“It’s the men who cry in my paintings.”
And it isn’t hard to see why they might resort to tears, if not sheer terror. Bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the frail damsels you usually find pouting in contemporary paintings, Niagara’s femme fatales pack heat, drink hard and are as willing to spill your blood as pour you a drink.
They are also quite beautiful, in the way a black panther is beautiful—right before it lunges for your jugular.
“My best ideas are a by-product of courting danger,” Salvador Dali was fond of saying and Niagara obviously took her icon’s words to heart. She dropped out of art college to front the seminal noise/punk band Destroy All Monsters in the late 70s, diving headfirst into a volatile world of hard drugs and heavy drinking that reflects brilliantly from her paintings.
The Detroit native now spends her time touring with her new band Dark Carnival and painting the kind of women who shoot first and ask questions like “Do you have to bleed all over the carpet?” later.
Modern Drunkard Magazine: Can you remember your first encounter with alcohol?
Niagara: Yeah, I kinda do. In fact I’m remembering even earlier drinks than that. I’m going back in time. Think the first time I got messed up was at a family thing when I was a little girl. I started drinking whisky because that’s what everyone else was drinking. It was a holiday at a fancy restaurant. I got pretty drunk, so that everyone noticed. I feltokay about it. Of course, you have to drink enough to get sick before you know what it is and how to control it.Later I got into this Janis Joplin phase, she drank Southern Comfort of all fucking things, so that’s what I had to drink. I was drinking it heavily. I was in Paris and I learned how to say vomit in French. It’s le vomit. My French was a joke, but everyone knew what I was talking about. They were very impressed.
MDM: When do you usually have your first drink of the day?
N: It depends. Early. Earlier if I have cramps. Usually it’s rum. I generally mix it with something. On stage it was always Tab. I like to mix my caffeine and booze, for the upper and downer effect. I guess they don’t make it anymore. I used to be famous for drinking Tab and rum. One time, when I was on stage, a real officious-looking guy suited up like he was in the FBI handed me a briefcase. It was all very mysterious. I opened it up and it was filled with Tab. It was pretty cute.
MDM: To what degree does drinking influence your art?
N: I usually paint it into the art, because my girls drink as much as I do. It’s partly for the retro appeal. I like noir movies and mysteries with the hardcore girls. They drink heavily. Usually when I paint a bottle instead of doing a brand label, it will say XXX. Pure rot gut, as tough as the girls drinking it.
MDM: Which of the noir actresses do you most identify with: Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis—?
N: Definitely Bette Davis. She was just tough. Joan Crawford too, in real life she was a stone-cold hard drinker of vodka. I love their life stories, I read a lot of biographies, but only if they got high. If they didn’t get high, their biographies are very boring. But the film noir queens, they’re my favorites. Lauren Bacall was decent because she had such a nice husky voice. She still does. The voice that just doesn’t quit. They were all very hardcore, very black and white. I like the 60s too, I do the straight hair and that whole look. I’m really into Tuesday Weld because in real life she was a total drunkard by the time she was nine. I mean she really had an amazing background. She was just incredible in movies like Pretty Poison with Anthony Perkins. I have to add her just because I love her.
MDM: If you could have a night out drinking anywhere with anyone, where would you go and who would you take along?
N: God, this is pretty tough. I hate when you make me think. God, maybe Salvador Dali. Outside in a spooky park at night with Salvador Dali wouldn’t be so bad, would it?
MDM: It’d be a little creepy.
N: Creepy is exactly what we want.
MDM: Does drinking makes you violent or does violence make you drink?
N: Alcohol can definitely make you violent. Yeah, I think that’s pretty easy. And if you’re violent you drink twice as much. That’s just how it goes.
MDM: Have you ever been kicked out of a bar, Niagara?
N: Oh, yeah. Once a bartender kicked us out saying “It looks like you have been drinking somewhere else.” What the hell is that supposed to mean? Obviously we came in high, but so? Why’d he have to say it like that? Obviously we’ve been drinking some place else.
MDM: What do you think makes for a good bartender, and a bad one?
N: Fast and slow. See, I like it when I don’t have think too much.
MDM: In most of your paintings you have at least one element of alcohol, violence, crime or cigarettes. Do you draw these themes from your own life or the movies?
N: Well I used to think it wasn’t from my own life, but in interviews and reviews everyone said, “It’s you, you draw from yourself.” So I started thinking, it took a few years, “Oh God, it is me.” I was the last one to know. I don’t have as big a bust line as my girls. I think that might be the biggest difference. It’s mainly from things we went through. Being on the road with the band and stuff, there were a lot of incidents and you just get used to everyone drinking at certain times. Bad things happening all the time. It’s never good on the road, but it’s always funny.
MDM: Was there more drinking in your first band Destroy all Monsters, or in your current band Dark Carnival?
N: God, that’s really impossible to say. There was an early version of Destroy all Monsters that was a noise band, before Ron Asheton (from MC5) got inducted into the band. That wasn’t the drinking band. I mean, I drank, I was drinking Nyquil back in the early days, but I wasn’t really into drinking, Booze wasn’t a big thing, it was mostly drugs, marijuana—booze was what your parents did. Booze didn’t come into the picture until I was pretty much taught to drink by Ronnie, since he’s a professional. Then things picked up. That’s when I started drinking rum all the time, Bacardi. I had all these little bats I would soak off the bottle, because I had nothing else. We had no money but I had these cool little bats I would use in collages. At that time it was the cheapest thing to drink, then rum became more expensive, so we drank vodka for years. In the last three years or so we started drinking whisky, Crown Royal or scotch. I thought that was a much better buzz, I couldn’t tell before. Or maybe I changed, chemically.
MDM: Is success transforming your tastes? Will you move up to top shelf?
N: No. Well, I’d like to think that. You like to think you’re getting fancy, but I’m not. I’d like to believe that, but it’s just not happening. I do find it true that the better the booze the easier your hangover is going to be the next day. On the other hand, the cheapest stuff can give you a really unique and different hangover. I know that because I have drank the worst.
MDM: Do you have a unique hangover remedy to deal with those unique hangovers?
N: Oh, absolutely. The best remedy is opium tea.
MDM: Not such an easy thing to get a hold of in this country. You’ve traveled overseas for shows quite a lot—how does the American drinking culture measure up?
N: It doesn’t matter where we go, here or there, it’s always a big drinking crowd. I don’t know where it is they don’t drink, because I’ve never been there. We go into a dark bar and everyone’s drunk, everyone’s obnoxious, and you have to love it. Even at my art shows. I tried to arrange from the beginning that they will be like parties because I was used to that with the band. Instead of being an uptight situation, they end up being pretty decent parties.
MDM: Will you be drinking at your upcoming show in Denver?
N: You can bet on it.
MDM: What sort of drinks do you like to have served at your gallery openings?
N: I don’t care what anyone else drinks or what the hell is served. I drink whisky. Who the hell cares about anyone else?
MDM: What’s your favorite town to drink in?
N: Hard to say. I haven’t been disappointed drinking in any town, but I would probably have to go with Detroit, just because I’m sure I have drank here more than anywhere else. We have good people here; I just like Detroit. I like the people here, it’s a really fun party town, which nobody knows. It’s a well kept secret.
MDM: If you decided to open a bar where would it be and what would it be like?
N: My mother used to talk about the old-fashioned beer gardens. It’d be nice if it was like that, if it had an outdoor patio with grapevines. I don’t really know what they were like, but I’m picturing a garden with beer growing on vines. I guess it would be in a fantasy city, because it can’t be too hot and it can’t be too cold. Nah, it would be in Detroit, I’m not moving. I could think of a better place, but I’m not going to say New Orleans. People are so used to drinking there constantly; I don’t know how special it would be. I’m not going to own a bar, okay? Too much work.
MDM: Do you remember the drunkest you’ve ever been? Or perhaps you were told by your friends the next day.
N: No, but that’s the point. And yeah, they have told me. They say you were a one-girl party. Not that I remember. When I black out I’m still going strong, no one knows I’m blacked out. I’m still talking and doing stuff. I drank a lot of wine at a show in San Francisco, it was Juxtapose’s 10th anniversary and we were all at a table with Robert Williams and a bunch of different artists. I was drinking a lot of wine, not even thinking about it, and I don’t remember coming home. We went to a bar afterwards, which I don’t remember. I was still talking and falling into people and apologizing. Colonel said I was very suave. Now that was a heavy hangover.
MDM: Is it harder to get your friends to go out drinking now than back in the day?
N: A few dropped off, but mostly they’re not that hard to find when it’s time to drink. Thank God most of them don’t have kids or serious mental problems or aren’t dead already. They’re willing, very willing. You made me really appreciate that, now that you mentioned it. What if no one would drink with us?
MDM: That’s a scary thought. Niagara, why must we drink?
N: We must to drink to stay happy. We must, we must, we must. I believe there are drugs and a drink for every occasion. Just to put up with what’s going on. I’ve found out there pretty much isn’t anybody that doesn’t get high on something. A lot of people won’t admit it, because it’s not chic. It’s not politically correct. You think everyone has straightened up, but everybody is doing just as much as ever, they just lie about it if they’re in the public eye. Or they’re awfully truthful like me. Life would be totally unbearable without it because there is so much horrible stuff going on, you have to try to stay a little bit to the side of that. If you start thinking of all the dead things in the street, of all the idiot people, and that everyone’s an asshole, you start realizing the truth. Then you realize you have to get away from the reality of the truth. Otherwise you would lead a horrible life. So don’t feel guilty about drinking or getting high because you might as well make the most of a short life. It’s a short life and that’s already a bummer. See now? I need a drink. It’s short, damnit.
—Interview by Christa Rich