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Book Review: Black Box: On the Road with Christian Death, November 1983 to June 1984

Constance Redgrave's "Black Box" — about being the bassist in the LA death rock band Christian Death — is among the handful of rock memoirs that can be considered truly affecting.

Constance Redgrave

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Black Box: On the Road with Christian Death, November 1983 to June 1984 / 

There are only a handful of rock memoirs that can be considered truly affecting - Mick Farren’s account of life in the Social Deviants, The Tale of Willy’s Rats, is one, even if he did disguise the truth beneath several layers of fiction.Ian Hunter’s Diary of a Rock & Roll Star is another.And so is this.

For the uninitiated, Constance Redgrave (or Smith, as she was then) was bassist with the LA death rock band Christian Death, following the collapse of the original (Only Theater of Pain) line-up.The subtitle speaks to the brevity of her tenure - eight months, give or take, but what a significant spell it was, as the band played its first shows in Boston, New York, London and Paris; was interviewed by David “Current 93” Tibet; and recorded what remains one of the finest LPs in the entire gothic canon, Catastrophe Ballet.

So much for the bare facts.The heart of this book, however, is Redgrave tearing the scab from what was obviously a very deep-seated and rarely-revisited wound, discussing and describing the tensions that first fuelled, but then destroyed her line-up of the band.

Three of her new bandmates had already been together (as Pompeii 99) for a couple of years, a solid unit that even singer Rozz Williams (who himself had been involved for just a few weeks) was never to become a part of.But he, at least, had experienced the vagaries of “life on the road,” and the fluctuating emotions that it can engender.Redgrave was an absolute novice, and it shows.

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At least, it shows in the words she writes.

Musically, on the other hand, she was exactly what the band needed, and if you know the rest of the story, the months that followed her departure, you can probably deduce why it all went wrong.They needed her far more than she, ultimately, needed them.

Redgrave does not get into that - this is her story, not theirs’.But still we should pause to consider what she did bring to that band.

As a bassist, she was exactly what Christian Death required, a solid and unfussy player who could propel the songs in the directions they needed to go, as opposed to the wilder flights that certain of her bandmates might have allowed.On record, Catastrophe Ballet is ample tribute to her contributions, even if recent reissues do seem to have expunged her from the credits she deserves.(She cowrote two songs, and played bass throughout.)Overall, it’s the best album Christian Death made.

Live, she was just as crucial, only now her contribution was visual, too, a foil for the then-similarly blonde-topped Rozz, to create a gorgeous two-headed contrast to the more conventional gothic stylings of the others; and a focal point for every audience Christian Death played before.Even a simple black-and-white photo (and the book is full of them) speaks to her presence.

So why did things go so wrong?No spoilers, but let’s put some of it down to envy, some of it down to spite and some, quite simply, down to bullying.Rozz alone sides with her, and some of the most affecting writing here concerns their relationship as the tour instead became an enforced exile in Paris and London, with gigs at a premium and money scarcer than that.

Even he, however, was not able to prevent her peremptory dismissal from the band, as the tour-that-wasn’t ground on; nor the callous manner in which both her immediate needs, and her future credits, were treated.

Of course there are two sides to every story, but you close this book daring the others to tell their tale.

Well-written, heavily illustrated, and packed, too, with cuttings and artwork relating to her time with the band, Redgrave has created that rare thing - a rock book you can read without any knowledge beforehand of the band or the music she’s a part of.You will, however, want to know and hear more once you’re finished.