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.
Tag Archives: Patti Smith
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.
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?
As 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.
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.
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.
Sam Cooke used to carry a small wooden ukulele with him on tour. As countless YouTube troubadours and Amanda Palmer have recently discovered, the four-stringed downsized guitars are sweet-sounding instruments that are easy to play and even easier to transport. I love the idea of the soul singer crooning “You Send Me” gently over plucked nylon strings, on a bus, in a hotel room, backstage before a show.
It’s an intimate image, an imagined moment of a deceased artist’s life that became partially real for me last weekend when I saw Cooke’s uke in the vault at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. It was one of many pieces of cultural history I got to witness, even touch, as exhibitions coordinator Shelby Morrison gave me a VIP tour of the climate-controlled room: Chrissie Hynde’s bicycle-club (not biker club) jacket, postcards from Patti Smith, the hat from Lady Gaga’s meat dress. On January 25, I spoke about the Runaways at the Hall of Fame’s Library and Archives (which is housed in a separate building from the museum). Yes, the boys club let the stone thrower in – more on that later. Continue reading
It’s been more than two decades since The Village Voice published my article “The Feminine Critique,” the not-so-secret history of women rock writers. It is still one of the most important things I have ever done. Writer Margit Ditweiler just penned a lovely piece about how the photos for it hung on her wall as inspiration for years, in the blog Tue/Night: