“My mind is like a switchboard:” Poly Styrene R.I.P.

I was sad to hear of the death from breast cancer yesterday of Marianne Joan Elliot-Said, a.k.a. Poly Styrene, at the age of 53. Nitsuh Abebe has a nice piece about Styrene (and her death) on the New York Magazine blog.

Styrene was the singer for X-Ray Spex, whose 1978 album Germ-Free Adolescents I discovered at age 14 or so (so, 1985ish 1983ish) from Robert Christgau’s Rock Albums of the 1970s book.  It was and has always been one of my favorite punk-era albums and, really, favorite albums.

Poly Styrene was one of the truly great punk singers/ personalities.  I have to steal this fabulous photo from the Abebe piece I link to above:

She was British-Somali.  She wore braces.  She shaved her head.  She freaked out Johnny Rotten by talking about hallucinations.  She wrote lyrics like this:

My mind is like a plastic bag/ That corresponds to all those ads/ It sucks up all the rubbish/ That is fed in through by ear/I eat Kleenex for breakfast/ And use soft hygienic Weetabix/ To dry my tears/My mind is like a switchboard/ With crossed and tangled lines/ Contented with confusion… My dreams I daren’t remember…/ I’ve dreamt that I was the ruler of the sea/ The ruler of the universe/ The ruler of the supermarket/ And even fatalistic me.

Or like this: “Oh bondage up yours/ Oh bondage no more/ Oh bondage up yours/ Oh bondage no more.”

Germ-Free Adolescents, like some of the greatest other punk albums, was obviously heavily influenced by reggae’s Biblical apocalyptic fatalism and vision of a world in end days.
She wore clothing made out of what looked to be shower curtains, left-over army salvage, and anything in very bright plastics.  And cardigans and colorful gloves and strange hats.  She gave punk rock color (fashion & race), wit, a female perspective.
She was a poseur.  She liked to make people stare.  She was a feminist.  (And later, a Hare Krishna!) She made female stereotypes seem absurd.

You could say she was the female Johnny Rotten but perhaps the female David Johanson of the New York Dolls in 1975 or so is more accurate.

Her voice was an ungodly caterwaul that influenced a thousand riot grrls.
Here is Poly Styene and X-Ray Spex performing their first single, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”  And “Identity“.  And “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo.”  And here’s a 1978 interview.  And another one in which she discusses how she chose her name while brushing her teeth: “I chose the name Poly Styrene ‘cuz it’s a lightweight disposable product.  Plastic, disposable…”
X-Ray Spex was one of the first emphatically post-modern bands, creating their music and image out of consumer society, plastic, identity crisis, credit cards, apocalypse, hygeine, suicide, television, in a spirit of outrage and critique as well as hilarity, creative appropriation, and fun.  “I was playing with words and ideas. Having a laugh about everything, sending it up.
I really feel sad about her death.

6 thoughts on ““My mind is like a switchboard:” Poly Styrene R.I.P.”

  1. I wish I didn’t have to admit this (that it weren’t true), but I first heard X-R S when watching the film “Sid & Nancy,” which I owned even though I didn’t own a TV or a VCR. “Bondage Up Yours” is on the soundtrack–a revelation! Talk about one seriously cool badass chick.

  2. All this circa 1987 or so for me, in other words. But as we all know, when it comes to putting your finger on the pulse of musical coolness I am always about a decade late.

  3. Lovely eulogy, Ivan. I remember what a revelation it was the first time I tracked down a copy of Germfree Adolescents (through Jen F., maybe?)–it really expanded my sense of what was possible, in music and in life.

  4. This is indeed very sad. GFA is still one of my top 10 albums ever. (Hi, Gavin!) I remember Dave Marsh in the first edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide giving it two stars and saying, “No one listens to this stuff for pleasure.” Er, hello? I never understood how anyone, even a Jackson Browne fan, could miss the incredible giddiness and charm of X-Ray Spex. “Freddy tried to strangle me with MY plastic popper beads/So I hit ‘im back/With my pet rrrrrat.” Poly was the best.

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