To some, she was France’s answer to Patti Smith, or perhaps a 20th century reincarnation of Arthur Rimbaud – or maybe both. To others, she is virtually unknown. But listen to her track “Fire” off her seminal album Press Color, which is seeing a rerelease this summer, and you’ll wonder why you’ve never heard of her. Instead of being France’s answer to Patti Smith, though, Lizzy Mercier Descloux was more of a soul sister; she was also more punk than no wave – punk in the sense of her rebelliousness. You can find Descloux donning a suit next to Smith, who is barefoot and wearing a tattered dress, in a poetry art book that the duo released together – with contributions from Richard Hell. Born Martine-Elisabeth Mercier Descloux in Paris, Lizzy was a bit of a creative anomaly – she introduced world music into her music before there was such a thing. If it wasn’t for her explorations with world music, there is a chance Paul Simon may not have made Graceland. Whatever the case is, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, who died in the early naughts, is still a force to be reckoned with. Here are ten things you need to know about Lizzy Mercier Descloux.
1. She Grew Up in Paris and Taught Herself How To Play Guitar
Born in 1956, Lizzie Mercier Descloux grew up in Les Halles – the center of Paris. She attended art school at the École des Beaux-Arts and taught herself how to play guitar. By this point – the beginning of the 70s – early examples of punk and no wave music was flowing out of New York and London and making its way to France.
2. With Michel Esteban, She Opens a Punk Boutique in Paris Called Harry Cover
Just like Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren ran their iconic boutique and punk mecca, provocatively called Sex on King’s Road in London – Descloux helped run Harry Cover, which became a “temple” for the punk movement in Paris at the time. It sold books, music, clothing and local bands rehearsed in the basement. She managed the boutique with her boyfriend Michel Esteban who became her closest creative collaborator and partner.
3. Descloux Goes To New York On Assignment For Rock News – Everything Changes
In 1975, her partner Esteban starts a French music magazine called Rock News, which was covering a lot of the punk and no wave scenes that were quickly spreading throughout the world. Descloux visits New York to do a story on the local scene happening on the Bowery. In doing so, she is introduced to Richard Hell and Patti Smith, which would have a profound affect on the young artist’s trajectory as a musician.
4. She Moves to New York Permanently and Buys a Fender Jazzmaster Guitar
Realizing that if she wanted to make it as an artist and a musician, she needed to make New York her home. In 1976, she makes the move and joins a mass migration of artists looking for a new creative environment. The artistic cognoscenti of Downtown New York welcome Descloux with open arms – including Richard Hell, whom she became romantically involved with. She buys a Fender Jazzmaster guitar and starts to work on music.
5. In Collaboration with Richard Hell and Patti Smith, She Publishes a Book of Poetry
With Patti Smith penning the illustrations and the preface, and Richard Hell adding his own contributions, Descloux publishes a book of poetry called “Desiderata.” The title comes from the Latin word, Desiderata, which can be translated into English as, “desired things.” Some of the photographs in the book include photographs of Patti in a dress and Descloux in a man’s suit.
6. She Releases A Mini LP Under the Name Rosa Yemen
Together with guitarist D.J. Barnes, she releases her first EP – mini-album with six tracks, like all-instrumental Decryptated and the improvisational and performative ode to venereal disease Herpese Simplex, which is a good example of one of Descloux’s rawest and most rebelliously minimal songs in her early catalogue. However, it was her debut record on ZE Records – entitled “Colors” – with the electrifying first song, Fire, which really showed Descloux’s true talents as an artist and collagist of musical genres and sounds.
7. Descloux Was Also An Actress
With her distinct look – androgynous facial features and wild swash of hair – she became a muse of the Blank Generation’s film scene. In fact, she can be seen in Amos Poe's “Blank Generation,” which is largely considered to be one of the most important cinematic documents of that era. She can also be found in a short film directed by Seth Tillett.
8. She Loved Multiple Musical Genres and Sounds From Around The World
Descloux’s second album, Mambo Nassau, mixed no wave sounds with funk, soul and African beats. In fact, Descloux was one of the first musical artists to play with the concept of “World Music,” which was an unheard of term in 1980 when Mambo Nassau was released. After a long trip through the African continent, she released an unexpected hit single called "Mais où Sont Passées les Gazelles?,” which had backing vocals from South African musicians. Shortly after this effort, Paul Simon released Graceland, which had an eerily similar approach and sound. In one of Descloux’s later albums, entitled One For the Soul, she teamed up Brazilian musicians with Chet Baker, who she met at a Jazz Festival in Rio De Janeiro.
9. Descloux Went to Africa On The Trail of Arthur Rimbaud
A lot of young artists have had a fascination with the young and brilliant 19th century poet Arthur Rimbaud who gave up writing and moved to Africa where he later died. Although, most young artists don’t follow the same trail as Rimbaud. But Descloux did – she first traveled to Ethiopia and then made her way down to South Africa, which was then still in the throes of the Apartheid.
10. She Is Diagnosed With Cancer and Dies in Corsica
Toward the end of her life, she started to paint more and decided to settle on the beautiful island of Corsica. After being diagnosed with cancer, it was here that she decided to live out her last days – her ashes were scattered at sea in a beautiful and fitting end to a long and fruitfully creative life.
"Press Color," Lizzy Mercier Descloux's seminal album will be rereleased in August by Light In the Attic Records. You can click here to preorder. Text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Photos courtesy of Esteban and ZE Records.