Culture

Patti Smith: The Paula Deen of Punk?

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My high school dropout mother taught me to read when I was three.

I soon acquired what I presumed would be a lifelong habit/talent: the ability to read with almost complete attention and retention for hours at a stretch.

Then I sidled up to middle age, and noticed to my horror how long it took me to get to the bottom of a book’s first page.

And when I did make it, realizing I didn’t remember what I’d just (supposedly) read.

That was when I wasn’t dozing off or daydreaming after three sentences.

This means I can still recall large sections of a TIME cover story on Woody Allen just after Manhattan came out, but don’t recall a single word of Liberal Fascism.

I’ll confess something else: I still barely know the difference between Shia and Sunni, or the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.

Sometimes I think Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman are the same guy.

This year I’m turning fifty.

And I’ve decided I just don’t care.

So what to buy with my Christmas Amazon gift card?

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I scrolled down my Wish List.

With a twinge of guilt, I skipped over the world-historical literary broccoli I’d dutifully added over the last few years, and moved The Nick Tosches Reader to my shopping cart.

Tosches was one of the New (Music) Journalists who originated the sometimes exasperating style made (slightly more) famous by Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and Greil Marcus.

If you’ve ever flipped through an old number of CREEM, you know what I mean:

Amphetamine avalanches of adjectives, and half-digested high culture references folded uneasily into felonious slang, topped off with a snotty, juvenile florish: “So put THAT in yer pipe an’ smoke it, daddy-o!”

The desired effect seemed to be: “Dashiell Hammett, on deadline, drops acid.”

Luckily, Tosches outgrew those affectations and is now best known for his magisterial bios of Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis, both of which are excerpted in the Reader, along with samples of that earlier rock criticism.

Pen in hand, I cracked open the 600-page book.

When I looked up, afternoon had turned to evening. When I looked down, I realized I was at the 300 page point.

I even remembered much of what I’d read.

I thought: “This must be what it feels like to take Viagra.”

(Language warning:)

Tosches made his name pulling stunts like “reviewing” Black Sabbath’s Paranoid even though he hadn’t listened to the album, presuming it was nothing but “bubblegum Satanism.”

(The joke was on him.)

Asked to review a Chicago box set, Toshces dutifully critiqued… the box.

(“It may be used as a large, rather unorthodox dice-shaking cup if one is actually quite stupid.”)

When CREEM assigned him to profile Patti Smith, Smith said, “Nick, you know me. Just make something up.” So he did.

But before that, he really did profile Patti Smith, for Penthouse in 1976.

All these pieces appear in the Reader.

When Penthouse came calling, the avant-garde “godmother of punk” was finally famous enough to warrant such a prestige profile, just as Saturday Night Live figured viewers outside the five boroughs would “get” Gilda Radner’s hilarious if unfair and inaccurate “Candy Slice” character, a Patti Smith manqué who pauses during a recording session to brush her underarm hair.

Now, please note that I have all the time in the world for Patti Smith, despite her predictable left-wing blathering.

As a kind of Jackie Robinson of ugly, Smith cut the trail for other talented but non-Barbie female performers who followed after her.

I still listen to some of her songs — “Gloria,” “Frederick,” “Dancing Barefoot” — at least once a week.

So it’s troubling to read this profile, in which a then-30 year-old Smith tries to sound like a bratty, semi-feral girl half her age, throwing around weird shock-value guff about being sexually aroused by concentration camp photographs.

But one paragraph stands out…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMF7JrPHT74

If I wanna say “pussy,” I’ll say “pussy.” If I wanna say “n****r,’ I’ll say ‘n****r.” If somebody wants to call me a cracker bitch, that’s cool. It’s all part of being American. But all these tight-a**ed movements are ****ing up our slang, and that eats it.

By coincidence, Patti Smith turned 67 the week I was devouring The Nick Tosches Reader.

Having polished off Tosches’ interview with Smith, it occurred to me to find out how old Paula Deen is.

Turns out she’s a month younger than Smith.

You may recall that once-beloved celebrity chef Deen was publicly pilloried for, among other things, describing an African-American man who’d robbed her as a “n****r.” Thirty years ago.

I wandered back to Amazon and used the “Look Inside” feature to see whether or not Patti Smith used that word anywhere in her acclaimed — and supposedly candid and accurate — memoir of her artistic coming of age in 1970s New York City, called Just Kids.

I typed in every variation of the n-word I could think of. Each search yielded no results.

To clarify: I don’t care if Patti Smith said the “n-word” repeatedly during the Carter administration or any time before or after.

My question is:

Why don’t the same people who cheered the Paula Deen witch hunt — who called her a crazy old lady and a racist — burn their Patti Smith records, too?