R.I.P., Ari Up

Ari Up (1962-2010); image courtesy of pitchfork.com

It’s just been reported that Slits’ frontwoman Ari Up died today following sustained ailing health. I literally gasped upon hearing this news and am tearing up a bit as I type this. For me, Ari Up’s legacy can’t be overstated, nor can the influence of her pioneering all-female punk-reggae band. The first song my college station played in its inaugural broadcast was “FM.” Here’s what she gave me.

The cover for the Slits’ debut record, Cut, which floored me the first time I saw it. I’ve refrained from writing a post on it because of its iconic status. But it always gets reactions when it’s brought up in the Girls Rock Camp Austin music history workshops I co-teach. Incidentally, I’m about to leave for a girls studies conference in New York where I’m co-moderating a panel on GRC, so this news has an additional layer of resonance.

Cover for Cut (Island, 1979); image courtesy of pitchfork.com

The electricity of politically charged lyrics, cheek, and amateurish musicianship that’s all over her band’s early output. Why not start a band at fourteen even if we can’t play? Why not sing about shoplifting? Why not cover “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”? Why not piss on stage in the middle of a performance? Why not drop some dub in the tracks? British punk and post-punk took itself quite seriously, but the Slits always made rebellion look like fun. When I finally bought this album on vinyl in my early twenties after years of it being in and out of print and listening to other people’s copies and shitty mp3s, it was a damn miracle.

Her band’s cameo in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee shows them destroying a car. Far more interesting and cool than Malcolm McLaren’s idea to feature them as sex slaves in his idea for the female version of The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle that thankfully wasn’t made.

Let’s not forget Return of the Giant Slits either, as Everett True hasn’t. It featured “In the Beginning There Was Rhythm,” which I think was their best single. It was released as a split single with the Pop Group’s “Where There’s a Will.” I love the Pop Group as much as Lavinia Greenlaw. Up and the Pop Group’s Mark Stewart were later in the New Age Steppers. They were good too. And I certainly don’t think we’d get M.I.A. without them.

Ari Up introduced me to Sister Nancy. While I should probably call Ari on her bullshit as a German-British ex-pat Rastafarian who fetishizes the primitive to offset her publishing heiress roots, I think she believed in reggae and the guiding principles of her adopted ideology. She also never obscured her origins, but reconciled them with her mother’s bohemian tendencies and her need to keep herself open to embrace possibilities and conflicting impulses. Plus, few people could claim John Lydon as their stepfather without it seeming weird.

She was a hell of an interview. She may not have had much use for brevity, but her words were teeming with wit and brilliance. And if she was self-aggrandizing, well, I’d prefer my epic musical personae to acknowledge their own greatness than shrug it off.

Let’s not overlook 2006’s Revenge of the Killer Slits and their follow-up Trapped Animal either. I actually got to see a reunited version of the Slits that fall (sans Viv Albertine, who I’ve since caught as a solo act). I’ll always remember how energetic she was. She was also tremendously available. Even when she admonished a party girl fashionista who rushed the stage during “Typical Girls” for not getting its message, it was just gentle ribbing. And while the band got sharper, particularly bassist Tessa Pollitt and recruited drummer Anna Schultze, Up’s gleeful anarchic spirit remained at the center.

You were a strange, funny, brave, and inspired lady, Ari Up. You’ll be missed.

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