Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Nina Simone Would’ve Been 80 Today…

“I want to shake people up. I want to shake people up more.” These words were once spoken by international super-artist Nina Simone. It’s safe to say she succeeded with her mission: More than 50 years after her debut, few can match Simone’s supreme gifts as a vocalist, pianist, and arranger, the diversity of her repertoire, and the way those songs rattled consciences. Her music’s agelessness, as well as her delivery, has kept the melodies, as well as her message, fresh. And though her contribution to rock ‘n’ roll isn’t the first thing you may think of when it comes to her virtues, Simone was what we call a rocker: Her fierce attitude and the way she adapted some of rock’s best-known songs contributed toward getting across her message of true liberation.

“What we were looking for then was to shake people out of their complacency,” says Al Schackman, Simone’s musical soulmate and foremost collaborator. Schackman served as the genre-defying artist’s musical director, as well as a multi-instrumentalist, guitarist, and musical companion for just about the entirety of her career; the pair shared what both have described as a rare, telepathic communication that served them onstage as well as off. Much of their work together was compiled in 2008 on the four-disc set To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story, which includes a hefty slice of Simone’s “rock” repertoire alongside the jazz, folk, standards, and originals for which she is otherwise famous.

“If you wanted to classify her, she said she was a folk artist,” says Schackman, a Greenwich Village folk scene regular himself, though that isn’t necessarily the kind of folk Simone was talking about. She sang the songs indigenous to a country’s and people’s origins, from New Orleans and the “House of the Rising Sun” to Nigeria and Olatunji’s “Zungo”; she also interpreted Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and the European ballad “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”, among other folk tunes.

For the album To Love Somebody, she took on “Turn! Turn! Turn!” from the folk-rock canon and turned it into a laidback jam. What Pete Seeger had borrowed from the Bible and what the Byrds turned into a reverent folk-rock cover, Simone deconstructed, finding the song’s soul. Another one of her great performances is the self-celebratory “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” from Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. She turned in versions of singer-songwriter classics like Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and Randy Newman’s “Baltimore.” And while George Harrison and Richie Havens were songwriters she relied on more than once, their guitar strums and worldviews apparently music to her ears, she could also sing the blues. Simone was a full-service song interpreter.

“Oh yeah, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins,” says Schackman. “‘I Put a Spell on You.’ He wrote that song like a comedy, like he was the big magician, having fun with it. When she did it, it was dead serious… ‘I put a spell on you, the things you do, don’t you lie’… it was a warning. She’s tellin’ her man, ‘You’d better be cool.’ We did the Guinness Blues Festival in Dublin and Screamin’ Jay was there too, and he came back into the dressing room and he kneeled down in front of her and said, ‘The song was never done ’til you did it.’

“When she did a piece of music, she would claim it as her own. Because it would change totally,” he says, pointing to a version of “Revolution” by the Beatles, as customized by Simone for her own purposes in 1969, one of the most famously intense years in 20th century history.

“The people were directly involved and affected by what was going on… she wanted to make sure that they were really shaken out of what she felt was their sleep. One of the ways that we did that was like really blasting off on the tune, ‘Revolution’, where at the end we try to set off an atomic bomb, that kind of thing. People weren’t expecting that out of her at that time. To all intents and purposes, that one particular piece was a real departure from what her music was known for. It bordered on—I can’t say rock—but it kind of had that feeling.

“In the interludes, in the little breaks, she wanted me to get as far out as possible on the guitar. I used a slide to just really be able to make like explosive sounds… I would be playing notes using the slide,” as when Schackman plays the familiar Elmore James lick the Beatles borrowed for “For You Blue.” “But in the end, I took that slide and just went nuts on it, totally explosive.”

Simone had a rare musical gift, and her commitment as a fierce freedom fighter elevated her stature as an internationally understood and sometimes misunderstood vocalist. Her uncompromising attitude at crossing music with politics put her in a class with musical rebels, from Marvin Gaye and Chuck D to Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Not only did she use her originals like “Mississippi Goddam” and “Four Women” to convey her feelings on race matters, she worked in established pieces like Brecht-Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” to rouse audiences. “‘Pirate Jenny’ will scare the hell out of you the way she did it,” says Schackman. “There were people that came to concerts, like a family with a young kid… and during that song they’d leave. They’d get up and leave the concert ’cause of her language. She was ‘Pirate Jenny.’”

I asked Schackman how he tackled Simone’s notoriously fiery nature. “At times it was very difficult. A couple of times it was dangerous,” he says, though he maintains that Simone’s unpredictable disposition contributed positively to her creative process, especially to her unparalleled intensity onstage. “It helped her to be able to take on different characters. On one night, a song might have one type of character, and on another night, it would have a totally different character. It was wonderful—amazing.” He seeks to clarify that drugs never fueled her: “I can tell you she wasn’t a junkie. She didn’t do dope.”

As Simone famously shifted gears from Duke Ellington to Jimmy Webb, there were certain songwriters she favored: She wrapped her voice around Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, “Just Like a Woman”, and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” as well as the perhaps unlikely Bee Gees, who she ended up covering four times. She gave a psychedelic soul shot to “To Love Somebody”, turned in a breezy “In the Morning”, and also laid down two lesser-known numbers, “Please Read Me” and “I Can’t See Nobody.” According to the liner notes of To Be Free, Simone was turned on to the British-Australian trio by Animals singer, Eric Burdon.

Schackman tells a story of the night in 1964, backstage at the Village Gate, when Simone and Burdon first met. “One time, Art D’Lugoff, the owner of the Village Gate, brought an artist back to see Nina, and he said he was like, her biggest fan. He told her what a fan he was and that she had inspired him… and she attacked him for stealing her song… this white guy had stolen ‘her song.’  I’ll never forget that. He was scared half out of his mind.”

It was Schackman’s understanding that the Animals scoring a hit with “House of the Rising Sun”, a song sung famously by Simone, Bob Dylan, Odetta, and countless others, was what sparked her ire for him. In Burdon’s take on the meeting, the meeting occurred at least a year later, at which time the origin of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, the 1964 Simone track which the Animals hit with in ’65, was up for debate.

“So you’re the honky motherfucker who stole my song and got a hit out of it,” says Simone, according to Burdon in the book not-coincidentally titled Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. Burdon laid on Simone an accusation of her own song-thievery; she responded by warming up to him, and the pair would go on to become friends.

“If she did a piece of music, she would change it completely, not even thinking about it. She wouldn’t be concerned necessarily of where it came from or whom it came from. It’s only what it meant to her,” says Schackman. Some of her most evocative versions emerge when she does Dylan. “Like ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.’ She was very aware of the meaning and the spirit inside of that song,” says Schackman. She delivers Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” in a more somber, less sharp mood than the writer’s own. She also recorded “Ballad of Hollis Brown”, Dylan’s story of a starving farmer who kills himself and his family out of desperation. “It’s one of my favorite pieces I ever did with her, just the two of us,” says Schackman. “It’s an amazing piece of work.

“We were one. We had a telepathy,” he says, and it’s an idea Simone echoes in her autobiography. “… Al was right there with me from the first moment, as if we had been playing together all our lives. It was more than that even: It was as if we were one instrument split in two, I, the piano, Al, the guitar. I had never felt so much freedom in playing; knowing that someone knew where I was going and I knew where he was going. It was like telepathy—we couldn’t lose each other. And Al had perfect pitch, too, so I never had to tell him what key to play.”

“There was never any telling how she would craft a piece of music,” says Schackman. “I honestly have to say, I never really heard her sing or perform a piece of music the same way twice. That’s what I loved about it and that’s what made it difficult for other musicians to play with us. There would be times when we would be playing “The Other Woman” in E flat, and she would take it down to D, three tones, because she was in a certain mood and her voice didn’t want to be that low. Sometimes her voice didn’t want to be that high. She wouldn’t tell you and so as soon as she played her first note, I’d have to whisper over to the bass player the key.

“We were exposed to all kinds of things, and I would bring things to her and she would bring things to me,” explains Schackman. “She listened more to recordings. We’d sometimes hear stuff driving around in the car. She didn’t go in anybody’s direction. She was beyond anyone’s direction,” he says. “A lot of times she was difficult… there were times in her career that she wouldn’t work with anybody and it was just the two of us. I played guitar, bass, conga drums, sitar, vibraphone, running around the stage, depending on the piece of music. To me, that was some of the highest stuff. There was nothing in our way.”

The “Jazz” Age

Nina Simone entered this world on February 21, 1933 as Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina. Her mother was a Methodist minister and her father was an odd jobber; their child’s musical life started officially at four, singing and playing piano as a member of her mother’s AME church choir. Encouraged and supported by teachers and townspeople, she made it to the Juilliard School, though when she wasn’t accepted for further study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she took the blow personally; perceiving her exclusion as an act of racism, she carried the wound with her for the rest of her days.

Out of school, she sought work as an accompanist and developed a following at an Atlantic City piano bar, though fearing her mother would not approve of a daughter in the cabaret business, she went undercover and changed her name to Nina Simone. Her first album, Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club (also known as Little Girl Blue) was released in 1958. It was a huge success—one of those late ’50s records that every American household seemed to have—riding largely on the strength of Simone’s Billie Holiday-inspired take on “I Loves You, Porgy” from the popular musical Porgy and Bess.

“She was put in a jazz category, but she very strongly said she was not a jazz artist,” says Schackman. He and Nina bonded when the two were holding down respective “jazz” gigs in 1957 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “I was playing with my group at a club in New Hope. She was playing solo at a bistro that was part of the Bucks County Playhouse Inn, a very nationally known summer theater. Some people heard me playing and thought it would be great if the two of us would play together, so they asked her, and she said okay, and they brought me down one evening. She looked at me for a second and didn’t say anything, didn’t even tell me what she was going to play and just started her introduction to ‘Little Girl Blue.’ Her introduction was a Bach piece called ‘Good King Wenceslas’—they play it at Christmas. I knew what key she was in and I felt where she was going. So she started on a fugue, a counterpoint, and she got to the first section of it and I came in with a third part. She looked up at me and that was it. She went into her song and we had a three-part invention going and she suddenly comes in with this beautiful little love ballad that was amazing—it blew me away. I’ve never heard anybody be able to isolate music and then sing something totally different on top of it. That was our meeting and we just blew each other away. Afterward she said, ‘I would like you to come for tea… 2 o’clock on Sunday afternoon,’ and gave me the directions to her house. She turned to leave, then turned around and said, ‘And bring your guitar.’”

He explains that they shared bonds that went beyond music. “She was raised in a rural setting, as was I. We both related to that and talked about being footloose and fancy free. She had the church and she came into music through the church and I came in listening to all kinds of music from Hebraic to Indian music. She just totally dug that I went to all those places because those were places she’d go by herself and I’d be able to go with her, playing in the tradition of where she was.”

Schackman says he knew something extremely important happened that day in Bucks County, but where it would lead, he had no idea. Due to a prior studio engagement with Burt Bacharach, he missed the recording session for Little Girl Blue, the album that would begin Simone’s journey away from the piano bars and onto the international stage. In addition to “I Loves You, Porgy”, the album also contained one of her most beloved numbers, “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”

Considering the keys and time changes, the mastery of her instruments and the improvisatory nature of her performances, it’s easy to understand why Simone would find herself classified under the catch-all of jazz. A set list that included “Mood Indigo”, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, and “Wild Is the Wind” would perhaps underscore that classification. But as Simone told author LaShonda Katrice Barnett in the book, I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft, “There are those who think jazz is scatting and nonsense. Jazz is associated with drugs, alcohol, and degradation. I have always resented the label because jazz is not what I play or how I live… I play black classical music, which I feel includes all of the forms I experiment with—the classical tradition, gospel, rhythm and blues, popular music.”

Jazz, or any category, simply could not hold a massive force like Simone. Inspired by the Civil Rights struggle and her socially conscious, artistic friends like Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin, Simone embarked on her political path. She came out strong with “Mississippi Goddam”, her self-penned anthem that transcends genre description
and is perhaps her most recognized composition.

“When I heard about the bombing of the church in which the four little black girls were killed in Alabama, I shut myself up in a room and that song happened. Medgar Evers had been recently slain in Mississippi. At first I tried to make myself a gun… then Andy, my husband at the time, said to me—he said to me, ‘Nina, you can’t kill anyone. You are a musician. Do what you do,’” Simone told author Barnett.

Schackman suggests that, artistically and politically, things had already begun to break open for Simone following their visit to Africa in 1960. “A big influence was when Baba Olatunji took us to Africa for a big international festival, to Nigeria. That was really the beginning of her African traditions.”

Simone brought to the stage African rhythms as well as style—hairdos, jewelry, fabrics—alongside the politics of liberation. She became emphatic against “the injustices of black people, of third world people.” Her song “Four Women” grew from conversations she’d had with black women about personally political issues like hair, skin tone, and body image. And yet, she isn’t among the voices more associated with the Civil Rights Movement in America. I ask Schackman to clarify this somewhat misinterpreted side of Simone’s life.

“She didn’t want to do benefits. She was not non-violent,” says Schackman, a practitioner of Sufism who was also deeply involved in the movement, as a player for singer and activist Harry Belafonte.

“A lot of people in the movement for a long time thought she wasn’t interested in the movement. She was so much bigger than just that. I remember a time at some kind of a civil rights function, cocktail party thing, I was standing with her and somebody came up to her and said, ‘Nina, how come you’re not interested in civil rights?’ She looked at them and she was screaming, ‘Civil rights? I don’t have to be interested in civil rights. I am civil rights.’”

As time went on, Simone became more and more disenfranchised from America, its politics, and its audiences. In 1970, she moved to Barbados; the singer/activist and her friend, Miriam Makeba, suggested she move to Liberia, where Simone would go on to claim she lived some of her happiest days (she wrote “Liberian Calypso” in tribute). She also lived in Europe, and eventually France became her home until her death from breast cancer in 2003.

“I don’t like this country,” Simone told author Barnett. “I never did. America will sell her soul for money. You see this everywhere. People selling themselves, their mothers, brothers, and sisters for money. Black people don’t get their due here… I couldn’t live here if I wanted to because I have to stand up for my rights and those rights of black people everywhere. I’m sure they would find a way to silence me.

“Now that I am older, I realize I can’t change the world, but I still believe that if anyone can, it is the artist. It is always through art that society changes—not politics or even education. Art and music especially speaks to people more than government and education. Why do you think great nations have patronage for their artists?”

And yet, there is one form of art that Simone did not embrace and that was rap music. “It is another way that America has learned to sell us. Slavery has never been abolished from this country’s way of thinking.” Uninspired by music and America, author Barnett asked Nina Simone, inspiration to so many singers, writers, and activists, where she receives her inspiration.

“Nothing made in America inspires me now. I wish that a young black American leader would come along and lead his people out of darkness. That would inspire me.”

—originally published on June 5, 2009 in Crawdaddy!

Filed under: Nina Simone, , ,

Belafonte Honored by NAACP, Voices Need for ‘Radical Song’

Actor, singer and activist Harry Belafonte accepted the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal on Friday night in New York City for outstanding achievement by an African American in 2012. Reprising a powerful speech he delivered at the NAACP Image Awards on February 1 in Los Angeles,  he urged Black America, especially its artists, to get involved in the ongoing fight for social and economic justice, particularly in the areas of gun and prison reform, and eradicating poverty.

Asking for leadership while calling out the names of his mentors, his inspirers, those he cited as his moral compass, “W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Bobby Kennedy, Ms. Constance Rice and perhaps for me, most of all, Paul Robeson,” he honored their names and others like them as “The men and women who spoke up to remedy the ills of the nation.”

He elaborated on the role the accomplished singer, actor, athlete, and activist Robeson played in inspiring his own work as an artist/activist.

“For me, Mr. Robeson, was the sparrow. He was an artist who made those of us in the arts understand the depth of that calling when he said, ‘Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.'”

Belafonte continued with his own inspiring message to America’s next freedom singers. “Never in the history of black robesonAmerica has there be such a harvest of truly gifted and powerfully celebrated artists. Yet, our nation hungers for their radical song. In the field of sports, our presence dominates. In the landscape of corporate power we have more of a presence of captains and leaders of industry than we have ever known. Yet, we suffer still from abject poverty and moral malnutrition.”

He suggested as a solution, that what’s missing in the struggle for justice today is radical thought. “America keeps that part of the discourse mute,” he claimed.

“I would make an appeal to the NAACP as the oldest institution in our quest for dignity and human rights that they stimulate more fully the concept and the need for radical thinking…Unless Black America raises its voice loud and clear…America will never become whole, and America will never become what it dreams to be, until we are truly free.”

Here is the speech in its entirety from today’s broadcast of Democracy Now.

Read more on Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson and singing for justice in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, , , ,

Lives and loves: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

“He wrote me a note to say we would make art together, and we would make it with or without the rest of the world,” writes Patti Smith of Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids, her memoir of their lives and great love. Concerning their time as young artists discovering New York City and themselves in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, not only would both of them make art together, they would eventually become nothing short of internationally recognized, particularly among artists, freethinkers, and members of their blank generation. But while Mapplethorpe’s life was cut short by AIDS in 1989, Smith lived on to keep the fire of rock’s poetic origins alight, Mapplethorpe’s influence on her inseparable from the origin of inspiration in her art and life.  Without his prodding—his love—it’s quite possible that an entirely different Patti Smith than the one we know would have emerged. In Just Kids, Smith reveals Mapplethorpe’s commitment to art, his companionship, and his collaboration in the years leading up to her debut album Horses was invaluable to its creation: Not only did he capture the image of the poet/rock star-to-be on its cover, but it was he who first encouraged her to sing.

Produced (reportedly with some difficulty) by John Cale and performed by the Patti Smith Group (with songs written mostly by Smith and co-writers Tom Verlaine, Allen Lanier, and members of her group, specifically Lenny Kaye), Horses launched at least a hundred punk bands, if not a generation of kids with punk attitude, and it remains fully alive today. Infused with the spirit of Smith’s dead poet/rock ‘n’ roll heroes—particularly Arthur Rimbaud, the libertine poet whose spirit she’s kept moving through rock ‘n’ roll—the first word of the first song is “Jesus,” as Smith cleverly fuses her own invocation to Van Morrison, proclaiming rock ‘n’ roll “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo.” Whether intertwined with the Catholicism of Mapplethorpe’s youth or with Rimbaud’s travels to Ethiopia and his relationship to Rastafari, Smith made bold statements, particularly for a young woman who claimed to be shy by nature; she summoned the spirits of two men named James (Hendrix and Morrison) with three Bobs (Marley, Dylan, and Neuwirth) or four if you count Mapplethorpe, and her own strong desire to merge poetry with performing rock ‘n’ roll.

“I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this… yet, I harbored that conceit,” she writes in Just Kids. Her connection with Hendrix was slightly more intimate: She was invited to the opening of his recording studio, Electric Lady. “I was excited to go. I put on my straw hat and walked downtown, but when I got there, I couldn’t bring myself to go in,” she writes. “By chance, Jimi Hendrix came up the stairs and found me sitting there like some hick wallflower and grinned.” He talked to Patti, revealing that he didn’t like parties either. “He spent a little time with me on the stairs and told me his vision of what he wanted to do with the studio. He dreamed of amassing musicians from all over the world in Woodstock and they would sit in a field in a circle and play and play… Eventually, they would record this abstract universal language of music in his new studio. ‘The language of peace. You dig?’ I did.” And then he was off, to catch a plane to England, from which he never returned. Smith read the news of his death about a month later while on a trip to Paris—on one of her rare respites from her gigs as a bookstore clerk/rough living artist/caretaker of Robert.

In New York, she happened to meet singer-songwriter and painter Bob Neuwirth in a coffee shop (she recognized him from the Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back), and becomes just a little more inspired to try her hand at turning her poems into songs. “Next time I see you I want a song out of you,’ he said as we exited the bar,” she writes. But when she reports to Mapplethorpe of meeting Neuwirth, the photographer snaps back, “Maybe he’ll be the one to get you to sing, but always remember who wanted you to sing first.” Mapplethorpe doesn’t approve of Smith’s Marley-inspired pot smoking either, but the pair go on to spark up some sacred herb together, in the name of enhancing creativity.

Trying on her voice, reading her poetry aloud, Smith dove into performance mostly without Robert’s help, as he was moving deeper into the world of street hustling (this time it’s Patti who is disapproving). She reads for unappreciative fans of the New York Dolls and gets heckled by drunks before finding her sea legs and accompanists—first guitarist Lenny Kaye, and then Richard Sohl on piano. But when it’s time to record a single, it’s Robert who pays for the studio time at Electric Lady. For the recording, they choose “Hey Joe”, a song made famous by Hendrix. While Jimi closed his set at Woodstock with it, Smith and co. use it to usher in the era of the punk rock seven-inch. Recording at Jimi’s place, “I felt a real sense of duty,” she told the Observer in 2005. “I was very conscious that I was getting to do something that he didn’t.” Though Horses’ de facto title track “Land” was famously inspired by William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys, the lesser-acknowledged last third—“La Mer (de)”—makes reference to Jimi (“In the sheets there was a man”), as well as Rimbaud. “Elegie”, the final song on Horses, is also for Hendrix: It was recorded on September 18th, the anniversary of his death. “I think it’s sad, just too bad, that all our friends can’t be with us today,” she wrote, the words closely echoing those from Jimi’s “Well, it’s too bad that our friends can’t be with us today,” from  “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” from Electric Ladyland. As for fellow inspirer and rock star ghost Jim Morrison, “Break It Up” was based on a dream Smith had about him covered in plaster—like a statue.

Patti Smith - HorsesThe making of Smith’s own image as a rock star poet was yet another Mapplethorpe collaboration. “You should take your own photographs,” she once told him, and eventually he turned his attention away from jewelry, objects, and installations and towards photography. For the Horses cover Mapplethorpe knew exactly what he wanted, and so did Smith: “I flung the jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style; I was full of references,” she writes. Though still developing as a photographer, Mapplethorpe was clear that he would work only in shades of black and white. Illuminated only by natural light, he got the image of Patti in 12 shots.

“Patti, you got famous before me,” said Mapplethrope in 1978 as he and Smith walked the streets of Greenwich Village. “Because the Night”, the song Smith wrote with Bruce Springsteen, blared from a series of storefront radios, “fulfilling Robert’s dream that I would one day have a hit record,” Smith writes. The song rose to lucky 13 on the pop charts, but Smith was burning out on the biz before she’d barely gotten stared in it. Following the recording of the album Wave, produced by her friend Todd Rundgren and again cover photographed by Mapplethorpe, she retreated from New York and rock to live as a wife and mother in Detroit, where her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, hailed. But the hiatus didn’t really take, and by 1986, she was ready to make a comeback. With the encouragement of her husband, she called her old friend Robert to see if he would shoot a portrait for the album, Dream of Life; Mapplethorpe, who had become a major art star in the interim, took the photo of Patti as a 40th birthday gift. But the reunion between artists was fated to be brief, and the sessions that took place yielded some of his final photos.

Mapplethorpe’s patron and partner Sam Wagstaff succumbed to AIDS during the making of the album (Smith and Smith recorded “Paths That Cross” in Wagstaff’s memory). She had sung “The Jackson Song” (for the Smiths’ son) in which Mapplethorpe is also referenced (“little blue star that offers light”) to Wagstaff as a lullaby in his final days. Recording for Dream of Life continued, and she wrote “Wild Leaves” for Robert on the occasion of his 41st birthday. Somewhere in this mix, Smith and Smith also penned an enduring protest anthem, “People Have the Power”—the kind of song people sing when they need to raise a little spirit to keep on keeping on. Dream of Life was finally released in June of 1988, 10 years after the success of “Because the Night.” Mapplethorpe died in March of 1989, and Smith wrote “Memorial Tribute” (“little emerald soul, little emerald eye”) for him (it appears on the 1993 No Alternative AIDS awareness compilation).

In 1994, Fred “Sonic” Smith died, followed by the death of Patti Smith’s brother Todd and her bandmate Richard Sohl. Soon to turn 50, she returned to Electric Lady for the recording of the 1996 album Gone Again, a tribute to her dead friends and loved ones. Kurt Cobain was mourned (“About a Boy”) and soon to be gone Jeff Buckley sang on “Beneath the Southern Cross”, a song that survives as part of the Patti Smith Group’s concert repertoire. Following an eight year gap after Dream of LifeGone Again, recorded in Fred’s memory, proved to be Smith’s real comeback. Now without Fred or Robert, she was supported as ever by guitarist Lenny Kaye and by new friend Oliver Ray, a young poet and guitarist who joined her band and photographed her. Michael Stipe (who had been inspired to become an artist himself upon hearing Horses) was also on board as a road friend when Bob Dylan invited her to tour with him. Back on the swing shift as a musician, there was no time to write the book she promised Robert on the day before he died that she would one day write.

In 2010, 35 years after its debut,  Horses was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, archived for posterity alongside sonic artifacts by Little Richard, Willie Nelson, and Ethel Merman. That same year, Just Kids won the National Book Award. Moved to tears as she accepted the honor, Smith recalled what it was like to work as a bookstore clerk, dreaming of what it might feel like to author a book with the award-winning seal one day. “Thanks for letting me know,” she said by way of acceptance. For the reader, Just Kids is the kind of book that serves not only as a history of a bygone age or a how-to as an artist, but as inspirational literature. It is a reminder that we are all members of the human family and artists of the everyday. If we are lucky, we have friends, relatives, and inspirers, our own set of losses, and our own unique memories, as well as a collective conscience from which we draw. There are dreams to be accessed and visions to fulfill, all day, everyday, whether through words, music, pictures, or the creation of an artful life. As Allen Ginsberg told Patti upon the occasion of the death of Fred “Sonic” Smith:  “Let go of the spirit of the departed and continue your life’s celebration.”

While Mapplethorpe depicted dark against light—and vice versa, his increasingly sexually explicit images landed him in much hot water. But there is something innocent in his early photograph of Smith that portends more about the new wave of rocker than words could have ever described at the time: Smith is an original and reverent, androgynous yet vulnerable, regular but inscrutable. Mapplethorpe’s true image of her on Horses ripples through the contemporary persona who conducted the interviews for Just Kids: Patti Smith in black and white has her humble and “bravada” sides; the disheveled waif converges with the mensch in designer clothes. Open but reserved, she is a wizened poet who’s still girlish, gangly, and awkward—and still very much in love with art and life.


Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Origin of Song, Poetry, Punk, Reggae, , , , , , ,

Bob Marley Day: Positive Vibration

“I and I vibration is positive (got to have a good vibe),” sang Bob Marley. Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1946 in the Nine Mile village of St. Ann’s Parish, to a black mother and a white father.  Shuttling between two worlds, two homes, Marley translated a fractured urban/rural experience into a music with an alarmingly positive vibration that also sent a message.  Born from an expression of outrage at injustice and frustration at western societal values, Marley’s sound was as unique as it was soulful and universal; today, his image serves as an international symbol of peace and liberation. There were of course detractors—people who found fault with Marley’s brand of “Rastaman vibration”, his strength and his convictions. “Government sometimes maybe don’t like what we have to say,” he once said. “Because what we have to say too plain”, while  non-believers had little patience for what they heard as platitudinous refrains, along the lines of “Every little thing gonna be alright ” from the song, “Three Little Birds.”

Doom-saying, despair, negativity and futility were not in Marley’s repertoire: “Why not help one another on the way? Make things much easier,” he sang. He also backed up the message in the music with action, as in 1978, when he was called out of exile by Jamaican authorities and asked to return home to Kingston,  to join the effort to help quell escalating violence there. At the One Love Peace concert, Marley called opposing party leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga to the stage and raised their hands in a show of unity.

Taking his cues from the messaging in the records of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, the teachings of Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey (a Rastafari prophet), and with devotion to Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie whom he believed to be the incarnation of Jah or God, Marley, alongside Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, brought reggae music to the world as the Wailers.  Their songs provided not only temporary relief from fear, loneliness, isolation and other human conditions, they were also stepping stones toward solutions to world war, poverty, famine, and all forms of human rights violations.  A short life with maximum impact, Bob Marley died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 36;  his eulogy was delivered by Prime Minster Seaga.

In this upcoming clip, comedian/activist Dick Gregory pays tribute to Marley’s work as he introduces him to the stage at the Amandla–Festival of Unity for Southern Africa, held at Harvard Stadium in 1979 (the event also attempted to shed light on race relations in Boston).  Marley is accompanied by his band and the I Threes, featuring Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths and his wife, Rita Marley.


More on Bob Marley and music activism in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Bob Marley, Keep On Pushing, Reggae, , ,

“Sister Rosa”

February 4 is the birthday of Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist remembered for refusing to move to the back of the bus: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, in the name of the desegregating public transit, was organized immediately following her arrest on December 1, 1955.

Born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913, Parks was a student of non-violent protest and an active member of her local chapter of the NAACP in Montgomery, but her refusal to move on the bus that day was not part of any kind of group action or occupation—she held her seat on her own steam. And yet far from receiving any heroine’s awards, Parks paid the price for asserting her right to ride: In the immediate aftermath of the desegregation effort, she could no longer find work in Montgomery.  She and her husband Raymond moved north, eventually settling in Detroit where she worked the better part of her life as a secretary for US Representative John Conyers.

Parks would one day receive the highest honors in the land– from the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal (Harry Belafonte will be honored this year), to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to her by President Bill Clinton) and the Congressional Gold Medal.  But if you dared to mess with the Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement and her legacy in a movie or a song, look out:  Parks was liable to slap you with a legal action or a boycott. “Sister Rosa,” a tribute to her by New Orleanians, the Neville Brothers, appears to have passed the test (though atypically for the Nevilles, it’s a rap track, taken from their 1989 album, Yellow Moon).

Parks passed in 2005, though matters of her personal estate have not been resolved and her detailed personal archive has not yet found a permanent home.  She would’ve been 100 this year.  For more information on Rosa Parks, visit the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute.

Filed under: Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, , , , , , , ,

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