Cover StoryShe comes in colors
WDET interviews Brett Callwood about this story (MP3)
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Back in May of this year, former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd performed at the Corktown Tavern. The event was memorable for two reasons: 1) Lloyd was terrible; drunk to the point of on-stage puke-burps, obnoxious; 2) Colonel Galaxy, longtime husband and manager of artist and one-time punk-rock pinup Niagara, was there talking about how his wife gets ignored in her own hometown.
That would be the Niagara — the same woman who did time with the late Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton in the universally cultish bands Destroy All Monsters and Dark Carnival — whose drug-fueled, gun-toting, sexually vivid pop art is known the world over.
And for a former punk-rock pinup, Niagara is beautiful and striking in person, ageless even — comfortably sitting somewhere between Audrey Hepburn and Patti Smith. Indeed, alongside Debby Harry, Niagara was the punk poster girl of choice for any hormone-riddled boy who happened upon a Destroy All Monsters record cover or a picture in an old CREEM magazine. She oozes a kind of '50s-esque, perfect-skinned glamour, but there's this rough edge, as if beneath a seemingly unruffled exterior there's both an innocent little girl and a worldly woman who just skated on this side of total rock 'n' roll tragedy. (She refers to herself as a "devotee and a supporter" of drugs, claiming that "drugs have only done good for me, not ill," despite the fact Rolling Stone once described her as "a cocktail of Valium, Tuinal and Nervine.")
The mixture of innocence and worldliness gives her demeanor and her art a mildly intimidating, if not alluring, quality.
She could be a Warhol Factory throwback if not for the work she has produced over the years, work that has earned her fans around the world.
Her glare is sharp, even when she's laughing, and she's self-effacing in conversation, shy even. She rarely leaves her Dearborn Heights house, content to paint at night ("less distractions"), and she's an immensely private person who rarely opens up. And, like any artists worth their salt, she's no stranger to contradictions. There's a kind of mystery, vulnerability, about her that could be calculated, and you suspect that she likes you wondering if it is; it's as if she has carefully constructed a shield, either to keep the world out or her world in.
Her art is often a struggle to categorize. While it is pop — and her brightly hued canvases do pop — Rick Manore, former head of the CPOP art gallery, says Niagara's a "punk-pop revisionist, but I think she's more a comic expressionist or post-pulp."
Juxtapoz Magazine founder and artist Robert Williams thinks that Niagara missed the idea of orthodox pop art, and that's what makes her work both exciting and important. "Pop art almost totally depends on appropriation and no imagination," Williams says. "Niagara just leaves that. She's a failed pop artist, to her benefit. Let's just say that."
Pop art or no, and as difficult as it is to define "artistic success," Niagara is successful; she's known (and collected) worldwide, exhibited regularly in galleries from Tokyo to Los Angeles. At this point, in this economy, she fetches a minimum of $4,000 for one of her paintings, and as much as $15,000. Money doesn't define success, but that people are willing to invest that kind of coin says something.
The woman one magazine called the "Queen of Detroit" has grabbed the attention of a rapidly growing public since her first exhibition at the CPOP gallery in Detroit in 1996, titled All Men Are Cremated Equal. (Her official debut was a 1990 one-woman show at the Museum of Death in San Diego.)
Niagara paints women who fit classical definitions of beauty — sometimes zaftig, even female-graceful, but those completely in charge of their sexuality; they're powerful, and they take no shit. And, with speech bubbles, Niagara has them uttering the unexpected; you'll see some raven-haired beauty with a male-defined look of vulnerable sexual seduction on her face exclaiming: "If I want your opinion I'll beat it out of you." The stuff is funny, if not fearless or rude, it mixes beauty and brashness that borders the vulgar in a manner that can make viewers gasp and laugh.
It's this show of strength, and this vivid use of color, in a style that's her own — with nods to Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein — that gives her work a wide appeal. She's adored and disliked (her work has been called too Lichtenstein-y or too Warhol-y). It's not a stretch to say she's one of the most successful artists, alongside comic artist Glenn Barr and former Destroy All Monsters bandmate and L.A.-based conceptualist-installation artist Mike Kelley, to have risen out of Detroit in recent years.
Besides, she's all over Cameron Diaz's crotch.
Sure, Niagara's primarily known as a painter, an artist you hang on your wall, but much of her income's from clothing designs, and Diaz is a big fan of Niagara's panties, and owns many. (The fact makes Niagara giggle like a little girl.)
There are also the shoes and apparel. Niagara's recent world tour saw her art shows in the U.K., France and Japan. Her Tokyo appearance led directly to a deal with Vans to design a line of shoes.
A fall line of apparel she designed for Hysteric Glamour — a major Japanese design house that celebrates, among other things, American subculture — is about to hit Tokyo stores.
"It's couture punk fashion," Niagara says, using descriptors that were, in Destroy All Monsters days, mutually exclusive. "All cashmere and leather, high-end with Ron [Asheton] and my image repeated endlessly, nothing cheaper than $500. In Japan, it's Prada, Chanel and Hysteric Glamour. That's the big three."
The woman has just released a live album backed by Australian band the Hitmen. St. Valentine's Day Massacre (Steel Cage Records) was recorded last year in Australia. It's a fierce little album, with a track listing that features songs from her entire career, including a couple of Stooges tunes that she played on stage with Ron Asheton for many years.
Next year she'll be returning to Australia and Europe for more shows of her art, and a handful of rock 'n' roll shows as well. April will find Niagara back in this country hosting gigs with the Hitmen, including one in Detroit.
Niagara and the Colonel's Dearborn Heights home, in its whole, could be considered one big, dimly lit art piece; antiques contrast modern luxuries, such as a giant flat-screen television and plethora of pop art. Odd little artifacts are placed everywhere — cat-themes and crystal. Think of a garage sale at the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane house meets '70s glam with lots of leopard print and no cobwebs.
The basement's a rock historian's dream, the Colonel having collected and saved everything that he could from Niagara's time in both Destroy All Monsters and Dark Carnival. Between the fliers, backstage passes and even a Ron Asheton guitar, you could spend a week here and still not see everything.
Then there's the Colonel himself (real name Garry Henderson), a curious guy who Punk Magazine co-founder, cartoonist and rock historian John Holmstrom describes as "a cartoon character. He's so frickin' massive and she is so small, they're just visually such an interesting couple. Being that big, you expect him to be a biker who's gonna growl at you, and instead he's this gentle giant. The whole dynamic of that couple is the most interesting thing. It's wonderful how much he dotes on her and takes care of her."
The Colonel says his name comes from the notorious local drummer (and frontman) Bootsey X, who was in Dark Carnival.
"I would unceremoniously fire everyone, so Bootsey says, 'Who do you think you are, Colonel Parker?' It stuck."
The couple met in 1984 when the Colonel invited Niagara to join the fledgling Dark Carnival, and have been together since. It seems like a perfect partnership, the Colonel takes care of the business end, allowing Niagara to just concentrate on her art without distractions from booking agents, gallery owners and so on. The Colonel even does all of the cooking.
A fiercely proud native Detroiter, Niagara (who absolutely will not give away her birth name, having legally changed it years ago) was born to parents she said did what they could to help their unconventional daughter along in whatever path she'd choose, even if they didn't agree with her choices.
Niagara remembers her father as "interesting and odd." Her mother had done art, but not professionally. "I still have her books, and she was really intense — a Scorpio type," she says. And then she adds, laughing, "My mother didn't exactly encourage me.
"My sister, who is quite a bit older, was encouraging, and she made my parents send me to some interesting schools when I was young. My father thought that it would get me nowhere fast, but my sister helped a lot. My parents were great to pay for all of that stuff though."
Niagara doesn't remember when she became interested in art; she can't remember not sketching and painting. "Before I can remember, … my sister tells me that I was always drawing. Eventually, I would find other artists that I liked. When I first saw art nouveau, I just couldn't believe it existed, then decadent art after that. Things were getting darker. …"
This was the early '70s, when Warhol's Factory scene was still fresh after its 1968 collapse, and Roy Lichtenstein was becoming the artist du jour. Niagara, meanwhile, was spending long library hours soaking up art history with a passion that bordered the obsessive.
"It became worrisome," she says, "people thought that I should be more social."
In 1973, she was attending art school at the University of Michigan, "which wasn't a great art school at all, at that time," she continues. "It was starting from Page 1 — perspective and drawing your shoe. I wanted to learn all these great techniques, but it was horrible. I dropped out pretty quickly. Then all of a sudden I was in a damn band. That was the opposite of what I was doing at the time."
Yes, that damn band. Or that DAM band, to be accurate. Destroy All Monsters was the art-school brainchild of Cary Loren (now proprietor of Oak Park's Book Beat bookstore), musician Jim Shaw and artist Mike Kelley.
Niagara can't really remember meeting Kelley, but is grateful that he has a better memory. When Kelley saw Niagara on the bus one day, he thought she looked like a Warhol superstar, completely at odds with the blue jeans-and-overalls uniform of the female art students then. From their meeting at college orientation on the very first day at U-M, Niagara and Kelley, as well as Loren and Shaw, were tight, all fascinated with the Stooges and the "underground" milieu of the time. A gathering of friends as much as anything else, this early incarnation of Destroy All Monsters made some legitimate noise music.
The DAM that eventually split in 1985 bore little resemblance to the band that formed in 1973. Niagara eventually ended both a relationship and a musical alliance she'd developed with Loren when Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton was brought into the band in 1977. Asheton and Niagara hit it off and transformed Destroy All Monsters from an art-noise project into a relatively straight-up punk rock band. The irresistible irony is that, according to Niagara, it was Loren who initially wanted Asheton in the band. Kelley and Shaw would also see the exit door, while the inclusion of former MC5 bassist Michael Davis in the DAM ranks — at Asheton's request — only amped up the band's air of punk rock authenticity. DAM now had a Stooge and an MC5 in its ranks. Punk rock superstardom could only be next.
Rumors abounded that Niagara had suffered from a heroin addiction during the '70s. Such whispers have followed her around since, and she's quick to dismiss them.
"I never took heroin," she says. "I wish I had, because it'd be more interesting. I've taken cocaine in the past. I haven't had time for a few years to get high like I used to. Cocaine's so lousy now anyway. Maybe if it wasn't, I'd find the time," she says, laughing. "That was in the past, but it was more the '80s, or even the '90s.
I knew that heroin would be the ultimate feeling, and you don't want to go there because you'll never get out. I knew better. It was never a consideration. Maybe if I make it to 80, then that'll be the time for heroin. I've always had a plan, a roadmap, for drugs. …"
The year 1977 was a huge for music. By this time, both the MC5 and the Stooges had failed spectacularly and were destined for cult notoriety.
Remember: Very few American record buyers had ever heard of the Stooges or the MC5 then. But the inspiration from those two Detroit bands was everywhere in '77, from the Ramones and Richard Hell in New York to the Sex Pistols and the Clash across the pond. Ron Asheton and the MC5 guys could only watch in bemusement.
Niagara remembers the summer of '77 as a "silver summer."
"Ronnie started introducing me to the MC5 guys like Fred Smith, and Ron's sister Kathy," she says. "We would go to these parties. We were just hanging out, practicing together. Ronnie could tell a story that really entranced me; they'd be hysterical, and he'd woo me with them. They were all about Stooges and the past. He was terribly entertaining. There's nothing I like better than to listen to these great stories. He'd just go on and on, nonstop. We kept getting closer, and he always had tacky girlfriends who were trying to be famous groupie types, trying to ride the wave."
Niagara and Asheton were partners on both a musical and a personal level, as if joined at the hip. They lived together, socialized together and played on stage together, a relationship that spawned intense, artistically intriguing and sonically massive punk rock music.
"(Destroy All Monsters) was hardcore, it was high energy," Niagara says. "The guys in the first version of the band were so jealous of us going on that they sent us horrible letters. The first band was a new idea, so I was going backwards in a way. Everything at the time was new wave music, but I loved the MC5 and the Stooges. They were playing straight and I was the weird one."
The Ron Asheton lineup of Destroy All Monsters lasted eight years until 1985, though the musicians had grown tired with the project sometime before that. Michael Davis had left the band in 1984, but by that stage his absence was little more than a side issue for his former bandmates. Destroy All Monsters had been working hard, touring this country and the U.K., but it was horribly frustrating that their efforts went largely unnoticed. It didn't help that the band could not be conveniently labeled musically — it was too "arty" even for the punk, post-punk and metal crowds. Destroy All Monsters treaded water, and soon everyone, including Niagara, burned out.
The Niagara and Asheton partnership continued though; Asheton became her close friend, even after she fell in love with the Colonel. Asheton and Niagara would continue to play together in the Colonel's musical baby, Dark Carnival, which began in 1984.
That band included, at various times, former Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome, Bootsey X and Stooge Scott Asheton alongside his brother Ron and Niagara. It had a revolving lineup of generally local musicians.
Shifting the theatrics of DAM up a gear (the Colonel, as a kind of carny barker, would wear a full monster costume and makeup and carry a play-dead Niagara on stage, where she would jump to life at the show's start), Punk Magazine's Holmstrom says Dark Carnival was underrated.
"I thought that The Last Great Riot was one of the best CDs of the '90s," Holmstrom says. "Ron's best guitar playing is on there and Niagara's best singing is there. It's where everybody found themselves. It's one of the sad facts of rock 'n' roll that, contrary to being an artist, it's what you do early in your career that people pay attention to. It's very rare that anyone past 30 is recognized for doing anything in this music form, which is a shame because it's when people are learning how to play. It's when they're getting better."
Dark Carnival ended in 1998.
Niagara and the Colonel have both been accused of sponging off of Ron Asheton's legacy, an implication that makes the artist hoot with laughter.
"That's right, we were sponging," Niagara says. "That's why I wanted him in my bands. The thing is, there were years when Ronnie couldn't get arrested and he was living off of my legacy. Of course, when the Stooges re-formed, that's when those accusations began."
She continues: "With regards to me playing Stooges songs live, when I think about it, I might have performed those songs [such as "Real Cool Time" and "Little Doll"] with Ronnie more than Iggy has, because I was with him for 15-20 years playing in a band. They feel very natural to cover. We played each other's songs, and we wrote many songs together."
Naturally, when the Stooges re-formed in 2003, the Asheton brothers would reclaim their rightful places alongside Iggy Pop in front of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Still, Niagara and the Colonel stayed close with the guitar hero, often accompanying him on trips to Asheton's cottage in Northern Michigan between Stooges tours. When Ron Asheton died at the beginning of 2009, Niagara was hit hard.
"I miss him so much," she says. "The thing about Ronnie was that he was a very solitary person. Colonel went camping with him, but we were all he saw for years, until the Stooges re-formed. Whatever Ronnie was like, you knew all that he was about straight away. He was a riot.
"I would be with Ronnie hearing about the individuals that he didn't like. He was awfully nice to everyone, but he didn't like many people. He had a secret life. When he started getting money and getting famous, that made him very happy and he was more at peace with the world. People who he hated for years, he was all cool with. Everything's easier if you're suddenly a millionaire. Actually, I don't even think that's true. You just have more problems. But he could definitely relax more, which was good for him."
When examining the visceral, if not candy-like, nature of Niagara's art, the curt slogans and underlying sense of unpredictability, we see that her ongoing rock 'n' roll life had a huge impact on her work. Indeed, Johnny Rotten's famous "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" line could as easily have been uttered by one of Niagara's painted ladies.
Juxtapoz magazine's Robert Williams agrees. "[Niagara] has never gotten bogged down in the academic world. She's always had one foot in the rock 'n' roll world, which is a very gratuitous, lurid world of creativity. She generates her energy from the rock 'n' roll world, not the art world. The art world will anesthetize you. If you come up through the academic ranks, it'll atrophy your imagination. Niagara has stayed clear of that, to her benefit."
Williams continues, "She's inspired an awful lot of young people. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the women, and also the men, who jumped on this supposed gravy train don't have a challenging sense of adventure, an outlaw ethic, the heart of a pirate. They're just a bunch of fucking people who are trying to get somewhere real fast, as quick as they can. The art movement is polluted with a lot of oversensitive, narcissistic young people who will eventually fall off the cart. The point I'm trying to make is that an enormous amount of the women who get into this thing do this real timid, sentimental crap. Children with big eyes and pictures of their pets. Niagara stands shoulders and heads above these women, because she's got daring and guts in her style.
"Some people might have reservations about her being attractive and stylistically pretentious in her lifestyle," Williams continues. "Granted, she's theatrical. Again, she's from the rock 'n' roll world and she's a very beautiful woman. But the fact is that she's an authentic person, and it shows up in her work. She'll be one of the people that survive this thing 20 years from now."
Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein are names often dropped when referencing Niagara's work, though Dirty Show curator Jerry Vile isn't convinced that the comparisons are valid. "You hear [these names] bantered about; yet Niagara does not silkscreen, she paints, or used to paint, as if it were silkscreen. People don't gripe about Rubens ripping on Caravaggio; the gods, angels and historical figures were open to all to conceive."
Niagara says both Warhol and Lichtenstein influenced her. "Actually, they did have a pretty big effect on me because I did like them a lot. It's funny that people have said that I'm like Warhol, because he didn't paint. It's a photo. I think that's kind of a stretch, that's a whole different genre. Lichtenstein reproduced comics. I saw shows with him and they had the comics there, and it was fascinating. He only used red, yellow and blue so I feel sorry for him. I'm deep into colors. Colors can hypnotize you when combined and layered in different ways. So, anyway, I did like Lichtenstein. I didn't like a lot of his interiors, but I grew up with him and Warhol, that's for sure."
Niagara's inspiration rises from books and movies. "Movies play a big part in inspiring me. They keep getting better because everything in life keeps getting worse. I watch movies a lot when I paint, especially from the '30s, and I've been reading tons of books about the '30s and '40s and much earlier. It's so nice to go backwards. They couldn't make movies anymore that look like they did then, such perfectionism. … Of course, glamour isn't what it used to be."
Niagara's work is arresting, sexy and violent, but not gratuitous; there's enough bare flesh to be titillate but enough simple suggestion to retain dignity. Our imaginations are allowed to roam because, mainly, her work is full of life; it's fun — a kind of antithesis to academic art pretensions.
Her women are beautiful and empowered, but not in a compartmentalized feminist way. Niagara agrees that her work isn't about feminism, or some tired idea of it.
"I just think that these paintings really have a good energy and a strong attitude — like a 'conquer the world' kind of attitude," she says. "If you have these paintings in your house, it's like a good shot, a good drug. It not like it doesn't say anything — it's not a bowl of fruit. You can get a laugh out of it; it's violent, it's hardcore, and it's whatever it happens to be. I don't up the sex thing, but the women have nice bodies, I guess."
Niagara is succeeding in what is, essentially, still, a male-dominated art world. Holmstrom says Niagara is as strong as the women she paints.
"I like her art better than her music really," Holmstrom says. "She did some early record covers for DAM and they didn't impress me much — that was her art-school period. An artist's early work isn't always representative of what they're capable of doing. I think in Niagara's case, when she started to take her art seriously in the early to mid-'90s, she did some great stuff. It's very tough for a woman artist to establish her identity in the art world, and Niagara never had to stoop to stunts. The quality of her work and the compelling nature of her personality have enabled her to break through and really become one of the first important women artists of the time. There have been important female artists in the past, but it's a considerable feat."
Niagara's ambition is to have another great gallery here in the city, and in turn transform Detroit into an artist's mecca.
"Since the CPOP [gallery] closed, I wish there was a gallery here," she says, as she rises to light another cigarette from her velvety Victorian lounge. "I haven't stopped hoping for it. … Artists have heard, through Juxtapoz and the news, that the housing here is so cheap. That's how you build up a community — bring in the poor artists, then they fix it up and the gay people move in and it turns hip. You can paint anywhere and travel to your shows, no matter where you live. You could live here in a fantastic house, glorious houses in Detroit for not that much money. There could be a community. It would be so much fun to have all these artists here. Who wants to live in L.A.? It's all used up. You have to be an A-list person to survive there, but here the playing field is wide open." Niagara pauses, pulls another drag from her cigarette, and says, half-grinning, "You've got me, and that's it in this town."
Niagara's career hasn't been without its misfires. As a female artist in a still very male-dominated world, she's had to work twice as hard to get where she is today, climbing from a naïve art school drop-out designing forgettable record sleeves to a revered and justifiably wealthy artist, not to mention a respected fashion designer.
Musically, she exists as a solo artist choosing not to have to deal with permanent band members, instead pulling in such hired hands as the Hitmen to back her as she resurrects those Destroy All Monsters and Dark Carnival songs. She doesn't care what others think of her — anyway, she doesn't have to — and she works on her own terms. That's self-defining and success.
There are elements of a pop artist and a punk rocker in Niagara, but that her art and her music have polarized opinion to such a degree, and proved so difficult to categorize, is what fascinates. That, and she still adores Detroit.
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre album is out now on Steel Cage Records. Niagara's art is being exhibited at the River's Edge Gallery, 3024 Biddle Ave., Wyandotte; 734-246-9880.
Brett Callwood is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.