The Complicatist : Mystery Girls

The incredible disappearing Connie Converse, and Janelle Monae

by Gordon Campbell

The music of Connie Converse is right in sync with the strangeness of her life story. For most of her professional career, Converse edited a magazine called The Journal of Conflict Resolution but by the early 1970s, she was feeling burned out and depressed. In the summer of 1974, she loaded her possessions into her Volkswagen Beetle, wrote goodbye notes to her friends and drove away. She was never seen again.

What she left behind was a collection of songs recorded in 1954, at the kitchen table of the children’s book and film animator Gene Deitch. They are spare, unsentimental and haunting. Last year, the tracks were finally collected together on an album (with the terrible title of How Sad, How Lovely) and have begun to find an audience.

Has anyone ever written a quieter and more telling song about loneliness than this?

We go walking in the dark.
We go walking out at night.
And it’s not as others go,
two-by-two, to and fro,
But it’s one by one.

One by one in the dark,
We go walking out at night.
As we wander through the grass
We can hear each other pass,
But we are far apart.

Far apart in the dark,
We go walking out at night.
With the grass so dark and tall
We are lost, past recall
If the moon is down.
And the moon is down.

We are walking in the dark.
If I had your hand in mine
I could shine, I could shine,
Like the rising sun,
Like the sun…

For about a year and a half, Converse continued to record at Deitch’s home. As Deitch said in an interview last year, she wasn’t the greatest singer, technically speaking. ‘But there was poignancy in her voice. In the 1950s, I didn’t know of anyone commercially who sang as personally as she did. Especially not a woman. But there was also this undertone of sadness. She didn’t overtly show it, but you could certainly sense it.” As the same article explains:

In 1955 [ when the recording sessions ended] Converse would have been 31… She never spoke of a boyfriend or hinted at any romantic relationship. “Connie was naturally pretty but on a grayish scale,” says [her friend] Bronte Bernal, who got to know Converse between recording sessions at Deitch’s New York home. “She was so low-key, she could walk through a crowd and be invisible – which I guess was what she wanted. Not to be noticed. Except she did want her music to be outed.”

If Elizabeth Eaton Converse is still out there somewhere, she would be 86 years old by now.

These days, the Fritz Lang film Metropolis is known for its grand, city-of-tomorrow visuals, which managed to be futuristic and yet quaintly Art Deco Gothic at the same time. On release in 1927, the film was considered to be far too long for the movie chains (who jibbed at the overt political content as well) and Metropolis got cut and hacked about in every country in which it was screened. That has been a blessing in disguise for film historians trying to assemble a definitive, restored version. There were stray bits of it everywhere, including in New Zealand.

On the downside, Metropolis has also inspired a raft of really bad album covers. The worst being the 1984 Eurodisco version featuring Adam Ant, Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler and Freddie Mercury. Yikes. Well, Metropolis is now back again – in the shape of The ArchAndroid, the breakthrough album for a tiny 25 year old diva called Janelle Monae.

She looks like Grace Jones, sings like Prince and dances like James Brown. On the album’s main single “ Tightrope” Monae duets with Big Boi from the Atlanta hip hop duo Outkast (with whom she started her career) and collaborates on “Make The Bus” with the indie band Of Montreal. As well, there are neo-Broadway torch songs and on “57821’ she does something that sounds like a 1960s folk pop madrigal. At the conceptual level – and thanks to Lady Gaga, we’re all conceptualists now – The ArchAndroid ransacks Metropolis for its imagery, and political subtext. Supposedly, this music is about the role technology plays under capitalism, in mediating the struggle between workers and their political masters. Yet in a fun way, OK ?

In interviews, Monae has stressed that this political dimensjon is meant to be read into the character she plays on it, an android from the year 2719 called Cyndi Mayweather. “ The android represents the other to me. I can personally relate to the other by just my gender and race….She finds out that she is the ArchAndroid, who is the mediator between the haves and the have-nots. This album deals with self-realization, embracing the things that make you unique. I write it from the perspective of the have-nots, people who are not necessarily victims, but who are out there working every day, dealing with life’s problems. This music is motivational, and is meant to be inspirational.”:

Right, got it. This is The Matrix told from Trinity’s viewpoint – if Trinity had been black, and an android. Monae is no dummy, though. In 2008, she campaigned for Barack Obama, and for affordable healthcare and education. Her brief and arresting “Get Out The Vote” message can be seen here. From the outset, her role model has been Lauryn Hill. “You just got a sense that she knew as an artist that she was a leader, and she led me to a place that no other artist had been able to do, no female artist,” Monae says. “She was an inspiration for me because she showed me that I didn’t have to take the same safe, sexy route. I could bring all of me with me, when I’m performing.

In May, Monae appeared on the Letterman show, doing a pretty electrifying version of “Tightrope.” Ultimately, she plans on making 18 videos of all of the Metropolis songs, which will then be released as a parallel movie to the original film. Clearly, ambition doesn’t much grander than this. Judging by the Letterman performance, Monae might be able to pull it off.

Janelle Monae Robinson was born in Kansas City, and made her way to Atlanta after completing a course in dance and theatrical tuition in New York City. Outkast were the biggest game in town, and Monae hooked up with the Big Boi part of the team and appeared on a couple of numbers on the Ildewild album. In return, Big Boi contributes a memorable verse on the “Tightrope” single.

By 2007, Monae had begun to record her Metropolis music – the first part came out on an EP – and she signed up with Sean “ Diddy” Combs and his Bad Boy label, in Combs’ first signing of any consequence since The Notorious B.I.G. Last year, Monae opened for No Doubt, and last month was touring with Erykah Badu – probably the last time she will be in a support act role for anyone.

One bizarre aspect of Metropolis is that, in outline, it sounds like a classic Marxist tale, of workers rising in revolt against the technocrats who control their lives. In fact, the script was written by Lang in tandem with his then-wife, a Nazi apologist called Thea von Harbou. Lang reportedly hated the final film. Soon afterwards, his wife went off to join the Nazi Party, and one of the film’s biggest fans during the 1930s was the Nazi propaganda chieftain Josef Goebbels, who even offered Lang a job as head of his film unit. Instead, Lang fled to America. Much of what Lang hated – the way the conflict was resolved between the dying old bourgeois society and the virile New Society bursting through to replace it, was exactly what had appealed to the Nazis.

For many years it was assumed the original version of the film had been lost entirely. In 2008 however, archivists in Argentina found a version containing many of the missing sequences, though in quite poor condition. In 2005 though, the Australian Green Party politician Michael Organ had come across a copy of Metropolis in the National Film Archive in Wellington that contained eleven missing scenes – and when the existence of the Argentine print came to light, Organ made his own discovery known.

Some of the New Zealand footage was then used to restore some of the poorer sections of the Argentine print, while also adding a few extra seconds of otherwise completely unknown footage. The fully restored version was finally screened last month in New York.

(The discovery of the Metropolis footage has born further fruit, including the recent discovery here of a nitrate version of an early John Ford silent film, plus an early Clara Bow film as well, among other finds.)

Like any good myth, Metropolis still re-invent itself in the people it inspires. In her version, Monae has reversed the role of the android. In Lang’s film the android Maria is a major villain, entirely separate from the real Maria in whose beautiful image she has been created. The machine Maria ultimately drives the sons of the ruling class into murderous bouts of sexual frenzy, and incites the workers to bouts of destructive rebellion that seemingly, result in the deaths of their own children. In Monae’s version though, the android is an entirely positive being.

Obviously, it could also be more of the same old sci-fi bullshit if Monae didn’t have the musical chops to bring it off. She does – and especially in the first half of the album, on cuts like “ Tightrope” and “ Cold War.” If not exactly The One, this is definitely one worth checking out.