A Bedraggled Angel–Women & Rock

January 10th, 2011 § 1 comment

“It wasn’t pretty, but I was with you all the way,” Patti Smith said as she concluded the first of her annual New Year’s performances at the Bowery Ballroom Wednesday night. In Just Kids, Patti wrote that whatever you’re doing on the new year will be a premonition of what you do that year, which is perhaps why it makes perfect sense for her to play three shows in the final days of December, and to bring in the new year with music. Her opening night is apparently more a “rehearsal” than anything else—“I don’t know why you come tonight”, she said Wednesday, calling us insane—the second performance is Patti Smith’s birthday—she turned sixty four this year—and the closing night is of course New Year’s Eve.

My first time taking part in her tradition, and I unknowingly picked the rehearsal performance. Surrounded by an aging crowd who sees her year after year, listening to Patti tell me about the changes in her work that have transpired between last year’s show and this year’s, (apparently all she had to share of Just Kids last year was the finished cover of the unpublished book), I felt like I had unintentionally picked the worst show for the same reason that the first camera you buy isn’t the best one you will ever own: you have to earn the right to buy a better one. Next year I will see the birthday show, and the year after that perhaps I will brave the crowd and share the new year with Patti Smith. As entertaining and inspiring as I think it would be to spend the last hours of the year listening to Patti ramble and rock, I’m happy that this year I got my feet wet slowly: she seems to require a certain amount of getting used to.

First called the “mother of punk rock” and now referred to as the “godmother of punk,” Patti Smith belongs to a generation of performers who owned their work and the stage, if not always their audience. Like Dylan, Ono, and other performers who’s music treads along the border between poetry and/or performance art, there is a sense of control that Patti exudes onstage, accompanied by a kind of confidence in her right to do with her show, whatever she likes. Her overall persona lacks what you could call the contemporary habit of pandering, where musicians bend their music and performances around the supposed likes and dislikes of their audience. There is as noticeable a difference in the performance styles of individual musicians as there is between performance art and the performative antics of rock & roll.

Since moving to new york and seeing bands play live with greater frequency, I have noticed that the divide between listening to an album and seeing a performance is an enormous one. The visual component of any given show actually shapes how we hear the music itself. Like watching a film, where an actor’s character onscreen makes up much of their appeal off-screen—think of the famous Rita Hayworth quote, “every man I knew went to bed with Gilda, and woke up with me,”—the live component of music adds new layers to the music itself. Add gender into the mix, knowing how differently we as a society behave when watching women rather than men perform, and seeing any show becomes a complicated experience. What we take away from seeing and hearing a live show is dependent on more factors and variables than visual art or even film, and understanding our reactions to it can become messy and convoluted. For example, after enjoying the album The Fool by the L.A. based, female rock band Warpaint, I was upset to find that watching the band perform was to watch the numerous stereotypes forced upon young women not only enacted but celebrated. Accustomed to having a screen divide me from exploitive imagery, it was hard not to overreact to the uncensored display of young women performing the traditionally male antics of rock & roll musicians for men.

In contrast to most female musicians Patti Smith is fascinating to watch onstage because she does, says, and sings exactly what she pleases. Instead of turning her back to her audience like other musical legends, however, what she wants is to connect with her audience. A musician friend of mine observed that her performances are an exercise in specificity, and that each show is about conveying what she feels on one particular night, or in one particular moment, all of which is channeled into her music. She is so intimately connected to her craft, that to see her perform is to somehow see who she is, or who she presents herself to be. Her performances are personal, as are her anecdotes and lyrics. As a way of introducing a song Smith referenced a time when she was twenty-years-old, pregnant with a baby she would give birth to and give up, and exiled from her family and hometown. “Every Sunday I would take a long walk to a deserted beach café to have coffee and a jelly doughnut…slipping a quarter in the jukebox and listening to “Strawberry Fields” three times in a row. It was my private ritual,” she said to us as she prepared to play the Beatles song. Later in her set, Patti introduced her hit Because the Night by reading a short passage from her book, describing Robert Mapplethorpe as he first listened to the song. “Patti,” he drawled, “you got famous before me.”

It’s almost impossible to experience Patti Smith and not to consider her gender, and how it affects her performance. She is herself a contradiction, representing for decades, since before Allen Ginsberg mistook her for a boy, an unmistakable androgyny, with her genderless fashion and messy appearance. At the same time, however, she exudes the softness and kindness of a motherly figure. She vacillates between these two extremes without stress or affect, one minute sweating and spitting onstage like a vulgar rocker, and the next smiling to expose a lifetime of caring wrinkles. Meeting her in Chelsea a few months ago, I thought her face had a kind of weathered hardness to it, while her handshake was warm and inviting. Watching Patti Smith onstage happily reminded of younger women like P.J. Harvey, Bjork, and even the Patti before Patti, Janis Joplin.

Autonomous female musicians are hard to come by, and remain deeply inspiring because of their uniqueness. I have also come to be deeply suspicious of age, and while most women worry about losing their youth and beauty, our most valuable commodity, the older women get the more freedom they seem to have—even if this freedom is the directly result of a certain amount of dismissal. I wonder, after seeing P.J. Harvey recently as she neared or crossed over into her 40’s, if I would have found her more reliant on gender stereotypes in her youth, and I suspect the answer would be yes. Regardless, she remains the only other female musician I have yet to see live who brought to the stage a kind of power and presence that had nothing to do with marketing her sexuality, and instead derived from the persuasive experimentation of her music. While I am drawn to young actresses who carve for themselves a repertoire of “interesting” films, I am frustrated by young female musicians who cannot escape from their gender’s exploitation. If only Patti Smith could persuade my generation of female musicians that they have more to offer.

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§ One Response to A Bedraggled Angel–Women & Rock

  • Alyosha says:

    I really enjoyed this article and also feel that she has so much to teach the young female performers of today. Unfortunately the over sexualization, and stereotyping of female musicians is getting worse and worse with time and I had hoped that this was something that as a society we would overcome. Sadly there are female musicians out there who just use it to acquire money and fame instead of really looking at the profound impact it’s having on our young women, and their understanding of their role in the world.

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