Various media sources are reporting the death of Australian singer-songwriter Anita Lane, though the precise date and manner of her flying away, like her birth date, and like much of her professional career and personal life, remain publicly obscure. She was a long-time contributor to a German-English-Australian creative axis involving such artists as The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Einstürzende Neubauten, Rowland S. Howard, Crime and the City Solution, Die Haut, Mick Harvey, These Immortal Souls, Kid Congo Powers, and Barry Adamson. A native of Melbourne, Lane emigrated to the United Kingdom with The Birthday Party in 1980, then lived in Germany, Morocco, Sicily, New York and Australia at various times over the ensuing years. In the early 2000s, she largely retired from music-making, returning for good to her native Australia. She spent several years caring for her family in a small coastal town near the Queensland-New South Wales border, then returned to Melbourne, where she died, her peripatetic global experiences ultimately delivering her back to her birthplace for that sad, final bow.
Lane was not at all prolific as a recording artist, releasing but one EP (Dirty Sings in 1988) and two albums (1993’s Dirty Pearl and 2001’s Sex O’Clock) under her own name, all of them outstanding and woefully under-appreciated. Her (slightly) larger mark on recording history was as a lyrical and vocal guest collaborator for most of the aforementioned artists, with a song here, a song there, unpredictable in their occurrence, but always a treat when they landed. She penned lyrics for The Birthday Party’s classic tracks “Dead Joe,” “Kiss Me Black,” and “A Dead Song.” (The header of this post comes from the latter of those three). She was a founding member of Cave’s Bad Seeds, co-writing “From Her to Eternity” and “Stranger Than Kindness,” both regarded among his finest works, by critics, audiences, and Cave himself. She also provided several thrilling vocal parts on ex-Birthday Party/Bad Seed Mick Harvey’s English arrangements of Serge Gainsbourg‘s catalog highlights, and her duet with Blixa Bargeld on Neubauten’s “Blume” is among that group’s greatest achievements.
At bottom line, Anita Lane was judicious, perhaps even guarded, in choosing her projects, but she always made a difference with her contributions. As a long-time listener, I was always pleased when I purchased a record and discovered that she was a part of it, one way or another. While the creative cohort within which Lane primarily moved and worked has certainly been capable of copious macho bullshit over the years, there were and are several personally and creatively strong women active in that orbit (e.g. Lane, Lydia Lunch, Genevieve McGuckin, Gudrun Gut, Bronwyn Adams, Danielle de Picciotto, etc.) who were not just playing a passive “muse” role, but were active, and outstanding, working artists in their own rights.
Their catalogs are all impressive, and worthy of exploration, each with their own unique views and visions as creators and collaborators. Lane, as it happens, was also involved in a long-time personal relationship with Nick Cave through his The Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds days. Reviews or commentary about her often relegate her to that unfortunate “muse” role, or (worse) slot her into some “girlfriend given a job by better-known boyfriend” trope. This has always been wrong, as proven by the evidence of others who actively chose to collaborate with her, and by the objectively brilliant differences that her contributions always made. And also, from the horse’s mouth, by Cave’s own reflections on Anita’s passing, posted here. Key quote: “She was the smartest and most talented of all of us, by far.”
I was pleased to learn that The Quietus had recently published a considered evaluation of Lane’s career, entitled Unearthing A Pearl: Praising the Sexual Mysticism of Anita Lane. Their premise, which I agree with, was that she was most creatively active at a time when the critical and cultural worlds weren’t quite ready for her, forcing her to pave a way for many artists who followed, without ever reaping the plaudits she deserved for her work. I honestly don’t think I can improve upon anything that article says by further expressing its sentiments in my own words, so I simply encourage you to read it as a most fine piece of music journalism. I sort of hope that Anita Lane might have had a chance to see it before she passed, too.
I would posit that one of the finest visual examples of Lane’s determined willingness and ability to forge, shape, and control her own image comes in the video for a remake of Nancy Sinatra’s signature hit “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” recorded with ex-Bad Seed Barry Adamson. In the video, Lane is confident, sultry, sassy, sensual . . . while carrying and cuddling a baby throughout the shoot. Adamson, ostensibly the auteur for this particular version of that song, is relegated to smart dance steps and tambourine shaking in its visual representation. The short but potent little film turns expected music video tropes on their heads in so many ways, and it’s utterly wonderful in all of its subtle bucking against the established norms of the form.
If you’re not familiar with that song or any/many other works from Lane’s career, I offer a special memorial installment of my “Five Songs You Need To Hear” series below, documenting highlights of Anita’s vocal work, each song by a different artist, each one greater for her contributions. Anita Lane was a classic, in her own deeply-personal ways, and I am grateful for the small, but densely-powerful, body of work she left behind her.
“These Boots Are Made For Walking,” from Delusion (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Barry Adamson (1991)
“The Fullness of His Coming,” from Dirty Pearl by Anita Lane (w/s/g The Birthday Party) (1993)
“Blume,” from Tabula Rasa by Einstürzende Neubauten (1993)
“Overseas Telegram,” from Intoxicated Man by Mick Harvey (1995)
“Firething,” from Members of the Ocean Club by Gudrun Gut (1996)