Patti Smith’s New York

One of the things that really interests me in life is U.S. regionalism. So today, reader, I’m going to talk about that.

The first part of this blog is about the New York of the late 1960s and 1970s, as viewed through the prism of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. I have to say that, when I was a young woman, I never particularly liked Patti Smith.  (Well, I do like “Because the Night.” But not so much her oeuvre in general.) She seemed like a poseur of major proportions, and, frankly, not particularly musical.

So it was that I had never read Just Kids, about her time as friend, lover, and muse to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1960s and 1970s. Just Kids has been lauded, certainly—it won a National Book award—but I stayed far away.

Until recently. I grabbed it from my local library’s shelves and have read it with some degree of absorption. I ended up with a lot more respect for Patti Smith, who becomes a person of substance as she goes through her life.just kids book jacket

I want to talk about, though, what hit me most forcefully about her recounting of that period, and that was, how crappy New York was to live in during the 1970s. A lot of Just Kids is Patti Smith recounting how poor she and Robert Mapplethorpe were. Literally, not a lot of money—rationing themselves to a shared hot dog. Partly, this is because they were starving artists. But partly, it is because New York took a lot of money to live even in at the time, and they didn’t have it.

I was particularly struck by one anecdote, on their first apartment in Brooklyn. (Which was, at the time, considered cheap compared to Manhattan. It still is, but no longer the place where people restricted to sharing one hot dog can even think about living.) Their first apartment had been used by junkies, and it had used syringes nearly filling the oven and blood on the walls.

This turned my stomach—there’s something about the warmth and comfort of a kitchen being turned inside out this way that’s quite chilling. (I might also add that I just watched the movie CBGB recently, in honor of Alan Rickman, who plays the owner. The time period of CBGB occurs at the tail end of the Just Kids, of course, but the same “incredible and upsetting filth” motif runs through it: huge roaches, overflowing toilets, and so on and on.)

But the anecdote also caused me to start to meditate on New York and the West Coast, because a lot of my own life in New York City at a later period was being shocked that it was so different from the western states I’d come from.

I was completely fascinated by these differences, which manifested in every conceivable way. For one thing, I had grown up on the West Coast and had never really seen a lot of stuff that was really old. And dirty. Which a lot of the apartments I looked at in searching for rentals were. Not as bad as Smith and Mapplethorpe’s rentals, but still.

But also, I was fascinated with the different ways of using space. In both Oregon and California, for example, you found stuff in a grocery store by finding a long horizontal display. Corn flakes, for example, would be in a row left to right.

In New York City grocery stores, by contrast, corn flakes took up the space of one corn flakes box, and the multiple boxes lined up behind it. To a West Coast kid, it was genuinely difficult to see what you were looking for, because your eye was so oriented toward looking for a display that was an expanse.

So that has remained an orienting idea of NY/West Coast; the first is restricted and vaguely crummy in its space (unless you are quite rich); the second is expansive. This idea is one of the reasons I became very comfortable in suburbia. Expansion—spread out houses, spread out parking lots, spread out vehicles—is the animating spatial idea of suburbia, just as it is the animating idea of the West.

That people were expected to put up with so little space, and such crummy space, seemed very bad to me. It seemed bad for art, actually, which is partly about outreach and not constriction. Which is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated with Smith’s narrative, because she accepts the crappiness and the overall idea that artists starve for art completely.

So tomorrow, readers, I’m going to talk about space restriction and space expansion as two separate kingdoms in the US, and further, where we are in these two kingdoms!



Cool Yule; or, a Short Paean to Music of the Season

I am a big fan of holiday music. Once the post-Thanksgiving Friday rolls around, I crank up a collection that now numbers more than 30 CDs/mp3’s and listen to as much as I can before the new year dawns. I love Christmas music, Hanukkah music, Winter Solstice music—you name it, I listen. (And I doubtless would like Diwali music, too, if I could get my hands on some.) I particularly AlbumArt_{00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000}_Largelike to span different types of music: medieval chant with men’s choirs; Anonymous 4 with polyphonic chant and American shape-note singing; classical, like Handel’s Messiah, and tons of carols by popular singers, folk singers, jazz singers, chorales…you name it.

Why? Well, I think the reasons are very similar to those I outlined in a November post on National Novel Writing Month, actually. Holiday music both represents and brings about festival time, reliably, year after year. I have carried my collection with me across the continent, in a bunch of different locales, but it remains an emblem both of time both recurring and special.

But it also represents burgeoning and a type of cultural and spiritual wealth that offsets the fact that the days are growing darker and darker. As the light outside gets less and less, the light inside—represented by lots of trumpets, choruses, and so forth—gets more and more important.

The cultural wealth is demonstrated by the simple plethora of holiday music available. For years, I soldiered on with 3 holiday albums: Joan Baez’s Noel (I’m a big folkie), Handel’s Messiah, and John Fahey’s The New Possibility. (Told you I was a folkie; and for those who have never heard of John Fahey, he was an enigmatic guitarist/folklorist who recorded—some on his own record label–from the 1960s to the 1990s.) Then, a bit more than a decade ago, I branched out into Chanticleer’s Sing We Christmas (everything from medieval music to contemporary African-American gospel) and The Bells of Dublin by the Chieftains (Irish instrumentals in the background; carols in the foreground; and contemporary stuff like “The Rebel Jesus” juxtaposed with, yes, the cathedral bells ringing out ‘round Dublin).

For some reason, those two wildly divergent yet-alike-in-being-about-the-holidays collections spurred me to look at holiday music available. And when I did, I realized that it is the rare performer who has not recorded a Christmas album, whether they are vaguely in the pop field or vaguely in the classical. No kidding: Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Yo-Yo Ma, Bela Fleck, Ray Charles, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Michael McDonald, Bruce Springsteen, Peter, Christmas tree, for holliday musicPaul, and Mary, James Taylor, Rod Stewart, Carole King…and that’s just a very quick look at a literally almost endless list. So much so that every year, I add one or two to my collection. And never fear running out.

For those who love holiday music as I do, and who may be in a space where listening to music is not a distraction one can’t do but a pleasant background one can do (filling out end-of-term rosters, for example! or preparing to travel, planning holiday gifts or parties), I offer links to American Routes great shows on rootsy, folkie, and jazzy holiday music: two Christmases, this one and that one; Hanukkah, and Winter Solstice.

And for chorales and classical offerings, don’t forget the streaming holiday channels on radio stations near and far.

Hat Men

Hey, readers! Today, your Meta-ist is going to strike a bold new path and write on country music.

Listening to country music is not a popular pastime in academia, so far as I can tell, unless you’re in the South. (In that case, publications and tomes are devoted to it.  See, for example, Emory University’s online SouthernSpaces or the publication list of University of North Carolina Press.) I confess to liking country music a great deal; it’s melodic: it’s got immediate memorable hooks: and, with only a little listening, you can pretty easily hear the affinities with Irish and Scottish folk music, in the fiddles and rhythm. Plus, the singers are often pretty terrific, if twanging accents don’t turn you off.

However, my subject today is not actually the music, but the look of country music.

Time was, country music singers looked like, well, country music singers. The men wore sequined and spangled suits (go to YouTube and look up Porter Wagoner) and the women sported huge bouffant hair (think Dolly Parton; look her up on YouTube as well, especially from the pre-1970s). They didn’t look like regular suburban white people throughout, I would say, the 1990s. Think the classic stars established before that decade: Johnny Cash; Loretta Lynn; Merle Haggard; Tammy Wynette; George Jones.

The difference was partly clothes and hair, but it was also something hard to put a finger on: they looked, well, country. Not quite tasteful or regular. They looked poor and not quite ready for prime time—even when, like Johnny Cash, they were on prime time. To see the difference, look at Dolly Parton and contrast her with her sometime co-harmonizers Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. ronstadt-parton-harrisThe latter two look suburban, like the daughters of the middle-class Sunbelt they are. To modify a line from Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer (relevant although describing a very different subject), Ronstadt and Harris have been reliably served lamb chops and orthodontia in a suburban setting. Parton hasn’t.

Partly that’s because many country singers were poor, once upon a time. The hardscrabble childhoods of Cash and Parton, for example, have been well-documented, and Parton, especially, has linked her outrageous sequins and high hair to being poor and desperately wanting pretty things.

It’s not just habitation of a particular socioeconomic strata, though. Country music singers were, once upon a time, marked white people. If we recall George Dyer’s White, one of the ur-texts of graduate school, white people are the norm; they are regular and don’t stand out; there is no valence associated with them. And that’s true of, say, singers associated with the soft rock heyday. Essentially, they look pretty much interchangeable with any other white guy or gal at a mall. Think James Taylor, Carole King, even Joni Mitchell (if artsy). But it isn’t true of country singers until fairly recently.

Now, though, country singers do resemble the rest of white America. Taylor Swift, for example, is a pretty and glam teenager-turned-young-adult who those at the mall can (and do) aspire to be like. Keith Urban looks like a normal long-haired guy, and so do Rascal Flatts (even if the lead singer is portly) and wears black leather.

Partly, that’s because the marked quality—the poor and rural origins in an increasingly prosperous and suburban nation—has faded. Most of these singers are the children of middle-class parents.

So I find the wearing of huge, ill-fitting cowboy hats by some of the men at the Country Music Awards weird, reader.BRAD PAISLEY, CARRIE UNDERWOOD

And worthy of comment.

Two well-established country stars, the host Brad Paisley and Tim McGraw, wore HUGE cowboy hats that came down below their eyes, cut off their eyes from the sight of the viewer, and looked really uncomfortable. For one thing, they didn’t seem to fit. Both men looked like small boys wearing their father’s hats.

Yeah, yeah, I know, the wearing of cowboy hats is traditional in the genre. For a long time it was called country and western, and the cowboy hats are a nod to that history. The open range. The mythic cattle hand. And so on.Tim-McGraw-350x282

But talk about marked. Two singers who used to wear hats, Blake Shelton and George Strait (who can be excused since he’s from Texas, where hats are de rigueur), have largely given them up, and you can almost see on their faces relief at being sprung from stupid haberdashery.

And I don’t believe it’s just a nod to history. The hats were so prominent, so oversized, that they virtually called out for comment.

They seemed to say: “I’m a fairly sophisticated guy in a medium a lot of you don’t think is sophisticated. And to prove it, see this damn hat.” (Both Paisley and McGraw are fine musicians with outside interests; capable of traveling in Europe and enjoying the culture.)

They are marking themselves, I think. The ill-fitting nature made the hats a symbol. In the semiotics of country music, it was a self-conscious, self-reflexive hat. A symbol of hats past.

And maybe, a sense that they don’t fit into the old marked category. They are not big enough to fill their father’s shoes, maybe? After all, the generation of Cash, Haggard, Parton and so forth made a huge leap: from literal poverty to riches, from the hardscrabble South to relative ease, from the confines of one American region to worldwide recognition. The more contemporary group—even if you factor in Paisley’s West Virginia roots and McGraw’s bumpy childhood–have always had more economic ease and more, well, cosmopolitanism.

I could see the “see this” nature of the hats as a political statement. The awards ceremony was surrounded by ads about hard working families with Chevys, serving in the military, and so forth.

It was also surrounded by P Diddy and the wide world, though.

Almost 20 years ago, I went to a very different musical venue—the Metropolitan Opera—to hear Luciano Pavarotti sing in Turandot. He was past his prime; by the time I came to opera, after a childhood and young adulthood of rock, folk, and yes, country, his tenor could hardly be heard above the orchestra.

But you could tell what a great singer he had been, by the tonal quality. More than that, though, in the middle of his aria, he hit a perfect space in body language and tonal quality—and it was apparent that he was singing, representing not only this particular passage, but the soul of Italian music. He represented, felt, the soul of his lineage.

Even if he was in so-so voice, it was a moving moment.

I think the Big Hat guys were doing something similar, visibly representing the past. If the hair of the women and most of the men in country is now roughly normal—unmarked and indistinguishable from any suburban mom or dad—the heads of some of the men aren’t. They are trying to embody their lineage.