Tag Archives: Patti Smith

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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Touching Relics at the Rock Hall

Queens of Noise

Evelyn McDonnell, Lauren Onkey, and Shelby Morrison. Photo courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives

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.

Sam Cooke's ukulele

Sam Cooke’s ukulele

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

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