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Lizzy Mercier Descloux was a pioneering force in avant-garde rock and in the worldbeat genre, chalking up significant achievements in the latter field well before it existed. Tremendously precocious in an artistic sense, Mercier Descloux dropped out of art studies in order to co-manage a punk boutique and record store in Paris with future ZE Records executive Michel Esteban. In 1975 Mercier Descloux first visited New York City and fell right in with the no wave scene, becoming close friends with Richard Hell and Patti Smith, both of whom contributed material to her first book, Desiderata. Mercier Descloux recorded her first ZE Records release in 1978 as Rosa Yemen, a low-key no wave-styled effort that reflects the influence of the no wave band Mars. Little about Rosa Yemen indicated the genius that would soon carry Mercier Descloux through an unparalleled string of four innovative masterpieces to come.
In 1979, ZE released Press Color, Mercier Descloux's short debut LP featuring only eight songs. Self-taught as a guitarist, Mercier Descloux revealed herself as a supreme minimalist within the no wave genre, concentrating on spindly, single-note lines combined with wrong-note harmonies and funky rhythms. Mercier Descloux's singing voice, while limited in terms of carrying a tune, was devoted to rhythmic chattering, humming, and chanting lyrics that serve to cheer the music on and to build a quirky sense of excitement. Despite its excellence, Press Color was hardly even distributed in the United States, and practically all copies of the domestic ZE/Buddah LP appear to have a "cut corner." American consumers who wanted the album couldn't even find it, unfortunately establishing a precedent that continued to dog Mercier Descloux throughout her career.
Undaunted by the disappearance of Press Color, Mercier Descloux made her next album, Mambo Nassau, in Nassau in the Bahamas. She had been listening to albums of world music (a term that did not exist in 1980) issued by the French Ocora label very closely, particularly to African music. Combining her expertise in art rock with African music and ideas drawn liberally from funk and soul, Mercier Descloux produced an album that seems technically and artistically impossible for the year 1981. A brilliant work borne of genius, a good ear, and hard work, Mambo Nassau should have broken Lizzy Mercier Descloux in the U.S., but barely any copies of the album circulated there. In Europe and Asia Mambo Nassau did make an impression, and fortunately, it caught the attention of executives at French CBS, who added her to their roster.
In 1983, Mercier Descloux made a long trip through the African continent, starting in Ethiopia and ending in South Africa. There she made an album, Mais où Sont Passées les Gazelles, with a backup band made up of South African musicians. Released on French CBS in 1984, the title track was a surprise hit in France, and remains her signature piece to Europeans. Prior to that time, no French artist had ever had a hit with a song so international in focus, and even though it peaked only at number 30 in France, French pop music was never quite the same afterward. Mercier Descloux won the prestigious Bus d'Acier for 1984 and several French critics proclaimed Mais où Sont Passées les Gazelles "album of the year" — and this would prove the pinnacle of Mercier Descloux's career. Rather than stay with French CBS, Mercier Descloux accepted an offer from French Polydor.
A trip to Brazil in 1985 produced Mercier Descloux's masterpiece, One for the Soul, in which she collaborated with Brazilian musicians and jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. One for the Soul is the most extraordinary and deeply felt of her albums, but unlike Mais où Sont Passées les Gazelles it didn't catch on. Her final album to reach the public ear, 1988's Suspense, brought her into contact with old friends Mark Cunningham and Constance Burg from Mars, but it wound up with an even more obscure fate than One for the Soul. In the meantime, Paul Simon had recorded Graceland, similar in approach and style to Mais où Sont Passées les Gazelles, reaping platinum album sales and winning a Grammy. By comparison, Mercier Descloux was on her way out of music — a final album made in New York in 1995 never saw the light of day.
Always optimistic, Mercier Descloux settled in Corsica, turning back to the painting she had abandoned decades earlier and writing a novel, Buenaventura, which remains unpublished. In 2003, Mercier Descloux was diagnosed with cancer, a condition that she endured with patience, painting frantically until the end came in April 2004. Although her ZE albums were finally reissued on CD not long before she died, even the reissues are difficult to find. Seeking them out bears considerable reward — although she came along at the same time as punk, her music is almost never angry, rather betraying a wide-eyed wonder of the world and all the cultures and experiences she had in it. Mercier Descloux's best work effervesces with a joy of living, a love of rhythm, and great spontaneity, yet also betrays a no-nonsense sophistication about the craft of making her eccentric brand of music. As Richard Hell once said of her, "At 17 she was more sophisticated than anyone I'd known, while also seeming utterly unaffected. Or at least her affectations came from such a stubborn confidence and will to defy convention that they were irresistible."