Is the world (finally) ready for the wit and wisdom of new-wave icon Cristina?
By Elisabeth Vincentelli
In his 2002 memoir, Strange: Punks and Drunks, Flicks and Kicks, British perfor-mer Richard Strange describes early-'80s new- wave singer Cristina as "elegant, intelligent, beautiful and the wittiest girl I have ever met. In a sassier, zestier, brighter, funnier world, Cristina would have been Madonna." Unfortunately, our world is desperately lacking in the sass department, and it didn't know what the hell to make of Cristina Monet. Far from becoming a threat to the similarly mono-named Madonna, she achieved merely cult status, retiring from music in 1984 after two brilliant, eccentric albums (an eponymous debut and Sleep It Off) in which she daringly juxtaposed disco and Kurt Weill, Van Morrison and Latin rhythms at a time when her New York peers thought punk-funk was bold. It has taken 20 years for these discs to come back into print, but thanks to the efforts of ZE Records, we can bask in Cristina's glory once again.
Now 45, Cristina remembers that her career got off to an inauspicious start, to say the least. On a year off from Harvard, she was a cub theater writer for The Village Voice when she started dating Oxford grad Michael Zilkha, who later became her husband. A wealthy heir to England's Mothercare retail empire, Zilkha was just starting ZE with Frenchman Michel Esteban. "One of the first things Michael wanted to do was a song called 'Disco Clone,' " Cristina recalls. "This being 1978, he thought he would cash in on disco, but I thought it was so bad that it could be a Brechtian pastiche. It turned out to be an eccentric and funny record-insane, enthusiastic, impassioned, amateurish." The single, which included guest vocalist Kevin Kline trying to seduce the breathy Cristina, was a modest success and encouraged ZE to forge ahead and release a full-length album by its first marquee name. The new reissue, retitled Doll in the Box, also includes the three singles that predated the album: "Disco Clone" plus poker-faced covers of the Beatles' "Drive My Car" and Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" (Cristina improvised fittingly cutting new lyrics to the latter, leading its authors, Leiber and Stoller, to sue and get it withdrawn; the song became mythically unavailable-until now.)
For the album, Zilkha paired his girlfriend with August Darnell, a brilliant songwriter and arranger who would go on to (mostly European) fame as Kid Creole. "I had all these ideas about using Latin beats, which I preferred to the lugubrious disco rhythm," Cristina explains. "I wanted to mix them with cinematic imagery to put a bit of histrionic pizzazz in disco, which I found very anodyne." Thanks to Zilkha's trust fund, Darnell and Cristina actually had a budget to match their Technicolor imagination, and even after a quarter century, the music on Doll in the Box continues to sparkle with humor and imagination. Cristina gleefully admits that "my singing is hopeless. One has to sympathize with the review that said, 'If Jackie Kennedy had made a record, it would sound like this.' " But the flat, posh diction actually gives the record a wonderful deb-on-a-rampage edge. Overall, it's hard to disagree with the singer's description of the album as "a soap bubble all about Marilyn Monroe, nostalgic glamour and joie de vivre."
As good as that debut is, it pales in comparison to 1984's Sleep It Off. Produced by Don Was, it's a masterpiece, at once detached and engaging, witty and prickly. A certain acerbic stylization permeates the proceedings, as Cristina's lyrics dryly detail a world of urban decadence. "The cornerstone of what I do musically and lyrically is irony," she says. "A really depressing lyric has a lot more power if it fights off a jaunty melody." In "What's a Girl to Do," which she holds up as her anthem, Cristina sings, "My life is in a turmoil / My thighs are black and blue / My sheets are stained, so is my brain / What's a girl to do?" with a low-throated mock peppiness that's equal parts Lotte Lenya and washed-out ingenue. "She could flip from sex kitten to a punky tone," New York DJ-producer (and recent Cristina collaborator) Ursula 1000 gushes. "She did a singing-nonsinging thing that's almost like John Lydon's."
"I don't think Sleep It Off sounds dated, because it's so out there," Cristina says. "It never fit in any frame, and it still doesn't." Unfortunately, the record was so ahead of its time that it flopped; defeated, the singer retired. "I believed the idea that Michael had bought me a career to such an extent that I felt sheepish and guilty, which I shouldn't have been," she says. "By that point I was a wife and a mother, and then we moved to Texas; I felt like Madame Bovary of the freeway." The following two decades were low-key. Cristina divorced Zilkha in 1990 and returned to New York, where she still lives. A nimble writer, she's contributed learned essays and reviews to publications such as London's Times Literary Supplement. She's also made demos for books on tape; these recordings marked the only times she had been in a studio between Sleep It Off and an October 2004 session in which she sang on a track called "Urgent Anxious" for a forthcoming Ursula 1000 album. Despite battling an MS-like ailment for the past three years, Cristina feels the time is ripe for her to resurface. "It's hard to plan a new album when you don't know if you will make it down to the end of the street from one day to the next," she says, then breaks into a wicked laugh. "But now that I am an old trout, it would be easier for me to make an appropriate record-you may have noticed that my lyrics don't exactly exude youthful optimism!"
Doll in the Box and Sleep It Off are out on ZE Records.
Originally published in Time Out New York, Issue 476, November 11–17, 2004.