People Have the PowerPoint

Patti Smith was radiant and fierce in her performance at the Saban Theater Monday night. I’ve been to dozens of shows by the writer and musician during the last three decades; at this Songs & Stories event for the Aloud series of the Los Angeles Public Library, I saw aspects of her I had never seen before. First of all, she had a PowerPoint. A PowerPoint “to dream, to rule, to wrestle the earth from fools.” (Sorry, that was my riff on her anthem “People Have the Power,” not hers.) Smith clicked through images from her new book, A Book of Days, projected on a screen behind her as she told stories, jokes, and history lessons and sang songs, accompanied by longtime collaborator Tony Shanahan. Actually, an unseen technician advanced the slides for her; Smith laughed about this tour being her first experience with presentation software. In fact, despite her 75 years on the planet, the award-winning author is no Luddite. Book of Days is inspired by Smith’s third act as a social media influencer; her daily Instagram account, ThisIsPattiSmith, has 1 million followers. “I’m not capable of being square,” she said Monday.

(As an aside, my 2021 Los Angeles Times article about Patti’s online renaissance during the pandemic took a second place prize at the National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards presented Sunday night by the Los Angeles Press Club.)

Patti was funny and sharp and sentimental Monday. She offered professional advice: to develop your “writer’s muscle” by having a “daily practice.” Hers is to get up every morning, grab a coffee, and open a notebook, she revealed. Appropriately, Monday was Joan Didion’s birthday; Smith and Shanahan played Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings” for the writer. “When I think of dark glasses, I think of Joan Didion and Bob Dylan,” she said. In response to an audience question, she spoke about the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was young, revealing that they are in each other’s lives “but she’s very private.” Answering another inquiry, she said, “Michigan is where I had the saddest and most beautiful times of my life. I cherish them all.”

In her eighth decade, Smith is just getting better and more appreciated. She is on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, with the headline “The Radical Hope of Patti Smith.” Her voice is more assured, rich, and beautiful than ever. She and Shanahan delivered a stunning version of their 2004 song “Peaceable Kingdom.” But probably my favorite moment of the night was when he goaded her into singing, a capella, a holiday chestnut from her childhood by the Ray Coniff Singers. Roll the tape.

Speaking of Patti Smith cover stories, the first one I wrote was published 27 years ago by The Village Voice.

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On Joan Didion’s birthday

Photo by Evelyn McDonnell of mural in Sacramento

Eighty-eight years ago in Mercy Hospital in Sacramento, a girl became the first child of Eduene Jerrett and Frank Reese Didion. Joan Didion grew up to be a courageous, award-winning, world-renowned pioneer of literary journalism and crafter of brilliant, surprising novels. In all her travels, even as she spent her last decades in New York, she remained bound to her Central Valley roots. “As I thought about it I realized that I have been writing about the California woman all my adult life, that what it means to be a California woman has been a great question to me – the California woman has been – if not exactly my subject – at least quite certainly my material,” she said in a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1978. This is the first December 5 that she has not been on this earth to celebrate her birthday. Let’s honor it for her by being relentless in our reporting and kind in our relationships.

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Memorial to Joan Didion

“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.” These words from the Episcopal doxology comforted Joan Didion her whole life. She was raised in the religion and although she became someone who believed in the power of narrative, the primacy of family, the joy of cooking, Buddhist philosophy, and the California sky more than any deity, she still found solace in this mantra and in the gothic beauty of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on New York’s upper west side, where her daughter married, her husband’s memorial was held, and her remains are now entombed. Yesterday the life of the writer, who died December 23, 2021, at the age of 87, was honored there in a simple and moving memorial of speeches and music delivered by a formidable list of Didion’s family, friends, colleagues, and admirers. Retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy (who grew up with Joan in Sacramento), former California governor Jerry Brown, filmmaker/actor Griffin Dunne (her nephew), actor Vanessa Redgrave, and writers David Remnick, Calvin Trillin, Jia Tolentino, Hilton Als, and Kevin Young all offered words of reminiscence and reflection. Patti Smith sang. Organized primarily by Didion’s editor Shelley Wanger, it was a quiet, thoughtful, intellectual, and sometimes deeply sad service, a fitting farewell to one of the greatest writers of the past century.

Two women who knew Didion intimately offered portraits of their friend that to me captured her as a human and a thinker in very different but accurate ways. Author Susanna Moore (Miss Aluminum) recalled the terse but memorable advice given to her over decades by this woman who wrote intensely but spoke little, including “Write it again,” “Crazy is never interesting,” and “Evil is the absence of seriousness.” Susan Traylor, who met Didion’s daughter Quintana Roo Dunne when they were both four and became best friends forever, told funny, heartwarming stories of how Joan became a kind of second mother to her, stricter than her own but a supportive rock in hard times. Tales of a mom who served chocolate souffle to children because she didn’t know how to make a birthday cake and sang silly songs about mice way past their age-appropriateness revealed the fabled lover of irony as a warm, awkward human being.  

I was surprised the cathedral wasn’t overflowing with Didion’s notoriously devoted followers, but perhaps that was because the memorial, months in the planning, was just announced last week. The luminaries and publishing people seated up front almost outnumbered the general public in back and included Fran Lebowitz, Anjelica Huston, Liam Neeson, Greta Gerwig, Carl Bernstein, Annie Leibovitz, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Sara Davidson, and Lynn Nesbit. I was honored and humbled to be in their midst.

No one from Didion’s family spoke. I’ve spent the past year researching and writing about Joan for a book, and I have learned that she comes from a lineage that prizes privacy. There were also only a handful of people in the columbarium afterwards, looking for the square piece of granite engraved with the names of Joan, her mother Eduene Jerrett Didion, her husband John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne Michael. It was bereft of flowers. I’ll go back with a lei, for the woman who loved Hawaii and its tradition of dropping flowered necklaces to honor the deceased. “Leis go brown,” Didion wrote.  “Tectonic plates shift, deep currents move, islands vanish, rooms get forgotten.” Words survive.

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Sweet dreams are made of meh

Meh.

I’m happy for Annie Lennox, Carly Simon, Pat Benatar, Sylvia Robinson, Elizabeth Cotten, and of course Dolly Parton, now that she’s realized what even the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee knows: She rocks. I’m also thrilled about Harry Belafonte and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

But I’m gutted that nominees Dionne Warwick, Kate Bush and A Tribe Called Quest didn’t make this year’s class of inductees. Overall, I’d say it’s a respectably varied but rather mediocre year for the Rock Hall (especially after the thrills of last year). In terms of progress toward diversity and inclusion, the gains are, well, losses overall.

My research assistant, Loyola Marymount University student Maude Bascome-Duong, and I did our annual numbers crunching, and this is what we found: Of the 28 musicians and industry figures being inducted, six are women (listed above). NPR erroneously stated that’s a record: In fact last year, seven women were inducted. 21.43 percent of this year’s inductees are women; again, that’s better than many previous years but lower than 2021’s 28 percent. The good news is the total percentage of women in the hall continues to rise, ever so slowly: From 8.17 percent to 8.56 percent. Yay, we gained 0.39 percent! Guess I’ll stop worrying about losing control over my own health decisions and throw a rock hall dance party! Sweet dreams indeed!

SCRRRREEETTCCHHH! (That’s the sound of a needle skating across an album, my millennials.)

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame diversity statistics, number of inductees per year.

Feminism requires an understanding of the intersection of identities, as we all know. So, how is the hall doing in terms of racial diversity? Worse than meh.

By our count, six of the inductees are BIPOC (Robinson, Cotten, Jam, Lewis, Belafonte and Lionel Richie). That’s a 14.57 percent drop from 2021 and part of a long-term slide from the hall’s early years, when minorities were often a majority, to this year’s accumulative total of 31.79 percent, down from 2021’s 32.38 percent. So in terms of diversity, that’s .39 percent forward ladies, .59 percent backwards for non-white artists.

Let’s put it this way: Dionne Warwick, Salt N Pepa, the Pointer Sisters, Labelle, Queen Latifah, Big Mama Thornton, Roxanne Shante, Chaka Khan, and Mary J. Blige are still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But now, Duran Duran is.

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Rock Hall: How about a little bit of ladies first?

My research assistant, Maude Bascome-Duong, and I finally had some time to crunch the numbers on the Rock & Roll Hall Hall of Fame nominations for 2022 and the results are mixed. While I applaud the nominating committee for putting Dolly Parton, the Eurythmics, Dionne Warwick, Kate Bush, Carly Simon and Pat Benatar on the ballot, numbers wise, the selection field still skews predominantly male.

Dionne Warwick

More than a third of the acts have female members, and all of those six acts have their women front and center. Not bad! But when you look at the total number of potential inductees, women account for only 12.77% of the nominees. (This is the more important number, because every living inductee gets a vote.) Yes this is higher than the current percentage of women already inducted into the Hall of Fame, but we need an infusion of women to be inducted to get their total percentage into the double digits. As I’ve argued before, this can only happen if the Hall of Fame inducts more female groups. We need the six women of Fanny to be inducted to begin to balance out the four men of Rage Against the Machine. The nominating committee seems to have a particular allergy to all female acts: Once again there are none on this year’s ballot. Fear of a female planet?

The other most egregious omission is any female rapper. The fact that Eminem has been nominated before Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and Roxanne Shante is shameful.

The nominees are also more than 80% white. I repeat: The fact that Eminem has been nominated before Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and Roxanne Shante is shameful.

Here are four acts that better be on next year’s ballot or I’m calling for a Lysistrata: Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, Labelle, and Fanny. Also for goddess’s sake, induct Big Mama Thorton as an early influencer this year. In Janet Jackson’s immortal words: Induct more women.

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The man who taught me the art of the lede

On February 5 the man who first taught me to be a journalist passed. There is no greater testimony to the profound impact Raymond Schoenfield had on me than the fact I became a journalist, and then a journalism teacher. Schoeny, as his students at Beloit Memorial High School knew him, had the number one quality to be a good instructor: love of subject. In class, in the offices of the student newspaper The Increscent after school, in passing in the hall, Schoeny would always ask your opinion of the latest news, or pull you aside to recommend a good book. I went on to get a BA at Brown and a Master’s in Journalism at USC, but no one taught me more than this pale, tall, high school professor with the big glasses and thinning combover. He and social studies teacher Lloyd Page treated us teenagers as intellectual equals and guided us to be critical thinkers. Schoeny made the Increscent offices a sanctuary for nerds and misfits. I was the editor in chief my senior year, and my bestie Cindy Hahn – not a nerd, but still one of us — was my girl Friday. There was a whole wonderful cast of characters there. It was a haven not just for writers, but for photographers, cartoonists, designers, sales people, etc. We would skip pep rallies and hang out with Schoeny. He was our Gandalf, a benevolent father figure with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. But he was also very serious about teaching the importance of good journalism, and the Increscent had the awards to show for it. He taught me to think deeply about literature and writing. I wrote a paper comparing Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata under his direction, which is a pretty crazy thing to do in a public high school in a small Midwestern town, and his high praise made me want to be a critic.

I last saw Schoeny when I was inducted into the Beloit Memorial Hall of Fame, which I think he had not a little to do with. He lost his eyesight in his later years, which seemed like the cruelest twist of fate: this voracious reader, blinded. His wife Joyce was always by his side, and he was proud of his kids. If you want to do something about the future of journalism, join me in donating to the scholarship fund in his name. https://statelinecf.fcsuite.com/erp/donate/create?funit_id=1223

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Rock Hall on a roll?

Last night’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony gave me hope for the future of the institution. Opening the show with Taylor Swift inducting Carole King was a brilliant choice perfectly timed given the week of Tay-Tay trending. And how great was it to start the evening with King’s classic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” the first song performed by an all black all female group (The Shirelles) to reach number one in the United States. King, Tina Turner, and the Go-Go’s were my three top choices among this year’s nominees and all three made it in. The selections covered a diverse array of genres and eras, from a Brill building songwriter and singer to Kraftwerk’s electronic innovations to hip-hop pioneers Jay-Z , LL Cool J and Gil Scott-Heron. There was even a sui generis rock band, the Foo Fighters. I loved the generosity of the evening, the way rappers honored rock and roll and rockers honored hip hop. And I loved the repeated displays of girl power.

But — and given that I am a Rock Hall scold, you knew there had to be a butt — I’m still immensely disappointed that the Rock Hall had to undermine the gender parity of the acts inducted in the main categories by only inducting men in the supplemental categories. I also think it was a programming error to end the evening with Foo Fighters instead of Jay-Z, although I admit it allowed me to go to bed a little bit earlier. I’m not saying that Foo Fighters didn’t deserve to be inducted (they didn’t), but Hova’s speech was so powerful, funny and moving, it was the high note note we should have ended with. Closing with a rap act also would have signaled once and for all that the Rock Hall is inclusive of all the genres that have been birthed since the integration of music in the 1950s and 60s. (Fuck you Gene Simmons.) I understand that the hall probably wanted to close with Paul McCartney, who inducted the Foo Fighters. But Paul seemed more like everyone’s favorite drunk uncle (at least we got that tradition out of the way for Thanksgiving week) than a great finale.

What would have been real fire would have been to end with the usual all-star band playing “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Can you imagine Jay-Z and LL Cool J trading off verses on Gil Scott-Heron’s classic proto rap? With Carole King on piano! Plus the Go-Go’s as backing singers?! Instead we got the usual tired narrative of rock and roll through the lens of white men.

Because, of course, the revolution can not be televised.

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