This was terrible news this morning. Cristina Monet Zilkha, better known as simply Cristina for her small, but devastating body of work for ZE Records, has died yesterday; another musician taken in the covid-19 pandemic. Her profile post 1984 was slim. She recorded a 12″ and album cut for Ursula 1000 14 years ago that was a tantalizing glimpse into her dryly biting world of deadpan kitsch and character studies as incisive as a freshly minted scalpel. But even if she had not broken the long silence following her magnum opus, “Sleep It Off,” that album would hold a dear place in every black heart of the demimonde in which she traveled.
Could she sing? Not really, but when you can write like she did, singing is of scant consequence. This artist had a pitiless and penetrating vision of human nature that was second to none. Born into a studied family [her parents were a psychoanalyst/playwright-novelist pairing] and married very well to Michael Zilkha; the heir to the UK’s Mothercare corporation, her husband was not content to be a simply wealthy gadabout. He scratched a creative itch by being one of the prime movers behind New York City’s astounding ZE Records; one of the most brilliantly curated labels I’ve ever run into. He put that trust fund into good use as a foundation for a stunning vision of art and music. Everything I’ve heard from the label was dazzling and idiosyncratic. It had style and vision that went for miles. When Zilkha gave his wife Cristina the platform of her two albums, it could have all gone so wrong… but that viewpoint could not take into account her vivacious and probing intellect.
With her first album written and produced by August Darnell; Kid Creole to most of us, her puncturing of disco’s straitjacketed norms was feeding into the rise of ZE Records and their mutant disco aesthetic. The album played like the interesting side project that any fan of Kid Creole + the Coconuts might enjoy. Even so, this did not prepare us for the quantum leap that her later work revealed.
A big hint was given in 1981 when the “ZE Christmas Album” dropped with the next song that Cristina would release. This time a co-write with The Was Brothers. This was where I joined the story already in progress. WPRK-FM college radio played the hell out of her brilliant, nihilistic xmas anthem “Things Fall Apart.” I was immediately smitten with the emotionally devastating deadpan of the song. Sure, sure. It grooved, but I can’t imagine dancing to its bleak and damaged vibe. Not without strong drugs that I don’t take.
Her second album, an interminable three years later, represented a huge leap forward as she was continuing to write the lyrics to the original songs here; with music co-written with ZE royalty like Doug Fieger, Don Was, and the brain trust [Ben Brierly, Joe Mavety, Barry Reynolds] behind Marianne Faithfull’s equally powerful “Broken English.” That made perfect sense as “Sleep It Off” was the acid valentine we had been longing for in the wake of “Broken English.” The cover tunes [Van Morrison, Brecht + Weil, Sonny Throckmorton] were expertly chosen to be of a piece with the originals. A better album Don Was would not produce in the the ensuing years.
Let’s all take tonight to play any Cristina music at hand and marvel at her worldview and aesthetic. The potency of her art was a rare thing in this fallen world of pop music. When I spoke to Echorich this morning he suggested re-running my Cristina posts today if I didn’t do anything else, and I can’t think of a better thing to do, other than playing those records!
Each image below is a button to an earlier post about Cristina.
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Pretty sure I have that “Things Fall Apart” single around here somewhere. Was in fairly heavy rotation on KROQ back in the day.
Monk, your cover photo says everything about the mind and intention of Cristina. She was an Uptown Girl who was most comfortable haunting the dark and experimental edges of the Downtown at wane of the 70s and birth of the 80s.
The debut single, Disco Clone, brought a level of higher art to a sound that was peaking and ready to transform in its pastiche and John Cale production.
Her debut album was an urbane, sophisticated, yet razor sharp offering born out of the New York City No Wave Movement.
The song I will always remember Cristina for is Rage + Fascination from Sleep It Off. First it is a brilliant song title. It has a certain way of mixing the languid with the anxious. Sleep It Off has always felt like it was a work written years earlier than it was released. It takes me back to a world filled with songs by Talking Heads and Blondie – not a bad place to daydream in. It also has brilliant Jean Paul Goude artwork – using his cut up technique a year before copying himself for girlfriend Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm.
Farewell to the Diamond Downtown Diva.
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Very sad to hear this.
Both albums would be good candidates for Rubellan Remasters I’d say.
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SimonH – You said a mouthful! No one was happy with the mastering on those CDs but we bought them any way!! Mr. Davies is surely a fan so I’ll have to mention it to him.
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My copy of Sleep it Off is a needle drop he did many years ago!
SimonH – I have contemplated making my own remaster from the LP and get the original running order, but the bonus tracks were more than enough reason to keep the ZE CD around. Which, let’s face it, I was lucky to have found in my last ever visit to a Tower Records in D.C. In 2005.
Sleep It Off was a brilliant album but strangely I’ve not collected anything else from her — a huge mistake I will now have to rectify! Hopefully the DLX RM is still available!
Not sure why I’ve waited so long to comment, other than the fact that Monk and others have already been pretty succinct. I will thank you for posting this as it’s the ONLY way I would’ve known about her passing. Didn’t see it mentioned elsewhere.
I have her debut and the Ze Christmas lp (which st next to each other alphabetically, oddly enough. And the jungle love 12”.
Simply put, she was part of an era / scene that I’ve always been envious of— wish I coulda been there. Those acts on Ze and 99 records etc that were interested in incorporating danceability into their music were really exciting. Disparate groups like Gand of Four, ESG, James Chance, bush tetras, Christina…. just listing them makes me want to make a mix tape and listen to it while running in the seedy parts of town.
bpdp3 – Then if you’re the envious type, you don’t wanna get in a discussion with Echorich. He was there, front row, for all of that! I put the label name as the first part of the “Christmas Album” title, so it’s not next to Cristina. In my Record Cell, it’s The Cramps!
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