Lost Autumn
excerpt from
Cursed Gold: Fatal Hits You'll Never Hear
by B. Drew Collier

One of the first bands on the American disco scene, Datsun screamed out of New York, storming nightclubs and blazing their name across every dance floor worth mentioning before their first album even hit store shelves. Their star burned white hot until corporate litigation demolished the band and brought a tragic end to two of the group's members.

Datsun's 1972 debut, 240Z, showcased all the hallmarks of the disco era that had just begun to peek over the horizon. Drummer Johnny Johnson's four-on-the-floor beats made it simple, in his own words, "for even the most rhythmically challenged white person to keep the beat," while Roger Smith's syncopated bass line injected raw sexual energy into the spaces between Johnson's bass kicks. Keyboardist Abraham Washington blithely suggested that his Hohner Clavinet "just slathered a layer of funk across the entire sound-scape," which hit at a time when night clubbers were like dry tinder waiting for a spark, and vocalist Susie Autumn struck Datsun's match. In her Extended Play review of 240Z, Harriet T. Davis fawned over Susie Autumn's vocals that soared "like blazing angels ready to burn the atmosphere right off the planet and leave us all gasping for breath." 

Datsun chose their name to embrace what Autumn believed to be "the globalization of 20th century culture," and while their Japanese-influenced instrumental arrangements on "Fairlady Z" polarized critics, club audiences couldn't get enough. Neil Bogart produced 240Z on his Casablanca label (also home to KISS and the Village People), and while extended-play singles promoting the album--"Fairlady Z" and "You Touched Me (Over and Over)"--failed to crack the Billboard Top 40, DJs saturated the club scene with Datsun's tracks. Word spread like wildfire from club to club, and every dance floor with any sort of reputation had Datsun in rotation. Even as far away as Les Caves du Roy, the Saint Tropez crowd drowned out songs they didn't like, chanting, "Da Fai! Da Fai!" calling for Datsun's "Fairlady Z". The track was so hot that Nicky Siano dropped the needle on it for his first set on The Gallery's opening night. 240Z went platinum within two weeks of its release, an unheard of sales feat for a debut album at the time, and Datsun were nominated for two Grammy awards in 1972.

Unfortunately, Nissan Motor Corporation USA (NMCUSA) did not appreciate the band's use of the Datsun brand name, regardless of positive cross-market publicity. The band ignored their cease-and-desist orders, so NMCUSA filed suit and asked for an injunction against further sales of 240Z. While large retail outlets refused to stock the album the legal actions fueled black-market sales of the disc, which Bogart continued to press and distribute off the books. The album unofficially set unprecedented sales records, and Datsun suddenly found themselves facing a world tour schedule that included public appearances on every music-related show from Soul Train to The Tonight Show. Don Cornelius and Johnny Carson both made similar "space alien" jokes about Susie Autumn's blue spiked hair and silver lamé jumpsuit, but Autumn stared them down into an uncomfortable silence. Carson later confessed, "I felt her fucking wild dog eyes boring into the back of my skull and I couldn't wait to get her off my stage, but when she was like listening to Lucifer's lullaby, and I wanted to take her back home with me."

Bogart assured the band that his legal team was handling the court battle, and Datsun left on the European leg of their tour believing their futures were in good hands. Sadly, Bogart's single attorney was grossly outgunned, and NMCUSA won a summary judgment against the band that prohibited the band's use of the name Datsun in perpetuity and established an injunction against any further sales of the 240Z album or singles produced while the group bore the Datsun name. Unsatisfied with simply killing future sales, NMCUSA went so far as to confiscate albums from the shelves of shops who still had the disc in stock, and they ran advertisements in popular music periodicals offering large cash payments to buy the album back from people who already owned it. Despite its record sales numbers, 240Z is currently comparable in rarity to a "yellow" copy of the Misfits' Horror Business.

The judgment also granted damages to NMCUSA, and by a cruel twist of contractual irony Datsun's members were held individually responsible for payment. Without further income from the 240Z album and unable to leverage the Datsun name recognition, their efforts at breaking back into the music scene as a group or in solo projects failed miserably. Their meteoric streak fizzled out and they each filed for bankruptcy.

Roger Smith rather successfully fell back on his computer engineering background, registering patents for touchscreens and wireless transmission protocols in the 1980s that paved the way for tablet computers like the iPad. He also designed custom synthesizers for Abraham Washington, who made a name for himself as a studio keyboardist and toured with notable bands such as Chic and The Power Station.

Things didn't go as well for Johnny Johnson, who was convicted for petty larceny and a string of drug charges before his longtime girlfriend found his body hanging from a rafter in the abandoned carriage house where they had been squatting. The building was converted to artist lofts in the late 1990s, and residents still report rhythmic tapping noises and on some nights see a shadow at the top of the central staircase. After Susie Autumn's bankruptcy hearing, she simply vanished as if she had fled the planet. 

In a bizarre September 1974 promotional campaign, NMCUSA held a closed live publicity event for select media outlets. They billed the promotion as their introduction of the new 280Z, and in a departure from the typical Frankfurt auto show introduction, the press, including Harriet T. Davis reporting for the Chicago Tribune, gathered at an airstrip outside Las Vegas where they stood on the asphalt facing a strangely colored wall. A helicopter hovering overhead lit the scene with a white spotlight. It didn't take long for someone to realize that the wall was constructed from the confiscated Datsun 240Z albums.

Davis described the scene in her Fifth Estate article:

As we pointed and gawked, a rush of pyrotechnics set the wall alight and behind it an engine snarled to life. Every one of us jumped back, our mouths agape as a devilish white 280Z crashed through the flaming 240Z albums in a pall of tire smoke and a streak of sparks that bloomed behind the screaming car like a Satanic peacock's tail. The driver turned donuts over the burning albums, desecrating the last tangible remnants of disco's parentage, before racing away like a crazed hoodlum into the dark. 

No one knows for sure how Susie Autumn found out about the NMCUSA press event, let alone how she managed to get onto the airstrip, but as the reporters turned from the disappearing tail lights they were shocked to see Autumn, in full stage costume complete with silver cape and blue spiked hair, striding straight into the burning pile of vinyl.

Again, Davis' account captures the scene:

The helicopter lit Susie up like a diamond. She bent down and scooped up one of the burning albums, clutching it to her breast as she continued walking to the middle of the pyre. The motor drive on the New York Times photographer's camera chewed through an entire spool of film while a cub reporter for Sports Car Weekly next to me fumbled with his new Polaroid SX-70 trying to attach the teleconverter. I screamed at one of the Nissan reps to get a fire extinguisher, but there really was nothing anyone could do. The fire was so hot it would take a hook and ladder truck to put it out. I heard this keening over the growl of the flames and I thought it was some desert animal howling until I realized it was Susie, but she wasn't screaming, she was singing. In the middle of that inferno, she belted out "Fairlady Z". The fire melted the silver cape and devoured her hair, but Susie kept singing. On the last note she raised her arms like she had just finished a marathon and fell backwards into the flames' embrace.

NMCUSA quickly confiscated the cameras and tape recorders, and hushed the witnesses with legal threats. Attorneys followed through the following day with gag-orders. Still, the Sports Car Weekly photographer stashed a single Polaroid print in his underpants, and that grainy image is the only piece of evidence left from the event. The Chicago Tribune refused to publish Davis' account, so she shopped it around, but the only paper that would touch the story was The Fifth Estate, an anarchist tabloid barely known to the general public. NMCUSA refused any comment on the events, leading most people to believe the story was entirely fictitious and that Autumn was simply still in hiding.

In 1989, while conducting background interviews for her manuscript of Fair Lady at Stake, Susie Autumn's biography, Harriet T. Davis tracked down Candice Blaise, a former exotic dancer purported to be Autumn's girlfriend at the time of 240Z's release. Blaise agreed to talk with Davis. During the interview she confirmed her relationship with Autumn and revealed that she had contact with her during the week before the NMCUSA promotional event. Davis' book recounts the meeting:

As we continued to talk, Candice's tough Bronx facade began to crack. She kept losing her train of thought and wrung her hands; it was clear that she still held strong feelings for Susie. She excused herself and was gone for a long time. I sat there in her kitchen listening to the clock ticking away and thought about leaving before I made the situation more awkward, but I reminded myself that I was there for Susie, so I sat at the tiny table and waited. When she returned Candice carried a small sheaf of documents that she handed to me. On top was Autumn's passport, which bore entry stamps from all the countries Datsun toured in 1972 as well as several stamps dated 1973 and 1974 from Portugal, Spain and France. It was clear where she had traveled between her bankruptcy filing and her reappearance at the Las Vegas airstrip, settling one of the long-standing Autumn mysteries. However, the real treasure was a paper clipped set of receipts for a recording studio in Rue Pigalle, Paris noting payment for 60 hours of studio time dispersed across several months. I looked at Candice and asked if she knew what they meant. She nodded and broke into sobs so severe she could barely speak. "Please," she said, "I want to hear her voice again. Find them if you can."

Davis spent the next ten years searching for the recordings listed in the receipts, but her bout with lung cancer ended the quest. She published Fair Lady at Stake before succumbing to her disease in 2001, but as yet, no one has tracked down the lost Susie Autumn sessions, some of the rarest and most tragic recordings of the 20th century.