19 August 2006

Avalon Girl

One of the most remarkable vocal performances in rock music history happens on Roxy Music's seminal single "Avalon" at the end of the song. Brian Ferry has finished lamenting poetically about a last dance with a lovely woman, and as the song's slow, sexy Samba beat winds down with a smokey sax solo, out of nowhere comes one the most beautiful voices in recorded music, wailing orgasmically as the song slowly fades out.

The singer was Yanick Etienne, and her beautiful and inspiring performance is probably one of the top five magical moments in rock history.

As Rick Clark writes, the act of getting Yanick on tape happened almost by chance:

Ferry had stayed up that Saturday night and composed what would be the lyrics to “Avalon.” Then, happenstance would provide “Avalon” with one of its most memorable elements: the interpretive vocal contributions of Yanick Etienne. Sunday was usually a down day at the Power Station, so the studio would let local Haitian bands come in to do demos when there wasn't much happening. It was then that Davies and Ferry, on a coffee break in the hallway, heard Etienne singing.

“Bryan and I could hear this girl from the Haitian band next door singing, and we thought, ‘Wow! What a voice! We've got to get her singing some backing vocals on “Avalon.”’ That was Yanick Etienne, who didn't speak a word of English. She came in with her boyfriend/manager and we described to him what we wanted and she sort of sang the choruses and the [word] ‘Avalon’ — the great sound that is on there. Then we said, ‘Can she try and do something free at the end?’ and we ran the end of the track and she did absolutely nothing. So I said, ‘No, we want her to sing anything that she would want to sing, totally free.’ So the second time we ran the tape, she sang exactly what you hear on the record at the end.

“Bryan then went straight out and re-sang his vocal properly, because he was so inspired by Yanick's singing. I remember Bryan's manager walked in the room and Bryan was just finishing his vocal. We were doing the playback and I'd never seen the look on his eyes before. He went, ‘Jesus f****** Christ! That is incredible!’ Well, we knew it was a really high point of the evening. I remember going, ‘Wow! We have really created something special here.’ That is how I felt. Then we mixed it the next day with Bob.

“It was one of those turnaround things, where the original track was just about to be thrown in the can. And then suddenly, we did a completely different version of the song that just made the record for me,” Davies concludes. “I thought, ‘That's it. That completes the record!’ I remember we had dinner a couple nights later, and I asked Bryan, ‘What are you going to call the album?’ and he said, ‘I'm going to call it Avalon,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah. Of course.’”

I first bought the album Avalon in 1982 and it has remained in the top tier of my playlist ever since. The entire album is a long, lovely, romantic state of bliss, and I cannot even count the number of times I have played it while making love or just lying in bed, staring into space as I contemplate the state of the universe.

And, most of all, when I hear Yanick Etienne's magical voice I'm taken to a place where few other works of art can take me. Moreover, it's such a lovely place that words fail me when I try to describe it. All I can say is that it is somewhere between heaven and the best orgasm I've ever had.

Just get the record and start the song "Avalon" at the 2:44 minute mark and you'll know what I mean.