White Riot! An Interview with Miss Wendy James
Legs, high heels and some rad beat poetry: 2016 welcomes back the princess of glam punk, Wendy James. Best known as the lead singer of Brit band Transvision Vamp, her flame thrower antics on stage and sexually provocative image secured the band commercial success and world wide popularity. Millions of record sales later, she’s back with the launch of her first solo album, The Price of The Ticket.
Saira Viola: You’re back! Sex-bomb proud with an incredible new sound and an awe inspiring line-up of serious talent at your side. There’s legendary Lenny Kaye on lead and rhythm guitar ([Patti Smith], James Williamson [Iggy & The Stooges] on lead and rhythm guitar, the great Glen Matlock [The Sex Pistols] on bass, and James Sclavunos [Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds] on drums. How did you go from punk rock pinup to bonafide rock poet?
Wendy James: Literally, I met James Williamson by first talking to him on Facebook! Lenny I called up in the East Village of NYC, he is a neighbor of mine, Glen I’d known all my adult life, being very close friends with my old boyfriend Mick Jones from The Clash, and James Sclavunos I met in the bar of the Bowery Hotel and we stayed in touch, always discussing our first opportunity to work together.
Firstly I went to Berkeley, California, and recorded two cover versions with James Williamson and James Sclavunos: we recorded Fred ’Sonic’ Smiths’ song from his band Sonic’s Rendezvous Band ‘You’re So Great’ and also Bob Dylan’s monolithic and iconic song ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’. Both these songs are on my new album, download and CD. The rest of the album was recorded with Glen, Lenny and James in NYC. James, I trust with my life, he is such a good and loyal and righteous friend, and his drumming is insane, it’s so dynamic and sensitive and strong. Lenny, he became instantly and instinctually my favorite and most natural guitar partner in the world. He bends, leans into the notes, feels them… from dirty sex to gentle lullaby, he is a master with my intentions and I’ve never been so excited or happy with a fellow guitarist as I am with Lenny… and Glen, although he is known primarily for his time in the Sex Pistols he is actually the most versatile and soulful bass player, drawing much of what he loves from James Jamerson [Motown’s bass player from 1960’s and 70’s – now in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame]. So, I am confident in my song-writing abilities to construct a very strong melody and rhythm and then, taking the songs to these men automatically we bond, and the songs become 10-fold in their strength and beauty and substance… it’s the meaning of it all for me, the collaboration and the joy one experiences when people all bring their unique and stunning talent into a piece of work, my thrill is unmatched by anything else…
SA: The album: ‘The Price of The Ticket’ has received widespread critical acclaim from music press and arts media. As a self proclaimed ‘Hunter‘nut’, can you tell us a little about your influences in creating it, and if the name of it is a quiet reference to one of Thompson’s most famous quotes from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas : “Buy the ticket, take the ride…….”
WJ: I really am a Hunter nut! As much poetically perhaps as I am for Bob Dylan… I have read every single piece of journalism, letter, novel and poetry… I became obsessed by wanting to own all the Aspen Wallpaper art from his run for Sheriff! I adore all his journalism and of course his agitprop zeitgeist perfection. Of all the books though, I think ‘The Great Shark Hunt’ and ‘Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail’ are my favorites. I love his political and sport journalism and I would have loved to have been on the campaign trail with him on the ‘Zoo Plane’ hustling Nixon so viciously, discovering Jimmy Carter and George McGovern. I am an American political junkie and for all the obvious reasons: the transition of society from the Swinging Sixties, Haight-Ashbury, the Hippies and Yippies into Nixon, Vietnam, Black Power, Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, Rock n Roll, Drugs, Birth Control, Freedom Of Speech being tested and tried… That for me is truly a magnificent moment in America’s history, the bad and the good, and never ends to fascinate me or teach me more, and Hunter really opened me up to all of it. I revel in his wit, his poetry, his precision laser-point attacks right to the heart of all matters. I have ‘Collect Telegram From A Mad Dog’, stored on my laptop, and I always watch any new youtube clips of him talking. There are few people I genuinely wish I had met, known and spent time with… Hunter is one, Abraham Lincoln another… I think I would have fitted well into Owl Farm! I wish I’d gotten there! I called a previous tour ‘Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride’ once, but this album title ‘THE PRICE OF THE TICKET’ is actually taken another of my true literary favorites, James Baldwin.
SA: As a hot rock punk chanteuse in a predominantly male industry and someone who embraces their sexuality, have you ever faced rock chauvinism in the music bizz? How do you deal with it?
WJ: You know, it just doesn’t even enter my thought process or effect any decision I make. Anyone familiar with Art, Sculpture, Fashion is not unfamiliar with the female form and it’s attractiveness and that is not exclusive to thin, blonde girls! The female body is the most gorgeously constructed magnificent shape! For female form to be demonized (i.e from Radical Muslim complete denial of it to tabloid filth-mongering) is just another symptom of Man’s fear of Women and oppression of Women. Having said that, Women don’t always help their own case when all they are offering up is a dumb sluttiness! I think there must of course be celebration of sexuality and the beauty of the physical but there always needs to be something else going on, some integrity within the substance of the person. That is when something becomes truly beautiful and truly attractive.
SA: One of the tracks on the album: ‘You’re A Dirt Bomb Lester’, is a song inspired by the irrepressible, rock journo Lester Bangs. But what’s even more surreal is you’ve managed to slip in a Mark Twain reference vis a vis The battles of Lexington and Concord. Is that a spiritual metaphor about the anarchic spirit of punk rock or is it just ironic rhetoric?
WJ: That verse of ‘You’re A Dirtbomb Lester’ is simply saying that the spirit of free will and emancipation, courage, strength, vision and jubilation has existed since the first group of people (or cavemen) gathered around and watched or listened to one of their fellows speak or perform something that rises above just rhetoric. African American spirituals through to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, Delta rhythm and blues or the oratory skills of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, of course, Hunter Thompson himself, Bob Dylan and Mark Twain… so many… Motown! The Shangri-Las! The Ronettes! I could cite so many known or unknown that sang or painted or wrote a spirit of indefatigable and generous love that sustains all people through all time, through all events, through all life.
That love was there
When the foundations of Rome were laid
When Christ was crucified
When the Conquerer created the British Isles
When Columbus sailed
When the massacre at Lexington was news
‘You’re A Dirtbomb, Lester” (Credit M. Twain)
SA: You experiment a lot with musical genres. Transvision Vamp had a punk vibe infused with a pop arc and Racine had a trip hop feel, the latest album is like a musical tableau of spoken word – totally unique how would you define it?
WJ: All my albums sound like ME! Listen to previous solo work: ‘I Came Here To Blow Minds’ and ‘Racine 1 & 2’. I always call my thing ‘Garage Rock or New Wave because typically the two periods of music I most relate to or get excited by are New York New Wave mid-late 70’s and the late sixties Garage Rock of The Stooges and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band… and notably The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed in all his stages, John Cale and his productions. In between all those guys is me and if you add in a bit of my English kind of thing and a touch of French pop and a nod to Country music too and Hip Hop attitude that’s how you get me!
But really all my music can ever be is a musical expression of who I am as a person: my style, my sensibilities, my interests, my emotions and what speaks to me, moves me. Everyone’s music is unique to them, the feel, the content, the structure, the delivery. Like a crime-scene – you can take all the witnesses to the same event and they will each tell it a little differently according to their own perspective and understanding. Well, my music is mine, and I don’t think anyone sounds like me or I sound like anyone. It is and I am Wendy James.
SA: With the breakup of Transvision Vamp and then Racine, it would have been really easy to fall off the rock radar, how did you pick up all the pieces and start over?
WJ: It doesn’t really happen like that! it just turns out that I have lived through different stages of Fame and Less Fame! All I ever do is continue, not because I think I should but because I am a natural musician and so I am always being inspired by words, music and all life, and it transmits itself in me as songwriting. I get such joy and happiness when I’m making music with musicians I trust and am excited that the decision to ‘carry on’ is not even a ‘thing’. It is what I do, whether one person hears it, or one million.
SA: Just a few days ago we witnessed the tragic death of Lemmy, who was in all aspects the archetypal rock daemon and fully embraced and became bound up in the hedonism of the industry. Do you relate to that rock star debauchery ,or ascribe to a much healthier ideal?
WJ: Well, without your health you’re kind of fucked! But most of us know our bodies… some can smoke, drug, drink, stay awake for days, get wasted…. some like walking the hills and living a vegan diet! Who knows? I can say that my lungs are not as good as they were when I was a teenage long-distance runner! On the other hand I can still run up and down flights of stairs without dying too hard! I think I am sensitive physically to too many chemical things but on the other hand I kind of feel happiest with Beer and Candy… so, I have my own prescription for health. The main thing for me is sleep. If I don’t feed my body with enough sleep time my brain starts frying. I can keep up little sleep for about 6 days and then I truly have to crash and restore my surplus zzzz’s! RIP Lemmy, I love Hawkwind! West London!
SA What do you think about the current crop of female artistes on the scene. How do you avoid the cultural clichés many female vocalists are stuck with?
WJ: Currently I am enthralled by Miley and her pasties! I like Nicki Minaj attitude! I loved Eve (SO beautiful), Patti Smith is still as divinely angry/sexy as she ever was, Tina Weymouth [bass Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club] is one of my best friends in the world and blows my mind, her bass skills and seriously awesome attitude in life and in music, The Duchess [Bo Diddley’s guitarist](say what????!!!!! mind-blowing brilliant) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Odetta, Tina Turner… and ALL the girl groups of the 60s’! So, you know….. I love the females that own it.
SA: And if you could be Doctor Wendy Who and take the Tardis for a spin, and you could sing with anyone at all who would it be and why ?
WJ: I would be in the line up for Bob Dylan and The Band in ’The Last Waltz’ singing ‘Forever Young’, ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’.