Saturday, January 27, 2007

Cristina Martinez: Genius On Her Sleeve

Every generation has them, those bands and singers that never quite get the recognition and appreciation they deserve. The answer is never really clear but Rock N Roll is littered with buried geniuses. Some get buried by producers (Sam Phillips killing Billy Lee Riley's Red Hot) and even more by labels (think Maria Mckee's astonishing Life Is Sweet album). Some get re-discovered and embraced by later generations while most just slip into obscurity. I hope that Cristina Martinez doesn't eventually fall into this latter category.
Cristina Martinez's Boss Hog rose out of the ashes of the legendary Pussy Galore, which she had been kicked out of in 1987. The early work of Cristina and her husband Jon Spencer, under the moniker Boss Hog, show artists in transition. The early eps like Drinkin Lechin and Lyin and first album Cold Hands show a band not yet fully formed. The noise aesthetic of Pussy Galore hadn't faded and the bands lineup kept changing with only Martinez and Spencer remaining constant. The early work has great moments but it's not until 1993's Girl Positive Ep that Martinez comes into her own and begins to create some truly remarkable music.
The cover to Girl Positive is one of the most striking of the post punk era. After appearing nude on the early Boss Hog records, here Cristina's face is all that is shown. Only Deborah Harry at her peak with Blondie was more perhaps a more beautiful rock star than Cristina Martinez. Had Cristina been interested she could have based her career just on her looks, but Girl Positive showed that she had a lot more than just a beautiful face to offer.
Girl Positive opens with Ruby, one of the great lost tracks of the nineties with it's sly horn arrangement collapsing into ghetto guitar rock at the snap of Cristina's finger. This sounds like a true jazz rock fusion and Cristina is suddenly singing like she is in some 1940's cabaret instead of a punk rock noise band. It's a stunning call to arms track that signals an entire declaration of independence from everything Cristina Martinez might have been thought of before.
It's on this EP that we can hear that Cristina has more Elvis Presley in her collection than Black Flag and more Stax than Dischord. It's also the moment when Boss Hog stops being a Jon Spencer side project, with Bassist Jens Jurgensen and the amazing Hollis Queens on drums this is suddenly a a major band to contend with.
I love Jon Spencer's description of Cristina's love of Elvis Presley, "in my early 20's my wife introduced me to him. She grew up listening to Elvis and I remember her buying the compilations that came out to mark his passing". The reason I mention Cristina's love for Elvis is because the couple of times I was fortunate enough to see her live and meet her in the 90s she reminded me of Elvis. On stage she was a volcanic presence, constantly moving and obviously loving what she was doing and working as hard as possible to make sure everyone else would to. Like Elvis she was also an incredibly warm and charming person. Signing a particularly brooding picture she smiled and said, "I'm not typically so gloomy."
Cristina described Elvis' Love Me Tender as, "unpolished, dripping with sex appeal, making himself completely vulnerable". This description could be used for the remainder of Cristina's career. She would make two astonishing albums, Self Titled and Whiteout, that would showcase her love for punk, cinema, funk, camp and always deep, deep soul. The singles taken from those records like I Dig You, Whiteout and Get It While You Wait all sounded like smashes and featured b-sides that were the equal of the albums. Soundtrack work included a blazing cover of The Kinks I'm Not Lie Everybody Else, which in Cristina's hands seemed like an autobiography. She was at her absolute peak, artistically and physically, and the records just didn't sell.
Each release would be accompanied by videos, articles, photos but nothing seemed to work. They weren't poor sellers but the break that a lot of us were waiting for, for her, never happened.
Between Girl Positive and Whiteout Cristina Martinez became a mother, which is why so little material exists compared to a lot of her contemporaries. Everyone from Courtney Love to Shirley Manson to Gwen Stefani would get her thunder. I like and admire all of the great female rockers that came out of the 90s but Cristina is my girl, to quote what John Waters said of Deborah Harry, "She was our generation's Elvis".
Cristina Martinez hasn't recorded or toured since 2001. She leaves behind a series of stunningly original albums and singles, some splendid videos (some she directed) and for the people that were fortunate enough to see her live some incredible memories. She is spotted occasionally, with her partner of 20 years Jon Spencer, in New York where she lives. She has a reputation of being a great mother and person which is ultimately more important than being just another rock star. Most of her work is out of print and hard to find, I hope that she someday soon she is re-discovered and returns to lay to waste the increasingly plastic idea we have of female rockers. Until then I will just remember an lovely unnoticed woman, of proud Spanish descent, who wore her genius on her sleeve, and genius never looked or sounded so good.

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