tagNovels and NovellasCrystal Passion Ch. 03

Crystal Passion Ch. 03


However much I admired Crystal's song-writing skills when I was playing in her band, I didn't really dwell much on the meaning of her lyrics. Certainly not with the intense attention to detail as Polly Tarantella. She quotes from Crystal Passion's lyrics as if it was poetry and uncovered depths of meaning in them that had never occurred to me.

I suppose it's natural to think you might glean everything about Crystal's philosophy of life from her lyrics, especially since she never explicitly expressed her political, moral or religious views anywhere else. But what did she really mean in the lyrics of, for instance, Bread for the Fisherman with its chorus of 'Where there was nothing, there's plenty today. / The baker eats fish and the fishes eat hay.'? It takes the genius of Polly Tarantella to uncover some kind of a coherent statement of Crystal's philosophy in such lyrics. What I'd most liked about the song was how the harmony in the chorus sounds as much like the Beach Boys as it does sixteenth century polyphony.

Something Polly doesn't elaborate on much is what a Crystal Passion gig was like. That's partly because the written record of our gigs is restricted to a few brief and remarkably coy concert reviews featured in contemporary Rock Music journals like NME and Melody Maker and now defunct feminist and lesbian magazines like Quim and Lesbian London. Maybe that was because being an all-girl group, it just wasn't cool for a male rock critic to be too obvious about the nature of our stage show. These were also the days when a mobile phone was the size of a brick and had no facility to take photographs or videos. And most cameras were generally far too big to slip into your pocket and could only take still photographs. This wasn't like today when cameras and phones are taken to every gig in the world, for however big or small the band, and used to capture a permanent record which is then uploaded to YouTube. Consequently, there is no video or film recording of a Crystal Passion gig that I know of. The nearest is an appallingly amateurish video we made for the single Travelling Light that was lifted off the third album, Seventy Doctors. The video featured only our heads and bare shoulders over a backdrop of exotic holiday locations that was probably stolen from Michael Palin's TV series, Around the World in 80 Days.

What this means is that Crystal Passion: Saviour of Rock and every other book written about the group in the last few years omits to make clear the simple fact that at almost every gig where Crystal Passion performed—whether solo as in the early days or as part of her ever-expanding band—she appeared on stage absolutely naked.

In truth, this may not even have been obvious to everyone in her audience at the time given that her long hair obscured the subtly aureate nipples of her perky but medium-sized bosom. And, as the fashion for shaved or razor-sculpted pubes was nowhere nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, her crotch was hidden under a verdant, even hirsute, light brown mass of curly hair. But naked she was, even if she did always wear sandals or canvas shoes and very often a flowery broad-rimmed cloth hat.

Crystal Passion wasn't the only one in the band whose stage presence was less than entirely modest, but in Crystal's case her on-stage nudity was pretty much just an extension of the fact that she rarely wore clothes of any kind at other times anyway.

She wasn't a nudist as such. She never went to naturist resorts or subscribed to a philosophy of naturism but in practical terms she might as well have been one. And since honesty and integrity were very much part of her persona, either as a composer or as a performer, she probably thought it would be hypocritical to appear clothed even on a public stage.

Judy also hardly wore much in the way of clothes, but she used to stick black tape over her large nipples. And what she did wear was always black and made from either leather or rubber. However, with all her tattoos and the guitar strapped across her chest and waist, Judy's nudity was even less obvious than Crystal's. The rest of us also experimented (rather more self-consciously) with several degrees of undress. At one stage, I took the purity of my shaved head (along with my shaved pubes) to validate a statement of pure nakedness but I never felt comfortable being unclothed on stage, even behind a bank of keyboards. It was often unpleasantly cold while I waited to get on stage or even while performing.

There was rather a mix of expectations in our audience whenever we went on stage. There were those who knew exactly what to expect and these were mostly our lesbian and younger women followers. And there were those, mostly men, who didn't know at all, perhaps believing we were a UK version of Hole, L7, Bikini Kill or Huggy Bear, only to find that this Riot Grrrl group offered them a kind of guilty titillation and not very much of the kind of music Rock fans usually listen to.

I guess Polly Tarantella wants to maintain an untainted image of Crystal Passion as the natural successor in a line that can be traced back through the likes of the Beatles, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen. And that this ideal vision might be somehow tarnished if it was associated with the image of nearly a dozen women on stage—far more than was ever strictly necessary—all in various degrees of undress. In any case, our repertoire sounded nothing like what you'd hear in a Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones gig. The music we made was sometimes reminiscent of Hawkwind or Sun Ra and sometimes of Sufjan Stevens or Neil Young. Occasionally, the music strayed into decidedly electronic, even dance floor, territory which Polly, like most fellow American Rock critics, regards as the antithesis of whatever she believes we represent. Polly's image of Crystal Passion is exemplified by her biography's cover page in which she sits almost romantically in the middle of a floral meadow adorned in a bizarre mix of Laura Ashley, ethnic chic and junk shop DIY. This doesn't exactly accord with my memory of a naked woman standing on stage with an acoustic guitar strapped over her shoulders equipped with a deceptively powerful voice for such a classically pretty girl.

It was actually through my sister, Andrea, that I was first introduced to Crystal while I was a University undergraduate. I didn't often go to live concerts even though Jane, Jacquie and I rehearsed together as a band in the futile hope of becoming the next Faithless or Portishead. We mostly only went to night clubs. Jane and Jacquie were my best friends and lovers, so I was closer to them than to anyone else. And that included my younger sister.

Andrea is different to me in more ways than we are alike. Her chief enthusiasm then and now is for folk music. She played an acoustic guitar as well as the kind of cheap violin that typically only folk fiddlers play. She was an avid fan of the River Bank and of course their lead singer and guitarist, John River. So, it was inevitable that she'd want to go and see Crystal Passion given her historical association with John River.

"I don't know a lot about the River Bank and I've never heard of Crystal Passion," I said when Andrea asked me whether I wanted to go with her to the gig at the smaller of the two live venues at our university, generally used for stage plays and classical recitals. "Isn't there someone else you can go with?"

"She used to perform as part of a duo with John River," continued Andrea, who can be fairly insistent when she wants to be. "So she must be good."

"That assumes the River Bank are good," said Jane who was lying naked under my bed sheets toking on the roach-end of a joint while my sister perched at the foot of the bed. I'd also have been naked if I'd not had the presence of mind to pull a baggy jumper over my head and shoulders. Despite a free and open sex life at college, I still wasn't ready to appear naked in front of my sister or anyone else from my family. "They're a kind of folk band, aren't they? Won't this Crystal Passion be the same? Simone would be surrounded by folkies with chunky jumpers and beards..."

"...And not just the men!" I joked. "Come on, Andrea. What makes you think I'd enjoy it so much? I'd much prefer to go clubbing with Jane here..."

"...And Jacquie!" said Jane loyally, even though her sister wasn't in the room.

"Why don't you all come to see Crystal Passion?" Andrea continued. "I'm sure you'd love it. It's not just folk and singer-songwriter stuff she does. I heard she's into a whole load of the dance stuff that you like."

"Like what?" I wondered sceptically.

"Well, like House Music and Hip Hop. I read somewhere that she's a huge fan of Eric B and Rakim. And other stuff like that."

"A girl with a guitar doesn't sound like someone who could rock the house," said Jane doubtfully.

"Oh come on, Simone," pleaded Andrea. "I don't want to go all by myself."

"And why can't she?" wondered Jacquie, when Jane and I told her later about where we were going that evening.

"She's my sister," I explained.

"That's no fucking reason," said Jacquie angrily. "Me and Jane don't fucking do everything together, do we?"

Jane and Jacquie both had something of a temper on them, especially Jane, so I didn't want to give a reply that could set them off. Although they were usually quite calm and even gentle, there were occasions when one or the other would fly off and I'd be caught between the two sisters yelling and screaming at one another, usually in English but sometimes in isiNdebele. And it was extremely unpleasant if either of them were to direct their fury at me. Nonetheless, I could have easily pointed out to Jacquie that in actual fact she and Jane more or less did always do everything together—even when making love with me.

"I promised Andrea I'd go," I said. "You don't have to come, but Jane said she would."

"This Crystal Passion is a big soul and R&B fan," said Jacquie, misquoting my sister. "It's not just gonna be folk."

"Is she black?" wondered Jacquie. "Is she gonna be like Joan Armatrading or Tracy Chapman?"

"No," I admitted. "She's a white girl and I don't think she's anything like either of those two."

"You don't have to come with us, you know," Jane challenged her sister. "You can stay home and frig to fucking Tracy Chapman. I bet she'd love to lick your quim."

"I bet she fucking would," said Jacquie, but not yet confirming whether she'd come to the concert. However, it was pretty much understood that whatever Jane did, Jacquie would do too.

And so it was that I went along to the Britten Room at the University Arts Centre along with Jane and Jacquie and my sister and a few dozen other curious students and rather fewer members of the general public. There wasn't even going to be a support act. It would just be two sets from Crystal Passion.

At this stage in her career, she'd only released one album, Triad, and that was the album she was promoting on this tour. In those days, Crystal Passion really was just Crystal and an acoustic guitar. And, as I was now to discover, not a lot else.

And when I saw her, my heart almost jumped out of my mouth.

I don't know whether I'd have been won over to Crystal Passion's charms if it wasn't for her body. But I just couldn't take my eyes off her. I only half-heard the voice and guitar that should have been the focus of my attention. She was so beautiful and wore her nudity so naturally. Despite entertaining us with digressive introductions before each song, not once did she make a reference to her state of undress.

With just Crystal on stage, there was as much to enjoy in the amusing and somewhat surreal monologues between each song as in the songs themselves. It was like an intimate conversation: at times witty and discursive and at other moments like listening to one of those stories you'd expect to hear from a comedian. She was open about her sexual preferences, but not to the extent that those in the audience not sensitive to the signals would notice. There was an ethical core to what she had to say but nothing to alienate any but the most prejudiced. And then, even while chatting and carrying the audience's sympathy along with her, she would launch almost unnoticed into the next song.

I considered myself to be pretty hip as to what was happening on the scene. I was a regular listener to John Peel's show on BBC Radio One at a time when there was as good as nowhere else to hear the best new and exciting music. I thought I knew all I needed to about World Music, Hip Hop, Dub, House, Techno and the like. When I was in a record shop I would rummage through CDs that were outside the predictable Pop and Rock categories. I listened to music such as Steve Reich, Fela Kuti and Miles Davis that was way beyond the normal range of an early 90s clubber. But it was pretty much apparent to me that for Crystal Passion the outer limits of what I listened to was just her jumping-off point.

Yes, just as Andrea claimed, the music incorporated elements of modern dance music even if it was set to acoustic instruments. Yes, there were elements of rap that might have had been inspired by MC Rakim or even Salt-n-Pepa, but just as likely by Gil Scott-Heron or Blossom Dearie. But the references and influences were so diverse, so transformed from the original source and somehow just so absolutely right. Like many others in the audience (but not the absolute majority), I was mesmerised.

And more so than by the music simply by the vision of her hairy crotch when Crystal stood up as she did for about half the concert and that beautiful bosom briefly exposed when she brushed aside her long hair to gain better access to her guitar. And there was also the beauty of a voice whose range was much greater than any folk singer I'd ever heard before, but more intimate and inviting than that of a trained classical soprano or contralto.

So, for the two sets of Crystal Passion's concert, there was laughter at her jokes, tears to some of her tunes and a profound fluttering of my heart in between times.

I was pleased to discover in the interval that I wasn't the only one in my group of friends who was smitten. Curiously enough, Andrea was the one least enamoured of us. I think she'd been hoping for a rather more conventional folk concert.

"Let's go and talk to her back stage after the set," Jacquie volunteered. "See what she's about."

"I'm not sure I'm so bothered," said Andrea. "I've got an early lecture tomorrow."

As it happened, Andrea was right to make her excuses. I didn't realise then and I guess neither did Jane and Jacquie just how much our meeting with Crystal Passion in her dressing room was going to fuck up our studies the following day.

It wasn't difficult to get to meet Crystal backstage. It wasn't like a Rock or Pop concert so there were no bouncers and no expectation that musicians should maintain a good distance from their fans. In any case, Crystal even mentioned during her concert that she'd love to talk to members of the audience afterwards. I led the way with the two sisters behind and simply asked the first year student who was working as stage manager where the dressing room was. In fact this student took us straight there and knocked on the door.

"There are some fans to see you, Miss Passion," she announced.

And there was Crystal Passion sitting alone on a hard-backed chair in the dressing room, still naked and sipping a cup of tea.

"I'm really pleased to see you," she said with a warm welcoming smile.

I guess I don't need to describe how things went from there. Here were three final year students one of which (myself) was utterly smitten and two others who were swept along in the wake of my enthusiasm. And there was Crystal Passion who was charm personified and the most subtle and effective seductress I've ever met. She soon realised that here was a trio of women united in love for one another and by the end of the night for a fourth person whose double bed at the local Travel Inn served to accommodate all four of us.

It's more or less expected when you're a student that you boast of a rather more full sex life than you ever actually had. My sex life was probably fuller than most students, but I'd enjoyed more sex with Jane and Jacquie, either together or individually, than with all the other half dozen sexual partners of my life so far combined. And only one of those had been a woman. Most of my former lovers had been men and in one case, Freddy, for several years while I was at High School in Bethnal Green. In a sense, we'd never officially split up and he was the boy I first had sex with, but not very often and rather fumblingly. It isn't that I don't like boys. I just prefer women. And I most certainly prefer women like Crystal Passion who are beautiful, sexually accomplished and somehow able to bring me to orgasm more often than I'd ever had before (including with my two Zimbabwean lovers).

Jane and Jacquie experienced the same heights of ecstasy as I did. How could just one woman keep three others so satisfied and share her attention so effectively between us?

When I admitted that I played a synth, that Jane and Jacquie played drums and electric bass respectively, and that together we were a sort of band, it was Crystal who suggested we should audition for her because she'd recently been thinking of expanding her solo acoustic set to a four piece.

"But we've never played in front of an audience," Jacquie protested. "We've rehearsed together but that's all."

"Record a cassette of one of your rehearsals," Crystal said. "And let's see what I think of it."

"But don't you want musicians who've been properly trained and who've performed with loads of other bands?" I asked.

"That's precisely what I don't want," said Crystal.

So following Crystal's advice, we recorded a session on cassette for her. She advised us just to keep the cassette running for the 45 minutes of one side of a C90 and then do the same thing for the other side. She said she was more interested in our interaction with one another than in hearing a polished set. But despite Crystal's suggestion that we do nothing special, we put together a list of those songs we could actually play, which were nothing like as hip and current and bleeding-edge as we'd have liked. And although Andrea hadn't joined us when we spent the night at Crystal's hotel, she agreed to accompany us on violin. Andrea was by a good mile the best musician of the four of us and the one who most made the cassette worth a listen.

With Andrea's assistance and my limited knowledge of what do with a Roland E-30, the set of songs we put together included an instrumental version of God Only Knows, a not very funky version of Green Onions, an extended violin solo on River Man, and, because Jane and Jacquie desperately wanted House represented, a rather weedy version of Pacific State and a plodding jam based on Voodoo Ray. I can't say any of us were particularly impressed by the results, especially not Andrea, but we popped the cassette in the post with a gushing note I'd put together that we posted to the address in Camden that Crystal had given us, which was the one-bedroom flat she was sharing at the time with Mark.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

There could be no greater contrast between the earlier gig that so gobsmacked me and Crystal Passion's premiere American gig at Candy Cream, a run-down Manhattan night club located somewhere between Harlem and Washington Heights. This wasn't the kind of concert to herald Polly's vision of a Rock group for the New Age. Nor did it showcase the shambling collective we usually were. It was more like the type of folk trio gig associated with Greenwich Village in the early 1960s than Upper Manhattan in the 1990s. And what was worse, Candy Cream was a venue that usually hosted House, Techno and Latin nights. The venue was clearly designed to accommodate clubbers who'd dance to DJs spinning vinyl at upwards of 120 bpm and at the higher end of the decibel range.

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