What are your memories of Christmas, dearest Filthy Dreams merrymakers? Is it an enormous, lush pine filling your spacious living room covered in lights, baubles, and vintage ornaments like a Fifth Avenue window display? Or is it a cactus hung with the earrings you forgot to pawn? Do you remember festive and fabulous holiday parties, ones that you wish could just go on forever? Or did you feel queasy in the crowd and then, catch a cab back to your flat where you wept a bit and fed your cat?
I don’t know about you, my jingling bells, but the pawn-aments and Noel nausea feel much more familiar to me. Which is why Cristina’s snarling, sarcastic sleigh ride of a Christmas carol “Things Fall Apart,” filled with wingless Christmas tree angels, candy cane cunnilingus, and murdered 97-year-old Christmas trees, has become an apt and relatable anthem for this quarantined holiday season. While it feels like there’s a little less joy to the world this year, stuck in a cramped and stifling fifth floor walk-up, at least there’s Cristina’s droll motto: “Things fall apart, but they never leave my heart.” If you can’t go Christmas caroling this year to your unwitting auditory hostages…I mean, neighbors…while maintaining social distancing, at least shout it out the window at the top of your lungs!
And like Christmas, sneering bombshell Cristina, looking like the leather bound Greaser Sandy, never leaves my heart either. A star that momentarily shot through the Downtown post-punk scene of the late 1970s and 1980s, Cristina, otherwise known as Cristina Monet Zilkha (though she only needs one name…Move over, Madonna!), has been on my mind–and in my heart–this year after learning of her passing on March 31 due to COVID-19. COVID has taken many things from us–300,000+ dead in the U.S., the ability to go to dive bars without fearing death, and Cristina.
Admittedly, I wasn’t all that familiar with Cristina’s musical output before her passing–only her legendary and notoriously controversial take on Leiber and Stoller’s song “Is That All There Is?” made famous by Peggy Lee. In fact, Cristina’s um…revised version threw Leiber and Stoller into such a tizzy they clutched their pearls so hard that they insisted the song be pulled from Cristina’s eponymous debut album release in 1980.
What was so outrageous, so outlandish that their knickers got all bunched up and tied in knots? Well, it may have had something to do with Cristina’s wry update to the already decadent song. Cristina’s “Is That All There Is?” features pyromaniac mothers (“I remember when I was a little girl, my mother set the house on fire. She was like that…”), disappointing discos (“And there were bored-looking bankers dancing with beautiful models. And there were boys with dyed hair and spandex t-shirts dancing with each other. And as I sat there watching, I felt like something was missing…”), and abusive relationships (“We’d take long walks down by the river and he’d beat me black and blue and I loved it…”). Or perhaps it was simply the memorable final verse:
“I know what you must be saying to yourselves,
‘If she feels that way about it,
Why doesn’t she just slit her throat and shut up?’
Oh, no, not me.
I’m not ready for that kind of a comedown.”
I’m sure Leibrer and Stoller were just mad they didn’t think of a line as enduring as “Why doesn’t she just slit her throat and shut up?” Cristina was characteristically blasé about the controversy at the time, telling The Boston Globe: “It wasn’t a parody; I was quite serious. In fact, when I was asked to punk out the song itself, I said I wouldn’t, it was too good for that. The lyrics per se I thought could legitimately be made a springboard for an expression of a 1980s sensibility. I made up the lyrics as I went along to demonstrate what I meant. I was exploring narrative, a conversational approach that might last have been heard in the clubs of Montparnasse, you know, Paris in the late 1950s.”
Other than a song that didn’t see the light of day for most until the re-release of her two albums in 2004, I didn’t know all that much about Cristina nor did I delve into her music despite adoring many of her post-punk and new/no wave contemporaries on ZE Records like Lydia Lunch, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, and Suicide. Sure, I wasn’t the only one–as she explains, “No wonder [the label] dropped me. I had homosexual fan clubs in the theater departments of Ivy League schools. Ooh boy, that’s chart-busting stuff.”
However, as an elaborate apology to my unending shame for being one of those ghoulish hangers-on who only discovers someone once they’re six feet under, as well as a desperate attempt to make up for lost time (Where has “Don’t Mutilate My Mink” been all my life?!), I’m bestowing upon Cristina her rightful title of role model. I mean, doesn’t anyone who makes a rendition of “Is That All There Is?” that’s too nihilistic and depraved for its original songwriters just automatically deserve our unending devotion?
Born Cristina Monet Palaci to a writer/illustrator mother and French psychoanalyst papa, Cristina was an unlikely musician in that, well, she never really intended to be one. As she observed to the Boston Globe in 1980: “My strength is not in my voice, nor do I have sexy ankles…I have an analytical brain, and maybe that’s a liability in rock n’ roll, but if I play it right, it will translate musical principles into theatrical terms, which is what I have to do anyway, given my lack of technical expertise in music.” Though I’d argue that Cristina *does* have sexy ankles, her knowledge of theater, namely Weill and Brecht (whose “Zuhälter Ballade” she adapts into her own “Ballad of Immoral Earnings” on her second album Sleep It Off), clearly influences her juxtaposition of sordid lyrics with deceptively upbeat disco and post-punk sounds. Some of this may have to do with her stint at Harvard, but we here at Filthy Dreams don’t like to attribute everything to marginally impressive Ivy League credits.
Like our skepticism about fancy ass universities, Cristina said, “Is that all there is?” to Harvard, taking a year off to NYC and never looking back. She began writing theater criticism with the Village Voice when she met Michael Zilkha, one half of the developing ZE Records with Michel Esteban. Though she never dreamed of being a blasé pop singer, Cristina released the first song of the storied Downtown record label’s output in 1978: the purposefully excruciating number “Disco Clone.”
Though meant as a parody of what had become the nauseating sameness of disco by the late 1970s, “Disco Clone,” written by Harvard classmate Ronald Melrose, produced by John Cale, and featuring some leering spoken romantic overtures by actor Kevin Kline, actually is a fun, danceable tune. That is, if you don’t notice Cristina’s high-pitched mockery: “If you like the way I shake it and you think you want to make it. There’s fifty just like me.” It’s death to disco as disco. If only the Disco Demolition Night goobers had the guts.
After the success of “Disco Clone,” despite being, as Cristina noted, “without a doubt, the worst song I have ever heard,” Cristina released her self-titled debut album (re-released in 2004 as Doll In The Box). Produced by August Darnell known for his work as Kid Creole and the Coconuts (yet another Downtown NYC staple), the album features a clear Latin influence, mixed with cliché disco tropes and Cristina’s squeaky and affected imitation of Marilyn Monroe if she went to the Paradise Garage. Or perhaps better described by one reviewer as “If Jackie Kennedy had made a record, it would sound like this.” Imagine!
Whether screeching “Mama’s in love again!” on “Mama Mia” or cruising with some breathy seduction on an unhinged rendition of The Beatles’ “Drive My Car,” you get the sense that Cristina is parodying just what audiences want in a pop star–glamour, wealth, tragedy…Her aural landscape is one of high class depression.
Take, for instance, “Blame It On Disco”:
“There was a time
I was walking on a cloud
Diamonds and pearls
And a gentleman always around
Now I’m alone
Each and every other night
Climbing the walls
While my man is dancing out his life
Blame it on disco
With the fascinating lights
Blame it on disco
Blame it on disco
With the fascinating sounds
Blame it on disco
That’s the talk of the town”
She concludes this litany of complaints with a whine: “I want my island! I want my man!” Who doesn’t, Cristina?
However, Cristina’s true musical gem is her subsequent and final album Sleep It Off, which is notably the first she wrote by herself. Pure Cristina. And boy, does she deliver with morbidly hilarious lyrics such as “I’m not on a torch song bender. You’re too bitchy for my notions of a man and your arms are far too slender” or “She’s scared of the dark. He’s scared that he’s queer. She’s into wine. He prefers beer.” Like her self-titled, some songs continue to mine the cynical mindsets of wealthy wrecks. Take my personal punky favorite “Don’t Mutilate My Mink”:
“There’s snow on my stilettos
I think it’s time to part
This game you want to finish
I don’t even want to start
Don’t tell me that I’m frigid
Don’t try to make me think
I’ll do just fine without you
Don’t mutilate my mink”
With this scornful songwriting, the album trades the bubbly pitch of her self-titled for a disdainful, deadpan, droning misanthropy. Just what I like! By 1984, Cristina is tired. She’s jaded. She’s contemptuous. While she won’t eviscerate you like Lydia Lunch, she’ll certainly stand and watch, yawning, while you get run over by a cab!
The funky beats of her prior record also disappear, replaced with a sound that I can only describe as Below 14th Street. It’s a late 1970s/1980s post-punk/new wave sonic atmosphere that is so distinctly of that time and place that even the rats on the Bowery know that sound. Sleep It Off is Alphabet City tenement apartments, the Mudd Club, and bleary after-hours runny eggs at run-down diners. Now, despite her sound seeming as if it came straight from the clubs of that era, Cristina rarely performed live. One notable exception was at the Squat Theater in Chelsea, which inspired her mother to exclaim: “You were always a brilliant writer. A good artist … a good actress. How could you be so self-destructive as to sing?” Thanks, Ma!
Obviously, Sleep It Off is my most beloved Cristina album. And I probably shouldn’t have to mention this given my love for failures but…it was a flop. I mean, sure–a song called “He Dines Out On Death” might not be a Top 40 radio hit. And I can’t figure out why people had trouble connecting with some of Cristina’s…ahem…bleaker lyrics as in “What’s A Girl To Do?”:
“My life is in a turmoil
My thighs are black and blue
My sheets are stained so is my brain
What’s a girl to do? Oh what’s a girl to do?
I passed out with a novel
Or a needle in my hand
I passed out with a ragdoll
And I passed out with a man
I say my 3 Hail Marys
I barely paint my face
My friends decay around me
And I view them with distaste”
Now, was she serious about this bruised and stained junkie romanticism? Sorta. As she said, “The one thing that pop music has lost lately is its sense of irony…People either write dumb-funny novelty songs or dead-earnest serious songs. There’s nothing around that combines elements of both.”
After Sleep It Off was a bust, Cristina moved to Texas with Zilkha, her then-husband. She quit music, embarrassed about what she believed was Zilkha’s oversized influence on her career. She explains in Time Out New York, “I believed the idea that Michael had bought me a career to such an extent that I felt sheepish and guilty, which I shouldn’t have been…By that point I was a wife and a mother, and then we moved to Texas; I felt like Madame Bovary of the freeway.” She eventually moved back to NYC (without the man) and continued to write.
Whether she knew it or not, Cristina was a foremother to a generation of today’s singers who also explore a deliciously perverse mixture of troubling morbid lyrical realism and catchy pop beats. As Cristina observed to Time Out New York, “A really depressing lyric has a lot more power if it fights off a jaunty melody.” While some have noted Cristina as a pioneer who would usher in more popular stars like Madonna or Cyndi Lauper (Richard Strange: “In a sassier, zestier, brighter, funnier world, Cristina would have been Madonna”), I see Cristina’s influence today more in the apathetic thousand-yard-stare of The Chromatics, Desire’s disco darkness, and the upper-class Ultraviolence of my beloved Lana Del Rey (And I’m not just being an obsessive stan, Billboard sees it too). I mean, I think Lana could do a perfect rendition of “The Lie Of Love” (“He gets the mean reds. She gets the grey blues. She’s passive on pills. He’s vicious on booze. She likes the late movie. He likes the late news”). And on the flipside, Cristina would have nailed Lana’s “Yayo.”
One singer of this ilk who did publicly recognize Cristina’s inspiration is Zola Jesus who tweeted upon Cristina’s passing: “Cristina was a HUGE inspiration to me…I loved how she was too weird for the pop world and too pop for the weird world.”
Which seems like all anyone should ever aspire to. I mean, isn’t that all there is?