“Wild and crazy, like an animal let loose, but an innocent little girl with it too” is how Ari Up would later recall her 15-year-old, dreadlocked, Slits-fronting self, telling Simon Reynolds: “It wasn’t to shock anyone.” But shock people it did. The Slits began playing their inept, dub-damaged version of punk-reggae in 1976, a wild pack of young girls who shrugged off the depraved managerial interest of no less a figure than Malcolm McLaren, anticipated riot grrrl by a decade or two (“Typical Girls” castigates girls who “don’t create, don’t rebel”), and appeared topless on the cover of their debut album, 1979’s Cut, covered only in mud. Ari Up, born Ariane Forster, was their ringleader, frontwoman, and muse. Yesterday, she died, at the untimely age of 48–way too soon.
When her life story fully gets told, it will be a wild one: Up’s mother, a wealthy German heiress, was one of the all time great bohemians; both Yes vocalist Jon Anderson and the Clash’s Joe Strummer passed through the family home. (Nora is still alive, and shacked up with Johnny Lydon.) In the aftermath of the Slits’ post-Return of the Giant Slits break-up in the early ’80s, Up chased her interest in Rastafarianism and the natural world to places as remote as rural Jamaica, Belize, and Borneo. Somewhere in there the compulsion to reprise odes to shoplifting, masturbation, and Mother Earth grew strong again, and Forster reunited the band in 2005 with bassist Tessa Pollitt, releasing the great Revenge of the Killer Slits in 2006, and Trapped Animal in 2009.
It was four years ago this week that Ari Up and the Slits came to town for CMJ. That show, at the old Knitting Factory, was more performance art than anything recognizable as a typical CMJ showcase. Up harangued the soundman, referred to herself and her band in the third person, exchanged birdcalls with her backup singers, and danced like a kid. Very little music was played. “Why is the sound so bad?” she asked at one point. “The Slits are not teenagers anymore!” They weren’t, but in the brazen chaos of the whole thing, it still kind of felt like they were. That was its own kind of gift. She will be missed, badly.