been to me when I was trying to learn bass, how much her behind-the-beat style had impressed me and my friends. She would blush and brush off the compliments. She was a martial artist now, a karate instructor; she hadn't touched the bass in years. But she kept a piano and had transcribed a bit of Bach that she liked, by ear, over the course of a couple of years. Bach, transcribed by ear. It made me laugh to remember how The Slits had been treated in the punk days - as irritating girls at the boys party, irritating girls who couldn't play. Oh, not by the inner circle, of course, but by the punk audience at large. But I'm getting ahead of myself.  

We played for an hour or so. Ari taught us several songs. Her method was to sing the individual parts to us until we got them down to her satisfaction, then she would sing her lyrics and melodies over the top. I was oblivious to the neighbours complaints. They banged on the floor, they rapped at the door. To hell with them, I thought. I'm not letting them ruin this. Months later, I would realise the cost of this as court proceedings were instigated to try and get me evicted. I fought them off and even made peace with the neighbours in question. In the meantime, the phone rang. I ignored it.
  "He's one of us!" exclaimed Ari. "A boy Slit!" I tried and failed to keep cool. My Cheshire cat grin must have been splitting my face in half. Eventually, we stopped and played back the tape. Ari insisted I burn it onto a CD right away. She was staying with Tessa and she couldn't wait to play it to her that night. We drank tea. My friend rolled herself a well-earned spliff. I realised it was obviously futile to expect Ari to explain anything but she seemed to want to talk. It turned out that, while she liked the American band she had put together to back her up on her solo shows, she really wanted to return to the collaborative atmosphere she used to enjoy with The Slits and had decided that the time was right to attempt a reunion - with Tessa. It seemed that Viv Albertine (The Slits original guitarist) was out of the picture but Ari was confident that she could get Tessa playing again. Armed with the CD of the afternoon's activities she was sure she could get Tessa excited enough about the two girl guitarists (who, pointedly, had not exchanged a single word throughout the entire proceedings) and the mixture of new and old material to get her playing bass in public again.
  "YOU must encourage her!" she instructed me, as if there was any room for rebuttal. I had been singing Tessa's praises all day, after all. Ari unveiled her plan: she was going back to Jamaica, or was it Brooklyn? (She had homes in both places) for three months or so and while she was gone I was to get Tessa playing again, find a suitable drummer, organise a rehearsal space, rehearse the band, work up the arrangements - you know... All the while I would be reporting to Ari daily, if not hourly, by phone, fax, email, carrier pigeon.
  "You mean you want me to be The Slits Musical Director?" I asked her directly.
She giggled. "Musi-cal Pimp!"

It almost worked for a week or two. Maybe even a month. We had one more session with Ari at my place before she went off to wherever she was going. Tessa wouldn't come, wasn't ready to play in front of anyone just yet, so I was still on bass. I had spoken to Tessa on the phone and she was all up for it, just not yet. This time I managed to quiz Ari just a little about some of the records I had loved for so long - The New Age Steppers version of "Stormy Weather" for instance. Ari squeaked with joy at hearing this again. It seemed she hadn't heard it since she'd recorded it and had forgotten all about it. I HAD to burn it for her. Then there was The Slits Y Records "Retrospective" - a bizarre, amateurish, semi-legit compilation that had never been released on CD. How had the extraordinary arrangement for "Vaseline" been arrived at? Where the girls seem to play through the chart in turn and in every combination of instruments before playing it together in unison - like a punk "installation" of dub? Ari just beamed. I HAD to burn it for her. She gave as good as she got, though, festooning me with CD's and vinyls of this, that and the other. Her solo album, "More Dread Than Dead", was a welcome addition, so was the Japanese only CD of the great lost Slits second album "Return Of The Giant Slits", but more often it was a case of:
  "But Ari, I've GOT this."
She would just shrug. "So have another one".

We worked out a handshake deal. I would tot up the hours I worked on the Slits project and I would invoice her for the full amount when the record deal was signed and the advance came through. God knows, I'd worked enough on spec in the past for far less exciting projects. I would have done it for nothing but Ari was most insistent on everything being on the up and up. In her own way, she was extremely professional. I wrote charts for the guitars, worked out bass parts from records, went round to see Tessa to pep talk her through them. Reported dutifully back to Ari. Tried to find a drummer but then Ari found one - a German girl named Anna. One small problem: she lived in Germany. Much bigger problem: the girl guitarists couldn't or wouldn't work together. I first fell out with guitar case girl over her flat refusal to learn the parts I had written out; then, more disturbingly, I fell out with my friend over her flat refusal to practice anything at all. She had got herself into a blind panic about the whole damn thing, felt that she had been bamboozled (which she had been) and was in sullen mutiny mode. We had a couple of desultory sessions round at my place where Tessa turned up and, like the talented old pro that she is, played her parts perfectly, but the truth was that without Ari's wild and infectious enthusiasm we were a sorry and (in my case) ridiculous bunch. We needed the lead singer. Without her to take the reins it was going nowhere.

I sadly tendered my resignation as The Slits Musical Director to Ari over the phone. She took it philosophically. After all, it rather flattered her that we were incapable of getting it together without her. A couple of months later, she returned to the UK, with German drummer lady in attendance, and put it all together herself. She got them a gig at Selfridges’s of all places, a dodgy manager, a dodgy record deal, a dodgy American tour (where the girls all had to pretend to be on holiday to avoid visa hassles) - she was full of energy and purpose. I made up with my friend who (thankfully) saw the wisdom of sticking with it and who subsequently got to see a side of life and a chunk of the world that had hitherto been unknown to her. Ari and I stayed in touch - not exactly mates, not exactly former colleagues, more out of a sort of butterfly curiosity (on her part) and something quite like love (on mine). Of course she could be quite impossible. She had developed the terrible habit of complaining, which, once acquired, is so hard to break. Once she called me up on Christmas Day to complain about my friends behaviour on the road (dodgy boyfriend problems). I took her by surprise by mocking her - hadn't she called me up to wish me a Merry Christmas? No? Oh let's have a good old moan about something on Christmas Day then, shall we? To my surprise she changed tack immediately and started chuckling. I had called her bluff. It wasn't until after the phone call ended that I realised that she must have been calling me from Johnny Rotten's house (he was referred to as The Wicked Stepfather - a title which he rather enjoyed, apparently). She and Tessa came to one of my gigs once, just a little wine bar gig on Portobello Road. I looked out from the stage and there they were. That was a good feeling. Of course I went to the Selfridges’s gig. What a fiasco! The band was under-rehearsed (hah!) and I was still convinced that guitar case girl couldn't actually play but what a joy to see Ari fronting a version of The Slits again. You can imagine how she exhorted the audience to take her at her word during an extended version of "Shoplifiting" - or was it just that they played it three times in a row? I can't remember. What was left of the old Class of '76 was out in force to see them too, no surprises there, but I couldn't help noticing how old and used up they looked in comparison to Ari. Yes, she was physically younger but only by four years or so. The difference was more in the eyes. Ari was a perpetual child, a shameless exhibitionist, but she had style, she had spark, she made a difference when she walked into a room or onto a stage. She was special.

Tessa had given my number to Viv Albertine as a guitar teacher and she had called me up to book a few guitar lessons. That was funny. How do you teach someone as individual, as defiantly self-taught as that? It seemed that when the new Slits were up and running, Ari had finally realised for herself that guitar case girl couldn't play and while my friend was proving a bit flaky Viv had expressed an interest in maybe, just maybe, joining up again. But she hadn't played in nearly 25 years. I mean, REALLY hadn't played in nearly 25 years. She had left it all behind when the original Slits had split in 1983. She had got married, raised a family, started a whole new life. But now? She had bought herself a Telecaster and was itching to get back in the game. My job? Get her playing again, in a sense, do for her what I had tried to do for Tessa. We quickly established a modus operandi: we would pick an old Slits song and I would work out what she had played on it and then teach it back to her. Only problem: Viv's original guitar parts were almost as opaque as an Antennae Jimmy Semens or Zoot Horn Rollo part from "Trout Mask Replica". She had originally been instructed, or de-constructed, by Keith Levene of PiL and, my God, it showed. We would chuckle about it but all the while I was sweating my ears off trying to figure out just what she had done. And then to have to teach such idiosyncratic guitar parts to their own creator! It was one of the strangest and most gratifying jobs I have ever had as, after only a few sessions, she started to sound just like - Viv Albertine. Her sense of pride in her own musicianship increased before my very eyes as, just like riding a bicycle, it all started coming back to her. Thus emboldened, she started writing songs again and decided she didn't want to work under Ari's leadership after all but would prefer to start her own project under her own name, which she has done.

When I heard that Ari had died I didn't believe it. How could someone so completely, so outrageously alive as Ari be dead? She was only 48, after all. It was Viv who confirmed it by texting me. And then Tessa called. Then I had to believe it. Last time I'd seen Ari she was walking down Westbourne Grove with Tessa eating an ice cream. That would have been summer 2009. I hadn't seen her for a year or more and she looked older. I had no idea (did anyone?) of how ill she was, how little time she had. She smiled that mischievous smile. She and Tessa looked like such naughty girls. I felt so proud to know them, that such dangerous-to-know looking women would stop and say hello to me. I miss Ari. I know I'm not the only one, I know there are others who miss her so much more (like her three children for a start) but I can't speak for them. I can only say how sad it makes me to think I will never hear that mad voice again. Or hear her sing in person again. Another time, maybe, I or someone else should write of just how much Ari and The Slits meant to my generation, how they entertained us, educated us, made us laugh, dance, think, how they made a difference - making all us blokes think about feminism for a start. But for now I'll let Ari have the last word:
  "Yeah, you know, sometime in these clubs, you know? It's like walking into a cigarette box or ashtray and that's how they've been treating music, you know? Under the dumps. But if we just all share music together in meditation instead of frustration 'cos that's what these clubs bring, we can open it up in the free again, 'cos that's where music go to. Not true?"

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