It’s 9:45 on a Tuesday night, and Holly Golightly is strolling gracefully up the sidewalk toward the club. By her languid movements, you’d never guess she was a good two hours late for this interview. Surrounded by a scruffy coterie of bandmates and old chums, she coolly maneuvers through the crowd of smokers at the door, and — with a wink worthy of Louise Brooks — disappears into the crowded bar. Giddy mod girls clutching denim sleeves of their boyfriends’ jackets whisper, “That’s her,” in hushed excitement. It’s quite a spectacular entrance.
The photographer and I elbow through the crowd and find Golightly huddled in a circle of rock ’n’ roll elite, a sweating highball glass already planted firmly in her hand. When we finally get her attention and ask about the scheduled interview, we’re promptly dismissed.
“I’m just not doing that now,” Golightly says. By her tone it’s hard to judge whether she’s annoyed or just really English. “I’m not going to.” She doesn’t think a photo in the club will suit her. She doesn’t think doing the interview before she plays will be good for her voice. In short, she’s having none of it. And then, with a gently condescending smile, she adds the clichéd mantra of the garage-rock rebellion: “You know, I’m not in this for the money.”
Although the introduction reeks of put-on propriety, an hour later, when she takes the stage at San Francisco’s Make Out Room, she immediately eschews her natty London-girl routine for a sultry coo, softly testing the mic with a properly starched, “Hallo, then.” She commands every eye in the room to her position at stage right, where she begins, strumming an oversized Hofner guitar through retrofitted three-chord tributes to bad love and forlorn relationships. Her voice is plaintive and expressive and evokes a mysterious charm, a charm that has lifted Holly Golightly into a trans-Atlantic cult heroine. The adoring expressions on the attendant faces of record-collector burnouts and tight-sweater hipsters reveal that Golightly is running the show.
Over the next hour, she cruises through a set of signature dusty blues and halcyon rock ’n’ roll with confidence. The band, a relatively green combination of musicians cobbled together for this tour, does such an accurate aural replication of groove-heavy vintage styles that it feels like you could step out of the club and into the Eisenhower administration. The perfect companions for Golightly’s stylish trip down memory lane, the group is driven by her long-time drummer, Bruce Brand. He wears an Oliver Twist cap slightly to the side and sits with perfect posture behind the kit, laying down one deep-pocketed, retro dance beat after another. Bassist Jack Lawrence and lead guitarist Eric Stein — both on loan from Cincinnati’s Greenhornes — fill out the skeletal minimalism of Golightly’s songs with aplomb. Tonight’s show is the halfway point of a monthlong tour through the United States that starts and finishes in Detroit. The show is a well-oiled machine, seamlessly melding a collection of tunes of Golightly’s latest, Truly She Is None Other, with some carefully selected covers. To close the evening she invites the opening band, Detroit’s Ko and the Knockouts, to join her on stage. For the final encore, both bands crowd onto the small stage with the instrument-swapping exuberance of a friendly backyard jam session.
“The answer about what keeps every night interesting is that you play with the people you love and you play the music that matters to you,” she says after the show. “I don’t specifically have a band or a lineup. Everybody learns to do what I do. I feel very honored to get to play with the people that I get to play with because they are all brilliant musicians. I see the people that I’m playing with tonight and I’m amazed by them. I figure you’ve got to be doing something right if your friends are people who you respect and admire and they believe in what you’re doing enough to help.”
There could hardly be a more succinct statement of Golightly’s musical career. Cuddly collaborations have elevated her to celebrity status. Her alliance with garage-rock impresario Billy Childish started her career in 1991. Childish’s band at the time, Thee Headcoats, included her then-boyfriend (and current drummer) Brand. One night at a gig Childish invited her to join them on stage and Golightly sang a number. When Childish got the idea to mastermind an all-girl garage group, Thee Headcoats, Golightly was thrust into the limelight. Four years later she released the first of a long string of solo records that were key in introducing her to a newer friend, local pop darling Jack White. White not only penned the overwrought liner notes to Truly She Is None Other, he also invited her to sing a duet, “It’s True That We Love One Another,” on the White Stripes’ highly anticipated Elephant. She should extol the power of friendships — hers have made her famous.
“He is wonderful, but I’m not too interested in talking about Jack,” Golightly says when White’s name is raised. “Its not that I’m not tired of doing interviews in general, but I don’t enjoy talking about it all the time. I’m tired of answering the same questions.”
It’s easy to forgive Golightly’s boredom with questions about the White Stripes. Sure, her campy cameo on the last track of Elephant probably bestowed upon her more media attention for 2:42 of boy-girl silliness than her eight previous records combined. But she was a career musician on the vanguard of revivalist rock while Jackie was cutting his teeth behind drums in the now-defunct swing outfit, Goober and the Peas. She was there long before the White Stripes reintroduced the world to garage rock and she’s likely to be there after.
“I would be doing what I’m doing regardless of the recognition I receive, irrespective of where I am,” Golightly says. “I’ve played the music that I play wherever I’ve lived and as long as I’ve wanted to. Sometimes I’d like to have a nice quiet evening and take a hot bath. I’ve chosen to make my life this way.”
As we stand on the sidewalk smoking area of a nearby bar where an unofficial afterparty is happening, Golightly is treated like a hometown star. Before she moved back to England last year, she bunked just a few blocks away. “When I lived here you could still smoke in this bar” she says. “Well, maybe not officially, but I smoked here.”
Old friends and bandmates catch up with her and the evening quickly degenerates into a chain-smoking and cocktail-swilling session. While most of the congregation proceeds to get lit, Golightly appears slightly disaffected, retaining her studied composure. With one hand on her hip and the other wielding a cigarette, the songbird strikes a pose nearly identical to the one on her record cover, and it somehow doesn’t come off as contrived. It might be part of the act, but she appears to be living the act.
“I never drink enough to feel hungover. I could drive the van right now,” Golightly asserts. And then looking around at the crowd of her increasingly drunk comrades she adds, “I do feel nostalgia here because of all of the people that I love in this place. All of this — living in different cities and traveling and leaving people you know — it’s all for a labor of love. None of us make enough money after it to stand back and say we did it for any other reason. That’s the way that it has to be. You can’t maintain that love and that nurture thing unless you are all in it together. If you are after the money or in it for yourself, you are on your own.” Truly, Ms. Golightly is none other.
See Holly Golightly on Saturday, Oct. 25, at the Lager House (1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit). For info, call 961-4668.Nate Cavalieri is a roving correspondent for Metro Times and a confirmed cocktail enthusiast. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org