Tag Archives: Patti Smith

The power of Patti

No artist has had a bigger lifelong influence on me than Patti Smith. She showed me a new way of being when I was a struggling teenager and in the four decades since has remained an example of how to move through the universe pursuing your artistic dreams and personal values. I’ll never forget the first time we connected in real life: I just about lost it when I hit play on my answering machine and heard her voice. I first interviewed her back in 1995, when she was just beginning to perform again after taking a long pause to raise her kids, and then mourn her husband; that became my one and only Village Voice cover story.

Patti Smith at Pappy & Harriet’s Aug. 31.

It had been many years since we last spoke, so I shrieked once more when I listened to a voice mail at work and it was Patti. She is the only celebrity I know who responds to interview requests by calling journalists directly, rather than scheduling an interview through flacks. I happened to be in a small Minneapolis town in the midst of a cross country drive when I called her back, and as I left her a message, a train drove by, blowing its whistle. “Nice train soundtrack,” Patti texted me.

We eventually had an hourlong, somewhat discursive talk, the highlights of which made it to my Los Angeles Times story. As in ’95, she’s back from another pause – this one pandemic forced, not lifestyle chosen — and I felt honored to be the person chronicling her return. We talked a lot about the climate, but none of that discussion made the story. “We’re living in the midst of enormous, enormous crisis environmentally, in every way, whether it’s flooding or drought or fires,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for us as a species because the only way it’s going to work is for us to globally respect…. And I feel for our children.”

This week, from Tahoe to New Orleans to the Northeast, Americans are struggling under the devastating effect of Anthropocene folly. Smith, who has had two of her few shows since 2020 cancelled partially or completely because of severe summer storms, seems to be a bit of a rainmaker. As my husband and I drove to Pioneertown to see her Aug. 31 show at Pappy & Harriet’s, the sky darkened and suddenly, there were flash flood warnings in the middle of the desert, during a mega drought. The outdoor show was postponed a half hour; only a little rain fell, but the wind was powerful. Patti took the continued disruption in good humor, accepting mother nature howling in the mikes as unexpected backing vocals.

Still, it was all a little unnerving. As the world knows from her infamous performance at the Nobel Prize ceremony for Bob Dylan, Smith has a habit of losing her place; there were a lot of forgotten words and misstarts at Pappy’s. Also, a lot of laughter between her, her son Jackson on guitar, and Tony Shanahan on piano, bass, guitar, and vocals. The hipster honkytonk is one of my favorite places in the world, so it was amazing to see her there, in such a small venue. Her voice is stronger than ever, so deep and rich. Still, it was a bit of a ramshackle performance. Patti admitted she was wearing her “pandemic pants”: bleach stained, loose, and comfy. The crowd loved her, she loved them back.

Tony Shanahan, Flea, Patti Smith, and Jackson Smith at the Ford Sept. 3.

Friday at the Ford Theatre in the Hollywood Hills – another one of my favorite venues – they played an almost identical set, but it was a totally different show. Flea joined on bass, giving the band a bottom they needed (though I still missed Patti Smith Group drummer Jay Dee Daugherty). Smith’s messy braids were gone, though a couple times during the night, she started to plait her long salt and pepper locks again. So were the pandemic pants – but she did have to button up her fly after the first song, “Grateful.” It was a perfect California night, the palm trees and hillside behind the band lit up like a fairytale grotto. Patti was still joking and informal; when Flea left the stage at one point, she explained he had to pee. But there were only a couple stumbles. Patti was on fire. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her deliver as note perfect a performance as her rendition of Bob Dylan’s “1000 Miles Behind.” Smith is well celebrated for her shamanistic performance style and poetic lyrics, but she is not as appreciated as she should be for the timbre and power of her voice. She also covered Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun” and dedicated her reggae song “Redondo Beach” to the late Lee Scratch Perry.

Patti Smith and Flea at the Ford.

By the end of the evening, for a rendition of “Land” that was a bricolage of itself, Smith seemed to be in a trance. Even Jackson looked at her with a mix of awe and concern. Seeing her perform with her offspring beside her and still be so unapologetically herself is another life lesson she has given me. You could see in the eclectic, female-friendly audience how many of us have followed Patti into, as she puts it, the “sea of possibilities.” (Though she told me in the Times interview that she can’t swim; does this mean she has never actually pissed in a river?)

She closed both shows with the song that has become her most celebrated anthem, even more than “Because the Night” (which she also performed): “People Have the Power.” Once the pied piper of misfits, Patti Smith is now, as she likes to call, herself a worker. Happy Labor Day weekend.

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The Problem with 1/12th: Armchair Art Walk Talk

On March 4, I took part in the San Pedro Armchair Art Walk. Following are the remarks I prepared on Women’s History Month, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Women Who Rock, and the problem with tokenism. You can watch the video with slideshow here. I was joined by two brilliant artists, Anne Daub and Monica Orozco.

I want to thank Linda Grimes, Sharyl Holtzman, and the San Pedro Waterfront Arts District for putting together this event. First Thursdays is one of my favorite things to do here in Pedro, and I can’t wait to be able to do it in person again: lobster rolls from the lobster truck, or sushi at Senfuku, wine and snacks and great art at Arnie and Ray’s gallery, all the galleries and restaurants and trucks and people. But I’m glad we have this to tide us over until those good times return.

Like all of us I’m sure, I have mixed feelings about Women’s History Month, because of course, half of the planet should get more than 1/12th of the year. But the fact is, we don’t. Women, like people of color, get disproportionately ignored the other 11 months of the year, so we better shout our achievements every second of the month of March, and keep shouting until it’s women’s history year, decade, century and millennium.

Interestingly, 1/12th is almost exactly the fraction of artists who are women who have been inducted into the rock’n’roll hall of fame since it was founded in 1986. It’s actually less than that: 7.63 percent. These appalling figures are why we need recuperative efforts such as Women’s History Month, or books about Women Who Rock: To set the record straight by shining a spotlight on the legions of women who get left out of the institutions, the history books, the archives, the museums, the playlists, the algorithms. Uplifting female musicians has been a mission for me ever since I was just a kid and heard Patti Smith singing about the sea of possibilities and Poly Styrene shouting Oh bondage, up yours! I created this book to celebrate what I call this rhythm movement, a century of female artists making great, glorious, gutsy music – some of them in the rock hall, most of them not. I hired dozens of women writers and artists to create portraits of these sheroes in words and in ink; here are a few examples . If you want to buy this book, it’s available here in Pedro at the Corner Store and the shop next door to it as well as the Cabrillo Aquarium Gift shop. And of course on Amazon.

But it’s important not just to celebrate women, but also to continually point out the way they are systematically disenfranchised, ignored, abused, and silenced by a male-dominated society and its institutions. We can’t stop with the ghettoization of dedicated history months; we need to be heard every month. That’s why for 10 years, in multiple articles, wielding statistics, graphs, historic examples, and suggested solutions, I have been documenting the Rock Hall’s abominable gender record. And I’m happy to say that in 2021, they listened, and acted. Women make up almost a quarter of the nominees announced last month, which granted, is not parity – but it’s three times better than 7.63 percent. Of course, these nominees – including Kate Bush, Mary J. Blige, and the Go-Go’s — have to get inducted. And the rock hall has 34 years of manhandling music history to make up for: the fact that every inductee gets a vote skews the rock hall voting body male. If every female act nominated – and only those acts – were inducted, the total percentage of women in the hall would rise more than one percentage point, to 8.73 percent – slightly more than 1/12th. That’s the best case scenario. In 2020, only one woman was inducted, Whitney Houston. As Janet Jackson said in 2019, Induct more women.

The industry, press, hall of fames, and history books have a long legacy of treating women musicians like shit. And they are increasingly getting called out on it. In 1994, the Grammys temporarily dropped the Best Female Rock Vocal category because they couldn’t think of any women to nominate for it – no PJ Harvey, no Ani Difranco, no Melissa Etheridge, no Kristin Hersh. A group called Strong Women in Music protested that year. In 2018, the Grammys were denounced for their failure to award women artists. When the Recording Academy president responded women need to “step up” to the plate – as if it was women’s fault their work was being shafted – he was forced to step down. This year, all the nominees in the Best Rock Performance category are female or female-fronted. That’s progress, and it’s progress caused not by women stepping up, but by women speaking up and demanding change.

So in March, we celebrate history, her story, our stories, but now and all year, we must also march, and protest, and demand not just our 8 percent, but our 50 percent. In the rock halls, in the history books, on the airwaves, on the streaming services, in our ears and in our hearts.

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How I Found My Voice

I first became aware of The Village Voice in high school, when my older brother, Brett, used to go the Beloit, Wisconsin, public library to peruse its political investigations and music coverage. We were both discovering punk rock, watching Patti Smith on Saturday Night Live, and we could read about the newest bands from CBGB’s in the Voice. Later, in college, I got assigned to write about it in my one and only journalism class. Within a few years, I was copy editing and writing there, ultimately becoming a senior editor in charge of music. It was a crazy, difficult, exciting place, and the work I did for them — “discovering” Paul Beatty and the rest of the ’90s NYC lit scene bubbling around the incredible Nuyorican Poets Cafe, traveling to New Zealand to write about music, covering Rent as it moved from Downtown to Broadway and beyond, interviewing John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, the creators of a new musical called Hedwig and the Angry Inch; writing about punk drag artists such as Justin Bond and Miss Guy — still defines me. And then there was my one and only cover story, the first major interview with Patti Smith after her husband Fred died and she returned to the stage — an incredible encounter with the woman who made me want to be a rock’n’roll critic, and move to New York, and dive into the sea of possibilities. RIP Voice. Say hi to Aretha.

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Human Fallibility: Patti Smith in Stockholm

It was a big moment in a life that has had a lot of them. Patti Smith performed a Bob Dylan song at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm last night, in honor of the man born Robert Zimmerman, who was not there to accept his award for literature himself. It was a wonderful choice by the Nobel committee: Smith teethed on Dylan’s music, and they have performed together in the past. (I saw them share a bill and a mike at the Beacon Theater in New York many years ago; she had wonder in her face as she looked at her hero next to her.) Like Bob, Patti is not exactly a singer in the bel canto tradition: She has a rough voice, prone to flat tones . But unlike him, she can belt with a strong, powerful vibrato. Her rendition of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” silenced the theater full of men in tuxes and women in gowns.

And then, she forgot the words. She stumbled, stumbled again, then stopped the guitar accompaniment, apologized, and asked if she could start over. “I apologize. Sorry, I’m so nervous,” she said smiling the tight smile of someone mortified to the point of tears, her cheeks crimson — a human moment in a night of buttoned-up formality. Later, it happened again. It was a stumble big enough to make online headlines. I hope, in the video below, people play beyond the gaffes and listen to the words of this timely and timeless protest song by one great writer, sung by another, blessedly fallible one.

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A Career in Cassettes

 

IMG_7460 I’m trying to find a tape of my circa 1990 interview with Ellen Willis. Haven’t found it yet, but here’s some of what I unearthed: interviews with the entire original cast of Rent, Paul Beatty, Patti Smith, Kathleen Hanna, Mary J. Blige, Stephen Trask, Carrie Brownstein, Bjork — the list goes on and on. One cassette is labeled “Missy/Moby.” Is this my legacy?IMG_7461

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Patti Smith: Coffee Connoisseur, and Crazy Cat Lady?

M-Train-243x366There is no artist whose work I have aspired to more than Patti Smith. Her new book, M Train, can be frustrating, discursive, self-indulgent. As I write in my review for LARB, that’s why I like it.

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Patti Smith’s “Till Victory” De/ReConstructed: A Critical Karaoke

Easter_coverAs promised, I’m finally posting the Critical Karaoke I performed to Patti Smith‘s song “Till Victory” at my presentations at Stanford and Studio Grand Oakland last month. I actually wrote this originally for the senior awards banquet for LMU’s graduating English majors and Journalism minors.  Critical Karaoke is a rhetorical exercise invented by UC Davis poet and professor Joshua Clover that I use frequently in my classes. The idea of Critical Karaoke is that for the length of a song, while that song plays, you speak. Probably, you talk about the song, but the way I use it in class, more often the song is a springboard for other reflections: aesthetic, personal, philosophical, whatever. Basically there’s a formal restriction within which you can do whatever you want. I pretty carefully timed this one to go with the song; I’ve put the lyrics at particular key moments in italics.

This song has been a constant companion for me since I first heard it as a teenager embarking on what the song’s author elsewhere called the “sea of possibilities.” It’s by a woman who has been called the godmother of punk, and embodies the music’s revolutionary inspiration and aspiration.

 “Till Victory”

Patti Smith changed my life. Maybe, she even saved it.

I was in high school when I discovered the Patti Smith Group’s 1978 album Easter, whose tremendous opening chords you just heard. The first song, Till Victory, is a call to arms literally.

(take arms, take aim)

The track, which Patti wrote with her bandmate Lenny Kaye, uses an extended military metaphor, “legions of light” coming to the rescue, airplanes “in V formation,” winged victory. The song always brings to mind that sculpture of the Greek goddess, Nike, descending to congratulate the troops, bust thrust forward, wings back, the muscled lunge of her long left leg stopping the Louvre throngs in their tracks.wingedvictory

But Till Victory is not a war cry. Smith summons our souls for a victory against war. In the album liner notes, the poet offers a prose companion to the song. In this piece, she wanders the streets of postwar Europe and pays homage to filmmakers Godard and Bertolucci. These notes’ last lines make clear that Till Victory is a bid for peace, a new round of sound: “The death of the machine gun. The birth and ascension of the electric guitar.”

“The nail the grail that’s all behind thee.” 35 years before she would play a concert at the Vatican, the first priestess of punk proclaimed a new era. Souls arise from the dead, on an album called Easter, written by a winged goddess who had just recovered from breaking her neck after falling off a stage. Smith declares victory over victories, or at least the ongoing struggle towards triumph.

Music like this, art like this, calls us forward. Its maker imagines a world that could be, a world that I, emerging woman with wings unfolding to carry my big dreams out of a small town, found myself in. Till Victory became an anthem for me, that I have used ever since to rally my spirits in times of weakness and defeat, a goal post, a call to action. May it guide you as you sail out in V formation, to raise the sky.

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