It’s All In the Voicing

Patti Smith performing in Finland, 2007

“Patricia,” my mother scolded, “put a shirt on!”

“It’s too hot,” I moaned. “No one else has one on.”

“Hot or not, it’s time you started wearing a shirt. You’re about to become a young lady.” I protested vehemently and announced that I was never going to become anything but myself, that I was of the clan of Peter Pan and we did not grow up.

-Patti Smith, Just Kids


It’s the time-in-a-place, couldn’t-have-happened-any-other-way moments we keep close like the pillars of our personal pantheons that create lives out of impulsive decisions, unfortunate situations, and well-timed placement. It’s the first times that are finales to culminated forces – sometimes well planned, sometimes purely by chance – and the beginnings of incidences serendipitous. It’s the inspired inspiring, the lives of the lost losing themselves to be found, the findings aligning for the world to read, watch, listen.

It’s how a sassy, gender-redefining New Jersey girl becomes the Queen of Punk, spewing brain treats off the sticker-plastered, graffitied walls of her shrine on the Bowery for the Uplifting Gormandizers to chew and chew. For Patti Smith, at least, it began with a shirt without a body.

These are the moments that can impact a generation.

In her first memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith takes us there. And by “there,” I don’t mean New York City’s crime-infested, mind-compressing decade which was smacked by its subconscious when the lights went out, where a man tight-roped amongst clouds to be stained by the smoke of buildings committing arson upon themselves. CBGB doesn’t open until page 239. Smith’s first memoir functions to patchwork her skin and what’s beneath it, stitching together the meanings to what’s shared between passing Hendrix in the hall and scribbling lines in the Chelsea, collaborating with Springsteen and watching her soul mate love another, floating through her first high and experiencing a final goodbye.

These are the moments frequently shadowed by distortion and ongoing melisma, yet cupped around our ears during every note. The songs are the encouraging voices behind slamming stickers on high school lockers and sneaking out to bars where the urinals mimic the lips of the Rocks Off album cover, where the band is too drunk and the bartender doesn’t card.

It’s the whisper when we’re expecting the belt. And for many of us, it’s what we’ve been waiting to listen to all along.

Memoirs by musicians have been frequenting bookshelves at a noticeable rate. Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (the book, not the album) has been on tour, Patti Smith’s second memoir M Train is The National Book Award winner of 2015, Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace’s memoir Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout is set for stores in November, not to mention memoirs such as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Keith Richard’s Life, and Sir Paul McCartney’s Many Years From Now, amongst many other, resurfacing about top ten lists.

It’s pretty easy to quickly answer why. Delving through diary-entry-formatted text of the people who spoke to us, for us, as us is like fishing in the middle of the ocean and reeling in a cloud off the surface. The words are spoken during the murmur after the encore and strike like It was meant to be all along, processing maturity the way you do when your friend is shot dead or you quit your shitty job on the job. Connection, relatability, vulnerability, encouragement – we like to feel that we too live these lives, particularly in all of the humbling moments that convince us we do not.

I could spill you the details of the Mondays my mother picked me up a quarter-hour before the final bell and lugged me with my nylon-string across town to place me, for $20/hr., in a six-by-eight, four-white-walls, hint-of-bummed-cig-scented room with a hungover grad student who had me running scales and fingering the same chords five different ways for long enough to keep my left hand twinging until the following morning, but frankly, I don’t remember most of them. But there was the day in autumn freshman year of high school, in the passenger seat of that maroon 2000 Pontiac Bonneville, backpack in the back seat, guitar case between my knees, at approximately 2:50 in the afternoon, when I heard “Purple Haze,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” and “Europa” for the first time. Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Santana. I had a red and white Fender Starcaster by the end of the week. More than a decade has passed and I haven’t touched a nylon string since.

Similarly does Bruce Springsteen remember seeing Elvis and The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and although The Boss musically has had little impact on me, learning about him historically (one of my favorites is how he’s contextualized in Will Herme’s Love Goes to Buildings On Fire) and hearing him speak about having the “I want to do that” moment, validates that very personal moment I, and countless others, have had in a very personal way.

Of course, there’s the catch: the treatment of memoirs as we tend to treat, say, documentaries. Just as it is important to remember that editing, and therefore structuring, is involved with making a documentary, so too is it with a memoir, if anything more so when the individual’s recognized image and impact within a particular historical time is considered. New York City’s landscape is morphing constantly, and any punks or folk singers looking to reclaim the corners where Patti and Dylan cooked their crumbs will be in for a surprise today without doing some research. But for being a rather distinct genre, the memoir, particularly those of well-known musicians, seem to be gaining importance to a generation swamped by pop culture references frequently claiming nostalgic value, and even more particularly are those written by the vanguards of socio-political questioning through art in the 60’s and 70’s, a relatable time for those feeling like America, again, needs better than getting great. Where memory can be captured, the future can unfold.

As Listener says, We only have what we remember.

And as Patti may suggest, keep your shirts off.

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