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PJ Harvey: Primed and Ticking

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As the PJ Harvey band embarks on its largest and most promising tour ever – which will conclude with a week in Japan and a guest slot with U2 at several European stadiums – Vaughan and Ellis appear to have stopped talking to Harvey. Her exclusion of her band mates from the aforementioned shot-calling process opened what she claims was an ever-widening personal gulf in the months since the album was recorded, a gulf that was evident in some of the band's recent performances.

Opening night at Tipitina's, despite the crowd's obvious enchantment with Harvey's literally letting her hair down and confidently strutting in a flame red dress for the first time on an American stage, the band's set never really caught fire. A week later, the better-traveled outfit plugged into a higher gear – and a better sound system – at New York City's Academy, where the adoring, sellout crowd of 1,800 undoubtedly attributed the male musicians' rather cool posture to some variation of postpunk shtick.

Harvey has grown nearly as much as a live performer as she has in the studio. Now she'd rather engage her audience than run away from it. In fact, when her amp blew at Tipitina's (quite appropriately after ''Primed and Ticking''), Harvey, who's often found it difficult simply to utter ''thank you'' onstage, suddenly disappeared into the pit literally to talk (but without a mike, as any better primed showperson would) to the audience.

But if Harvey hasn't figured out how to make a minor interruption work for the entire house, when she's back on track and onstage she often sounds eerily like she's channeling the voice and licks of an 85-year-old blues mama through her twiglike English self. ''I spend a huge amount of time on the words, and they are so important to me,'' she says with a sigh, ''but I think I've done more work on my voice. I've worked really, really hard. And nobody seems to notice. To me, the vocals are more important than guitar playing – or anything, really.''

Unfortunately, the other musicians have not developed apace. At Tipitina's, Vaughan, suddenly wearing dark sunglasses throughout the set as if to magnify his disengagement, plunked lackadaisically, physically moving as far from the singer as possible without toppling off the stage. And Ellis, whose once sensitive vocal and percussion responses to Harvey's lines originally contributed so much to the band's distinctive sound, seemed determined throughout to screech off-key into his vocal mike and overplay clatteringly, as if to deafen and flatten Harvey rather than support her.

So it is hardly a surprise when Harvey confides, over another cup of coffee the morning after the Tipitina's show, that once she fulfills her current tour commitments, she never wants to play with this band again.

''I'm so frustrated,'' she admits, refusing to try the local grits and toying with her spoon, saying that were it not for her now frighteningly adult responsibilities to numerous people – not merely the band but the crew and business-affairs operatives – ''I would change right now and get another band together; we all know it's reached a point where it's got to change.

''It makes me sad,'' Harvey continues. ''I wouldn't have got here without them. I needed them back then – badly. But now I don't need them anymore. We all just changed as people. Before all this started happening, I was playing in three or four different bands – sax in one band, percussion and doing mime and singing in another. I like a lot of different inputs. Since this happened, I haven't played with anyone else, and I find that really stagnating. We all want to move on.''

Primed and ticking indeed, Harvey will only hint that her next lineup will contain several guitar players, organ, harmonica and perhaps a saxophone (an instrument at which she is also formally proficient). And accomplished player that she is, she may even give up the guitar.

''I want to jump around,'' she says, laughing. ''I never want to stick to a formula because it's worked in the past.'' But it's not only the formula she plans to change. Although her mother, as every mother will, has frequently advised her to ''never say never,'' she insists that after the tour winds up at Wembley Stadium with U2 in August, she will never play her biggest hits to date, ''Sheela-Na-Gig'' and ''Dress,'' again. And just to make the point, she emphatically closes her eyes, clamps her teeth and shakes her head like a petulant toddler refusing a particular vegetable.

When it's suggested that her fans may be disappointed, she unclenches only wide enough to whisper, ''I'll never give the people what they want,'' and adds another shake of the head for good measure.

One can only imagine what may happen backstage at Wembley when Bono MacPhisto bumps into this indomitable 50 Ft. Queenie. But after losing her arena virginity, Harvey (who says she had never been to what the average American teen considers a rock concert before seeing U2's Zoo TV Tour last summer) is already scheduled to collaborate with an old friend, John Parish, leader of her teenage pre-P J Harvey band, Automatic Dlamini, on an album for which he will write music and she lyrics.

Given that Harvey is an insatiably prolific writer who purportedly banged out 30 songs in a fortnight between tours, Island also plans to release an album of four-track demos in England this fall, including songs Rid of Me didn't get rid of. And perhaps public demand will make the must-hear Peel sessions available in their entirety.

Yet no matter how defiantly Harvey has tried throughout the past year to avoid it, next-big-thingdom is fairly certain to be thrust upon her, whether she makes her next move via broken-down cassette or on a Hollywood soundstage with 200 screaming violins and a flaming hula hoop. Still, having created a fairly impressive oeuvre, if not yet a formula --- from rubbing till she bleeds and torturous self-examinations --- Harvey feels certain that her suddenly upbeat emotional temperament will not fuel her future songs. All she will cop to is a blinding desire to drive herself into a condition she calls ''going into the white.''

As it is, she is so eager to rush back to the hotel to, as she says, ''mentally prepare'' for her date that she has to be reminded to stay put until the waitress brings the check. When it arrives, she pats the fanny pack nestled around the fairly nonexistent anatomy that makes you realize that the startling opening line of ''Sheela-Na-Gig'' --- ''Look at these, my childbearing hips'' --- is one of the more imaginative works of fiction anyone has concocted in eons. She then bolts for the door as if, for her next trick, she's planning to represent Britain in the 400-meter relay.

''Going into the white,'' she says into the Louisiana air hanging hot and humid over her thin shoulders, ''is when you just get so excited you feel sick to your stomach. You can't eat or sleep or anything. I used to get it from riding horses.''

This story is from the August 19th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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