Is That All There Is?


Arriving ahead of the game and being an innovator can be a lonely journey. It also usually means that someone else runs with your ideas and has greater success with them, albeit in a more diluted fashion. Such was the case with Cristina, a doyenne of New York's clubland, who delivered a couple of albums and a sassy fistful of 12-inch singles before effectively retiring. The daughter of a psychoanalyst and a writer she was born in New York on 2nd January 1959 as Cristina Monet-Palac. Having dropped out of Harvard and into the burgeoning underground that was the city's clubland in the late 1970s and immediately began to garner attention.

You can savour her street hip influence in others. It flavours Madonna, gilds Lady Gaga and nods and winks in the direction of Lana Del Ray, yet Cristina was never going to embrace the mainstream, or be embraced by it Her debut single "Disco Clone" was produced by the Velvet Underground's John Cale, a later version features the actor Kevin Kline as the deep voiced macho lover, and was one of those songs you'd only ever hear whilst out at night, and never on the radio. A piece of fun, high camp, and street sass combined, it skewered the factory line mentality of, and the regimented look within, the club scene An anthem of unbridled passions in the pre-AIDS era, it became a cult classic. What also helped was that Cristina was on Ze Records, briefly the hippest but not the most successful record label in the world. Encouraged in her pop activities by the label's co-founder Michel Zilkha. the man she would eventually marry, whom she met whilst working as a reviewer for the Village Voice, her debut LP Cristina arrived in 1980 to bemused reviews and sporadic sales.

If "Disco Clone" was seen as somewhat transgressive with its sexual breathing a la Donna Summer, she crossed further boundaries by so incensing the legendary songwriting duo, Leiber & Stoller, with her snarly, petulant, mostly talked and not sung version of their classic "Is that All There Is," that they forced her to withdraw it from sale. Think a pissed up and pissed off Peggy Lee dragging her best furs through the gutter on a miserable New York night with a champagne bottle in her bejewelled hand and you have Cristina's irreverent rendering.

Next on her hit list, or non-hit list, as Cristina wasn't one for troubling the charts, was her laconic, campy and pouty version of the Beatles "Baby You Can Drive My Car." Her second album, 1984's Sleep It Off was jointly produced by August Darnell (Kid Creole) and Don Was (Was Not Was) and contained her signature tune "What's a Girl To Do" whose lyrics betray her wry and arch take on being an object of desire. 

"My life is in turmoil / My thighs are black and blue, 

My sheets are stained / And so is my brain,

What's a girl to do?"

I doubt if the late Dorothy Parker could have minted anything better on her trusty typewriter.

By the mid '80s, she and Zilkha had left New York and effectively retired to Texas. Her work was reassessed when her brace of albums were reissued on CXD in 2004, and she gave a few interviews, but was exhibiting the symptoms of a MS like condition. Divorced since 1990 she had returned to New York, wrote the occasional article, but was already becoming a creature around whom myths are made, such is the allure of a sparklingly brief past and an air of unavailability. As her admirer the singer-songwriter Zola Jesus astutely observed: "She was too weird for the pop world and too pop for the weird world." 

Like all the best stars Cristina didn't overstay her welcome, nor instigate a comeback. In a smattering of years, she had been there and gone. I doubt that she would have wished it any other way.

She died in New York on 1st April 2020 having contracted the coronavirus. She was 61 years old.

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