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Queen of Pop Shock Struts Into the '90s : Before Madonna and Annie Lennox, Grace Jones paved the way. Now the multi-media artist sets her sights on 'softer'

February 11, 1990|CHRIS WILLMAN


"Grace, do the next take with the tongues in the mouth."

Director Greg Gorman is anxiously calling up from behind his poolside camera to the sunny deck where a showily passionate tete-a-tete between singer Grace Jones and her burly beau is taking place. These kissing shots for her current "Love on Top of Love" video have been going on for some minutes now, and so far, it seems safe to assume that the "killer kiss" referred to in the lyrics is French in origin.

"Does the tongue look too pornographic? " hollers down Jones in her faintly Jamaican accent, teasing her director. This is mild stuff by her own notoriously lurid on-stage standards, but he's thinking of television standards and practices.

"No," says Gorman, reassuringly, "I just want some shots without it."

Grace and her cigar-smoking, blond-haired, gray-bearded boyfriend, European power-lifting champ Sven Thorson, are obliging on the next take, doing some basic, reasonably chaste mouth-to-mouth. But within a couple of minutes they're back to their old tricks, and Gorman--a well-regarded photographer who has been hired by the flamboyant singer for this, his first pop video assignment--simply gives in. Somewhere down the line, perhaps in the editing process, someone may have to convince her that this sort of behavior won't pass muster on MTV, but for now it's best to let Grace be Grace.

It often seems that--as the title of a recent album by the group Jane's Addiction announced--"Nothing's Shocking," any more. Not even most of shocker Grace Jones' often shameless and salacious act.

True, her manic French kissing scene for her "Love on Top of Love" video may not yet be ready for prime-time MTV, and the lyrics to the song proffer unapologetic promiscuity in an age when even George Michael is pressured into promoting the joys of monogamy. But the aspects of her persona that were most startling to a wary musical public during her disco years of the late '70s and new-wave reggae years of the early '80s have now been well-integrated into the culture. Her butch-cut androgyny, the flagrant sexual aggression, the threatening iciness, the uncoy dominatrix stance are a part of the culture. Madonna made it OK to look and act like a tramp and Annie Lennox made it OK to look like a pretty boy, well after Jones nervily and shamelessly paved the way for both of them.

"I've done that," Jones says, lounging poolside later at the Sunset Marquis. "What Madonna's doing, I did 10 years ago. They've caught up with me. They're 10 years behind. But it's cool. At least they got it." She chuckles. "I don't mind. At least enough people took that ball and ran with it, you know what I mean? So we're making some touchdowns, which is cool. And I just start a whole new game now, that's all. I've played that one out."

The new game is not to further shock the music community, for even Jones knows that it's impossible to shock a shockproof culture. Her infrequent concerts--one is scheduled for Wednesday at the Hollywood Palladium--still garner sellout crowds and good reviews, and the new "Killer Kiss" single recently reached No. 1 on Billboard's dance club charts. But probably nothing she could do musically could ever regain her the kind of slavish, fascinated attention she once garnered--and if Jones' standoffish image doesn't exactly project rampant neediness, attention is one thing she does require.

This hardball player's favored current arena: the movies.

Her film career got off to a good start in the early '80s with a sword-and-sorcery role in "Conan the Destroyer," which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose weightlifting trainer is the same Sven Thorson with whom she'd been tangling tongues. That was followed by a plum part as a memorable Bond villainess in "A View to a Kill." Big things were predicted, but since then, the celluloid side has languished--she's had only one subsequent starring role, as a vampiress in the independent 1986 horror/comedy "Vamp," while taking cameo roles in such failed artsy features as "Siesta" and "Straight to Hell."

Seems that the movies haven't known quite what ballgame to have her playing in. If good roles aren't already few and far between for actresses, Jones is not just Anywoman but a somewhat inherently threatening black woman--a type not exactly rampant in Hollywood.

"She is totally in a category by herself," says producer-director Rob Cohen, who auditioned Jones for a part while running Motown Pictures in the '70s and has remained an admirer since. "And whenever anyone is that unique--and this goes for Brando and people of that caliber--they either find a receptivity, like Jack Nicholson has, or they are so unique people don't know what to do with them.

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