White Queen of Detroit: Niagara's Torrent Upon Her Rock-Solid Guys (Part 1)
What is success for an artist? How is this chosen role, job, career and calling, complicated by female gender? How does one sustain it over decades? Pop art painter Niagara (b. 1956) is one of the most successful and high-profile artists living and working in Detroit, Michigan. Collaborator in visual and performance art with significant Michigan-raised artists she met young, then seasoned rock musicians, then smart art and fashion business minds, she can be cited as an emblematic center of that mid-western, largely African American, post-industrial city's "white people's" culture.
How does one sustain, and be sustained by, both a warm fuzzy romantic partner and cool clear body of work? The cliché “Behind every great man is a woman” rings true, yet is complicated when the sexes are reversed. Niagara’s career can be mapped in terms of collaborations with her three husbands, her torrent of persona, performance, and painting, upon her three (and by extension, all) rock-solid Michigan guys.
In the 1980s another Michigan gal, Madonna, was criticized as manipulative for having dated club DJ Jellybean Benitez, an early promoter of her performances, whom she then left for someone else. Her defenders, like Dave Marsh’s newsletter Rock n’ Roll Confidential, pointed out that people involve themselves with colleagues and co-workers in other realms all the time. Madonna often found herself with movie men (Sean Penn, Warren Beatty, Guy Ritchie), though major cinematic success kept out of her reach. The story of Niagara is one of increasing success on her own terms, continually enlarging—art students take note—yet incomplete without examination of the male partners that helped her define each stage of her career. Planet Niagara kept these successive moons in her orbit, the three men whose gravitational pull kept her in creative balance.
My caveat is this history, like all, is conjecture, a hundred miles away in winter, constructed from online JPEGs and yellowing newspaper clippings, looking, reading, half-remembering. Not an intimate, like William Holden’s character screenwriter Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard”, yet ending up floating in the diva’s pool of imagery. Niagara is a woman of imagery: painted, recorded and performative. If Nick Tosches could reshape Jerry Lee Lewis' biography into the seamlessly mythopoetic biography Hellfire, or Walter Benjamin could project himself into Paris interiors based on a Berlin childhood a half-century later, I can ponder and reconstruct her at this distance. Seeing her work through a man’s eyes, I try to locate it in the context of southeastern Michigan, past and present. This is a man’s world. Is it?
I. Detroit’s Grandiose Ballroom
My wife and I live a hundred miles northwest of Detroit. When the city is mentioned, she will ask "Which Detroit are they talking about?" She has lived in Michigan for eleven and a half years yet quickly realized the D was both the bedraggled core city, nearly all black, and the donut of suburbs—many well racially integrated yet primarily white—that surround it. In the past there were even walls separating suburbs like Grosse Pointe from Detroit; many of the older suburbs like Ferndale have healthy middle-class populations of black people. In the past two decades, if you had a job, wanted your kids to have decent public schools, you moved out, just as white people had in the previous decades (since WWII, but accelerated by the 1967 riots/rebellion). Eminem’s “8 Mile” is like a guy in 1962-1989 Berlin calling his project “The Wall” or “Checkpoint Charlie”, for that road remains a border, the northern demarcation between the city and visibly better-capitalized suburbs.
Most notable white Detroit creatives of the 1960s—poet John Sinclair, the MC5, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels—looked to African American culture for inspiration and a yardstick by which to measure their efforts. Yet many Michigan artists in the 1970s distanced themselves from it, or defined themselves contrary to it. University of Michigan (UM) Professor of Art Kathryn Brackett Luchs made a 2002 video "Works in Progress: Images: from Detroit's Cass Corridor", about a small white community of artists who lived near Wayne State University. A viewer at a UM showing who identified herself from Berlin noted it wasn’t contextualized with mention that Detroit had any African-Americans (musicians, rioters, politicians or unemployed) at all, if only to say we’re not talking about them here. One black man is glimpsed in a single slow-mo pan, as if an exotic bird flying by, and that’s it. Supposedly the filmmaker suffered a violent crime while living on Cass Corridor too, though I don’t know the race of its perpetrator.
When I grew up in 1960s and 1970s Ann Arbor--43 miles from the center of Detroit--the rubber hit the road, as schools and neighborhoods were integrated. Tensions remained on a personal scale, and Ann Arbor Pioneer High School experienced a string of "race riots", about every fourteen months, which may have been more symbolic than actual; in one, Library bookcases were pushed over but no white students or teachers were physically assaulted. Detroit suburbs like Huntington Woods and Berkley may have felt even greater tensions, though they may have been less racially integrated. The anguish, fear and anger of middle-aged parents is graven upon our demographic. Looking back on southeastern Michigan in the 1970s, I perceive an unconscious in strategy on the part of artists of my own generation to counter Detroit's hegemonic black culture, to avoid its racialized civil rights struggle and social upheaval.
Niagara needs to be located in metropolitan Detroit, its history and its culture, for she made a critical choice staying in Detroit, Michigan environs; most of her creative circle at age 20 soon hightailed it to cosmopolitan capitals on one or another oceanic coast. Some Detroit artists have studios in a few salvaged manufacturing plants, yet Detroit is now more noted for “ruin porn”, glossy detailed photographs of its postindustrial decay. About forty years ago the terms of appreciation “destroyer” and “killer” (title of the Alice Cooper band’s 1971 breakout hit album) were prevalent. It’s no accident that there’s a Detroit band called the Demolition Doll Rods.
Detroit gave Niagara her identity, and there she earned both a growing and lasting fan base and community, media mention whenever the too-small list of local creative types was published, and branding cachet when her work was exhibited around, or out of, the US. As Iggy Pop, occasional house guest when she lived with Ron Asheton sang, “Home, boy, everybody needs a home.” Hearth and home, and deductible junkets for international exhibits and performances: sounds like every smart girl’s dream, no?
Niagara’s effusion of persona is a torrent, drawing from the industrial canal called the River Rouge, and the suburban Huron River. Childless, her languid, foxy energy has poured into her work for three-and-a-half decades. Unlike 1970s lesbian feminists, men are the grains of sand that irritate the oyster to produce her pearls.
II. Cary’s Femme Fatale
I believe I first heard of Niagara in fall, 1974, when high school friend Ingrid Good wrote me away at college that, when back in Ann Arbor, I had to meet her new arty friends Cary and Niagara. Home for Christmas, she took me to their tiny basement apartment just north of the University of Michigan central campus, talked about art and movies, and listened to good records.
In the early 1970s my Ann Arbor art gang was roughly half Jewish, or included some with a single Jewish parent. They still made fun of UM students from New York suburbs, girls who liked Bruce Springsteen's verbose first album and played it in their dorms like East Quad, Bursley and Mosher-Jordan; one guy who made the most fun of them ended up marrying a grade school classmate of Niagara's. The National Lampoon's High School 1964 Yearbook Parody, published in 1974, featured a character named Fawn Rosenberg, the arty girl in the school. Fawn was folk-singing, wore turtleneck sweaters, was probably the first to go bra-less (Ingrid Good was sent home from seventh grade for wearing a see-through blouse), and many smart, artistic young women, Jewish or Italian-American, were our Fawns.
As one maps the major currents of Niagara's career and aesthetic context to her three husbands (OK, two common-law), the first was her high school boyfriend, photographer-filmmaker Cary Loren. Loren was a longhaired, bespectacled teenage Jewish intellectual, embodying New York underground dandyism and extravagant spectacle brought to bedroom suburb and university town. Besides lover and flatmate, Niagara served as Loren’s actress, model and muse. As the Stooges sang, “Little doll I can’t forget, smokin’ on a cigarette”. Loren’s movies brought to his Midwest milieu the socio-aesthetic ideal, the catholicity of gaze such that, for Warhol, stout Brigid Berlin, nerdy gay Billy Name or taxicab executive (and art patron) spouse Ethel Scull had as much cachet as cute, rich Edie Sedgwick, elegant Viva or glamorous Nico. Uh, yeah, right. Sure they did. Cynical, arty Ann Arbor acid heads like Paul Kazrin (né Kasurin), Paul Remley and Link Yaco appeared in Loren's movies, Super-8 extravaganzas as spangly and spectacular as those by Loren's New York mentor Jack Smith. His movies and photo shoots also included Ingrid Good, daughter of a doctor and his WWII German war bride, and Francesca Palazzola, daughter of the UM Art School Dean (and before administrative duties, a popular art professor who also demonstrated drawing and painting on a university-produced Sunday television show). Artists in their own right, these women later developed careers in fabric design and illustration, respectively.
Cary and Niagara, originally high school sweethearts, grew up in the 1960s among the Jewish families of WASPily-named Huntington Woods, Berkley and Southfield. In Kodacolor snapshops it looks like a warm community, full of holiday celebrations for the children, upon whom hopes for professional success were pinned. The community included many builders of the suburbs and developers. Morrie Lezzell’s Belvedere Construction Company specialized in home repair and renovation, his stony face and pinched, constrained expression appeared on TV commercials, seated at his desk, assuring potential customers of commitment and integrity. Rotund Ruben “Rube” Weiss, whose broadcast career began in pre-television radio, pitched large household appliances for the Highland Company, and increasingly feared his annual public role as Santa Claus for Hudson’s Department Store Thanksgiving Day parade as the city’s violence increased (angst that his son David alluded to in his band Was/Not Was’s albums). Slick and compact Robin Seymour presented the latest rock and soul acts for teens on weekend afternoon TV. Gays and Jews were the vanguard of American culture, affirmed Susan Sontag in “Notes on Camp”, herself with one foot in each camp.
Yet a classmate of Niagara’s remembers the community was also marked by the shadow of the Holocaust, for there were survivors around with concentration camp tattoos. In 1974, Cary Loren made a Super-8 movie called “The 9th Day”, in which Link Yaco, “JEW” written upon his chest in blood, is sacrificed by a maniacal group that includes Hitler-moustached Bobby Epstein. One notes that in 2010, a facebook friend of Niagara’s cited a photo of her at the Outré Gallery’s “Niagaraphobia” show, with the comment “Great bone structure, a fine specimen. She would make a beautiful lampshade...Uhh...for my lamp, yeah, lamp...lol.”
Loren remained affectionate towards his parents, even at his most rebellious, juxtaposing smiling childhood family photos with stills from Jack Smith underground movies, vampires and vamps in his Destroy All Monsters Magazine collages. Niagara distanced herself from hers, quickly taking the name for which she remains known. The apocryphal story says her name was originally a schoolyard taunt of the sensitive girl who couldn’t keep from crying a torrent of tears.
She was drawn to Cary Loren in their suburban milieu, weird arty kids finding shelter in each other. And she was his muse, model--great face and feminine body--AND an artist too! With Cary, she made delicate girly art, ink drawings reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, or as hesitantly, subjectively scenic as the paintings of Marie Laurencin. Like him, she made use of photocopiers, repurposing Disney characters like Snow White’s wicked queen, colored with crayons or spangled with glued-on glitter. Whey-colored skin, she was sometimes Lapland-blonde, yet cautioned in song not to be "Paranoid of Blondes"...or was that Cary's warning? One Ann Arbor friend, who remembers their Ann Arbor as “a magical place”, recalls how “She used to frequent second hand stores for vintage clothing, or would ask her female friends to shop for her as she didn’t want to risk her Marilyn Monroe-like porcelain complexion.” Yet her sun-fearing vamp was a new archetype for Michigan.
In the first couple years of the 1970s, the hippest and most visible woman artist in Ann Arbor was Pat Oleszko. She was part of the circle around her UM Art Professor George Manupelli, and she dances in his 1971 movie “Cry, Dr. Chicago”. It included fellow students from the College of Art, siblings George (Commander Cody) Frayne, and Chris Frayne, who created his brother’s record covers. One Manupelli movie in which Oleszko, nude, attempted to seduce a trucker while he drove, played behind Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen at a Hill Auditorium concert, April 1971. Oleszko was a statuesque Slav who had performed in nightclubs in the area as “The Hippie Strippie”. She became notable for performances combining selective nudity with outlandish stuffed-fabric and inflatable costumes, sometimes particularly exaggerating breasts or pudenda, in which she would occasionally appear on the streets. About 1972, she created costumes of both Norman Mailer (curly head, pointy ears, pugnaciously oversized fists) and feminist Germaine Greer to illustrate a men’s magazine feature on the ongoing debate between the two. Oleszko flowered in the Ann Arbor of Cody and Manupelli, but a few years after her UM graduation she settled in Manhattan. She returned to UM for a residency in 2009, and organized students into a rich performance. She was an unspoken presence when the Chicago-based costume artist Nick Cave (not to be confused with the dour Australian songwriter) failed to mention her in his November, 2011 Ann Arbor talk, on the Michigan Theater stage where she had appeared three years before.
Niagara appears to have been uninfluenced by Pat Oleszko, though her UM Art student friends Mike Kelly and Jim Shaw, with masks constructed for Gerome Kamrowski’s class, and Shaw's overcoat with a child’s coat mounted upon it, may have been. Unlike Oleszko, Niagara is traditionally sexily costumed, accessorized with a frisson of violence; in some of Cary Loren’s oft-repurposed photos, she wields a bloody knife, lying in a pool of blood.
When living in Ann Arbor, Loren and Niagara came to know Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw. They would go over to God's Oasis (so read the sign on the porch, purchased from a country ministry), a house on Packard Road where Kelley and Shaw lived just south of the central campus, amongst the old houses students rented, and the jocks frequenting its football stadium, basketball arena and field house. In the basement, Cary strummed and muttered the Lou Reed-like rock songs he wrote. Shaw played eccentric guitar leads or a small electric Organatron organ. Kelley pounded out a percussive beat, sometimes upon squeaking squeeze toys. Niagara vocalized too, in an affect-less monotone that was surprisingly engaging in its uninvolvement and vulnerability.
When Kelley and Shaw graduated UM and moved to California for grad school, veteran rockers Mike Davis (1943-2012, formerly bassist for the MC5) and Ron Asheton (1948-2009, former Stooges guitarist) somehow agreed to join this odd arty agglomeration. Asheton’s decision was the most consequential, for Niagara soon took up with him romantically. A friend of Niagara’s remembers Loren as “catatonic” after the break up, and worried about him committing suicide. Loren wrote quite frankly about it in his Destroy All Monsters Magazine yet continued to publicize the band, albeit republishing negative reviews in Punk fanzines too.
In summer, 1978, a few weeks before I moved to San Francisco, Cary and Niagara, along with friends Link Yaco and Martin Swope (later, with Ann Arbor friend Roger Miller, a member of the Boston band Birdsongs of the Mesozoic) visited me at my parents’ house. I had left the shared house, with a woman autoworker and a professional clown, in the old west side near my campus bookstore job, and was preparing to move west. My mother never liked Yaco, with whom I published comic books in high school six or seven years before. That day she was not amused that both he and Swope were wearing makeup. And she was horrified when Niagara said, “Oh, we’re just waiting for our parents to die so we can inherit.” Quiet Cary merely smiled.
Was Cary a Svengali behind the creation of Niagara’s persona? No, the two were their own best co-creators, press agents, musical accompanists and supportive spouses...until she decided they were that no longer. Bert Stern revealed to us Marilyn Monroe’s beauty. Jean-Paul Goude styled his paramour Grace Jones for her most memorable 1980s shows. Chris Stein promotes his girlfriend Debbie Harry in their band Blondie. Cary and Niagara’s relationship was to the immediate, and lasting, benefit of both. In 1977 the band Blondie appeared onstage at the Beacon Theater in New York as opening act on the first night of Iggy Pop's "comback" tour to support his album The Idiot, with David Bowie joining him to play keyboards. Blondie's vocalist Debbie Harry, with dyed and teased hair and 1960s miniskirt and stockings, was the band’s focal point. Audience member Ingrid Good sighed with irritation, "She's just copying Niagara".
III. Ron’s Rock n’ Roll Hootchie Koo
One complication to growing up for teenage women in the early 1970s was the groupie ideal. It was promulgated by Rolling Stone magazine’s special report (some features reprinted as a paperback) Groupies and Other Girls, introducing many American youth to to Cynthia Plaster Caster and Frank Zappa’s pals the GTOs. CREEM magazine featured Pamela des Barres, Cherry Vanilla, Silky, Sable. It was celebrated in songs from bands as mainstream as the Carpenters’ “Superstar” or Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band”. One girl who liked my band (the singer more than I, alas) expressed her kinderwhore femininity with wooly mittens hanging on clips attached to her black leather motorcycle jacket. Another got sad when she turned sixteen, now beyond the ages the Rolling Stones said they favored in “Stray Cat Blues” (thirteen on Beggars’ Banquet, fifteen on the live album Get Yer Ya-Yas Out), and eschewed monogamous relationships “in case Mick Jagger or Byran Ferry should call.” One chubby Ann Arbor teenage rock singer asked me if I’d ever had an orgasm onstage (haven’t, sorry), as she occasionally had, and claimed a Paul McCartney 45’s b-side with her name was a result of a dalliance, and that any nagging infection she passed on should be valued as a relic of its source in famous local rock musicians. Girls were full of rollicking, tall tales then. Other girls may have been more like those in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides--the novel of Grosse Pointe posh Detroit suburb girls whose suicides are recounted by a boy across the street, turned into a movie by Sofia Coppola--but Niagara probably didn’t hang out with them.
One female friend recounts of Niagara, “She was always like a star to me” but felt her mask was a way of hiding from people and remaining secretive. The friend pondered that underneath it, Niagara was insecure, felt inadequate and unlovable, “a lost little girl.” Another, who knew her even further back, thought to end up living with famous guitarist Ron Asheton, rock n' roll celebrity and in no small part responsible for some of the coolest records in everybody’s collection, was her longed-for vindication: now she was pretty and hip enough, and him being beside her proved it. And he was the powerhouse behind her songs (well, often originally Cary’s too) in the no-nonsense, experimentation-free kickass hard rock version of Destroy All Monsters.
Niagara lived with Ron Asheton on Highlake Street, near a glacial lake. Apocryphally, the Stooges’ “Ann” was about Ron’s mom, though it also may have been about the one-legged cougar Ann Wehrer, faculty spouse and Iggy Pop’s amanuensis for his 1981 autobiography I Need More. After the Stooges had broken up, Asheton had been unable to assemble an attention-getting band, witness the short-lived New Order in 1974. Visibly arresting stage persona, out front and the focus of the band, Niagara was no longer one among similarly eccentric artist-peers. Hers was a rock n’ roll flowering, the band her harvest.
While nearly every Ann Arbor townie with an IQ over 100 played at one time or another with Destroy All Monsters, Ben and Larry Miller were the most enduring, an agreeable mix of psychedelic songwriting and inventive, technically skillful playing. Larry Miller collected tapes from the 1977-78 era of Destroy All Monsters, perhaps its most interesting, for a 2002 FarFetched Records CD Broken Mirrors. Niagara moans her way thorough Ben Miller’s “Broken Mirror Guitar”, where Asheton seems a bit extraneous, playing generic Ron Asheton leads lifted uneventfully from other, previous songs. A studio version of “You’re Gonna Die”, with its deliciously feminine lines “Looked out the window and a witch flew by” and later “I went to my mother and she doesn’t lie”, had been issued as a single with a Niagara cover drawing on the sleeve. A guitar-chugging collaboration she wrote with Link Yaco and Ron Asheton, “Bored” intones how she “woke up in the morning, I was bored/I woke up in the afternoon, I was bored.” Better than Iggy Pop’s song of that title on album New Values, while as funny (at least at beginning) as the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band’s blasé “I’m Bored” on their 1967 album Gorilla. After the Miller brothers left Destroy All Monsters in 1978, Asheton and Davis enlisted some local rockers. Cary Loren has dismissed this version of DAM as simply Ron and Niagara's version of what a Detroit Punk band should sound like.
For Niagara's stage presence in songs like "November 22, 1963", "Paranoid of Blondes" and a cover of "These Boots are Made for Walking" had made use of the retro-girl group look for several years in Michigan. Does her music have any female influences besides Nancy Sinatra, from whom she captured “These Boots (Are Made for Walking”, in a manner the Flying Lizards appropriated “Money” or Devo (or the Residents) did “Satisfaction”? Destroy All Monsters’ 1977 version of “These Boots Are Made for Walking” is more traditional 1970s big rock than previous versions with Kelley and Shaw. Jim King’s drum beat and someone’s Chuck Berry bar-chorded guitar are more traditional than when sung over a desperate art-school mechanical monkey drumming. One earlier version circa 1975, available on the Web, has chugging rhythm guitar (probably Cary rather than Jim Shaw) and an oft-off beat of Kelley’s across the room pounding or slapping his hand on something behind her. There her voice sounds pouty, irritated, a frustrated little girl or even thwarted toddler (a mood befitting what Lou Reed sang, “Baby you’re so vicious/You hit me with a flower”, the line suggested to him by Andy Warhol). At its climactic finale, a mass of electric noise ensues, which engineering student Jim Rees once showed me, in our 1973-74 band the Cigarets, could be achieved with a battery-powered electric toothbrush placed next to an electric guitar pickup. The lead becomes a shmear of noise, spread upon the song, with Niagara still tossing out lines as the boys lose interest in it.
A few years later the romantic relationship with Ron paled, and she took up with Gary Henderson, and in the late 1980s Niagara married Henderson. Jimm Juback, who occasionally jammed with Cary and DAM in their early days, wrote a rousing rock song “Racing Car Driver” in 1974. It was supposedly recorded by a NY Punk band called the Dots, and covered by my band the Windbreakers in 1977-78. Upon learning of Niagara's marriage, Juback excitedly wrote to his friends “Niagara’s married a Racing Car Driver!” for Henderson had raced stock cars. Soon Gary Henderson was generally known as "The Colonel", as if he was the scheming Tom Parker to her Elvis naiiveté. Henderson has supported her career as both painter, and as a rock performer in Dark Carnival, for two and a half decades. He has served as road manager, escort and personal assistant. She performed alongside Asheton until he was summoned back to the re-formed Stooges after 2003 in Dark Carnival, for Henderson realized this was a successful stage, not connubial, collaboration. Was Ron as brokenhearted as Cary? He was a good sport, keeping up the business relationship with her as guitarist in the new band, much as Asheton took up the bass in the Stooges in 1972 when James Williamson stepped in to play lead.
Link Yaco, who introduced Cary and Niagara to the Millers, admits Destroy All Monsters was “a major part" of his life, a “boy-crush”. Reporting on a 1990 Dark Carnival gig in Michigan, Yaco emailed his circle of friends around the US, “Niagara is now a blonde with blue eye makeup. Skinny as ever and seemingly untouched by time. Drugs can do wonderful things for the complexion, as they said about Edie Sedgewick… Jeepers, Niags must be 35 by now. In the colored lights of the stage she looked 20.” After 1988, Niagara wrote an astrology column in In Fashion magazine, then for a free monthly Detroit entertainment paper called Orbit. That’s something an actress-entertainer would do in Hollywood in the 1950s. She appeared atop an Indian motorcycle on the cover of Orbit's July 1993 issue.
One notes Niagara's ornate cover of Dark Carnival's CD The Greatest Show in Detroit (Revenge Records, 1991), which resembles the fussy artwork she did when still living with Cary. It’s as if she hadn’t yet settled on the essential, in painting as in rock. Keeping it high concept, the panel cartoon, with minimal stage moves, therefore more fascinating. Was it Ron or Gary that taught Niagara toughness, simplicity, to refine away (or burn off with cigarettes) all extraneous details? More successful is her cover for The Last Great Ride (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1997), a bare-shouldered 1940s gal with hair pinned atop her head, a stout and menacing (or promising) bald-headed guy with a cigar behind her. In the CD’s an accompanying booklet, “The Colonel” (Gary) introduces “a beautiful girl with skin white as porcelain”, and there follow hand-lettered song lyrics, in that recognizable ladylike, archaic hand.
The Last Great Ride begins with “Bloody Mary” is probably the best song on the CD. An opening guitar rave up, it rolls upon descending Mott the Hoople-like chords. Niagara sings of someone familiar with drugs who “used them” and “abused them”, with “morals like an alley cat” yet “knew where it’s at”. “Cop’s Eyes”, with its insistent march beat, was co-written with Greasy Carlisi. Niagara notes police corruption as well as the blue-uniformed mark’s easily-manipulated attractiveness. This is another good, tough Detroit rock song.
“Let There Be Dark” sports a Black Sabbath-like riff that the Stooges never used. “Heaven Can Wait” might have an overused title, yet has a sturdy four-chord Asheton progression. Niagara voices Monroe-like implications of suicidal yearning, seemingly unstoppable, while Asheton weaves a thicket of guitar like thorns surrounding a shuttered mansion. “Selvira” an instrumental reminiscent of the kind of thing James Williamson was doing on the post-Stooges album Kill City (ostensibly with Iggy’s imprimatur) after the Stooges broke up--while Ron had the band New Order with Jimmy Recca--but less finicky. Its heavy inevitability is leavened with bowling alley sounds, balls rolling on wooden lanes, pins toppling. Wolves whoop as the song begins to fade out. “I Died 1000 Times” features a tom-tom beat reminiscent of Scott Asheton, a.k.a. Rock Action, and celebrates the risks of drug experience. “Life ain’t for sissies” insists Niagara. These songs are like picture frames, with words carved into them by Niagara but showcasing the tangle of Ron’s guitar, self-contained and largely oblivious to everything else in the song. His leads can be like interchangeable wire sculptures, that could be repositioned anywhere in the gallery. One even suspects he suffered a certain Aspergers-like solipsism.
“Bang” boasts both subject matter and attitude like one of Niagara’s paintings, rock n’ roll unspoiled over time. Like something off Iggy’s 1990 return-to-rock album Instinct, it wears its allusions to Cher’s (though not Iggy Pop’s) “Bang Bang” and the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” like spangly costume jewelery. She bitterly recounts “Battered women’s syndrome/Now they got a name for it/Back then I only knew one thing/I was getting my ass kicked. ” But then she says she “turned that Stooge around”, a teaser to get us to wonder about her past relationship with a certain guitarist. And, like Lou Reed (at that time, gay and perhaps fastidious as a middle-class housewife about furnishings) in “Sister Ray”, she expresses concerns about the blood the abusive and thoughtless victim left on the carpet after her pistol set things right. Throughout the album, Ron’s lead guitar soars and squeals over Greasy Carlisi’s rhythm crunch. Of Asheton’s style, in 1972 Paul Remley (later a long-time DAM fan, and co-organizer of the original group’s 2000 Seattle Contemporary Art Center reunion and exhibition) wrote in his alternative high school’s paper The Bozado Expess (sic) of Asheton’s lubricious and sexual fluidity in contrast to James Williamson vein-opening junkie jaggedness.
Listening to “Memories are for Losers”, I thought about nostalgic December, 2011 events celebrating the 40th anniversary of the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Ann Arbor, where a gathering of eminent graybeards reminisced about the revolutionary era, the evening when John Lennon and Yoko Ono came to Michigan to sing in the imprisoned hippie generalissimo’s behalf. Niagara’s voice is not good for ballads, sounding strained as if for karaoke. It has a certain off note, like that album by Steve Jones ex-Sex Pistol where he tried to sound like Iggy Pop. Actually, Iggy could do a credible job on this song; she should pitch it to him now.
While Billie Holliday moans about her heart, Niagara’s upbeat lament “Good Morning, Headache” is more focused on the hangover’s effects on the cerebrum. Morning-after toxicity impinges upon and impedes her scheming, her aesthetic. “The Last Great Ride” is a melancholy dirge-like torch song or slow dance. As with much of this album, the listener is tempted to map it to her years with Asheton. The CD ends with the sounds of a roller coaster at an amusement park being cranked upward, delighted screams as it plummets.
I witnessed a 1993 Dark Carnival gig at Ann Arbor’s Blind Pig nightclub, once notable for featuring blues piano men like Vernon “Boogie Woogie Red” Harrison and Roosevelt Sykes, the night before my 20th high school reunion. Niagara’s stage presence was languid, stoned, using drugs as a motif as Dean Martin used and embodied drink. Watch out, girl; don’t hurt yourself. She’d run her hand through her hair exasperatedly (gonna wash that man right outta my hair). She would chuck an adoring boy at the foot of the stage under the chin, and gently push him away, not kick him as a dominatrix might.
After 2000 she had gigs, but not frequently in southeastern Michigan. Yet increasingly she reaffirmed that she was a painter during this period as well. And her husband Gary supported that, in a big way. She once told Charlotte Garry of the Detroit Metro Times, “Music is the band. Painting is me. I like to do both. I might as well just be fat if I just do art.”
All paintings and drawings by Niagara.