Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Identity is the crisis you can't see - RIP Poly Styrene

Punk legend Poly Styrene has died. We all knew about the cancer, but somehow, it seemed to me that someone so vital just couldn't die. She was one of the first female voices I found when I  REALLY got in to punk, and later, when I'd left behind my safe hetero id for those early thrilling days of bisexuality,  her "up yours!" punk yodel was the siren sound I pogo'd too, wasted on Red Stripe. Poly had this shuddering call, equal parts shrill and raspy, that would crack into a higher note juuuust at the tail, like an angry kid whose voice is still breaking. On all of her most famous  slogans, it twists up at the end into a little girl falsetto that is both endearingly cute and also the flick of a fingers-up fuck you sign. She had a small puffy afro, train track teeth braces and looked/sounded FIERCE.

"Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. I say, oh bondage! Up yours!"

For me, X-Ray Spexs were a band I initially savored alone, in the electric privacy of my bedroom, wondering at the weird, spacey reverb and anti-deodorant message of 'Germ Free Adolescents' (I decided to file it next to The Slit's Typical Girls; worrying about "spots, fat and natural smells" was b.o.r.i.n.g). Later, Poly's songs became life anthems I howled along too, drunk and grinning, in a small, dark, sweaty basement club off Tottenham Court Road, surrounded by girls I'd kissed and boys I shared eyeliner with. I remember these perfect, stillness-in-the-chaos moments where the first, steady "Iiiiiiii" of 'Identity' would start up and all the Spexs fans would snap into action, taking up the wild yell like a tribe. I think it meant something different and awesome for each of us - all the beautiful freaks and queers dancing together in a space where we were (mostly) safe to just BE.

The club is no longer there - it was bulldozed recently to make way for the expanding tube station - and the Woolworths Poly worked in as a teenager and sung about in 'Warrior In Woolworths' has also disappeared, a red font emblem of staple UK consumer culture now sunk in nostalgia. For me, Poly represents the best of rebellious British women, a Brixton gyal done good. Her voice was just as potent to me in the late 90's/early 00's as it must have been to people in the the 70's, a voice that centered those gleefully inebriated moments saturated with jazzy punk saxaphone noise and freedom and the joy of finding a community of kindred weirdos. She gave my emerging queer self a rally cry.

RIP Poly Styrene.

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