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Devotion: Why I Write/Book Review

shoppingDevotion: Why I Write
Patti Smith
Yale University Press 2017

A few pages into Devotion, Patti Smith’s recent meditation on writing (originally delivered as a lecture at Yale), I wondered, Is it really possible/desirable/commendable to live this sort of contemplative literary intellectual existence in America/the world in the 21st century? As I moved further into the book, however, I became enveloped in its calm and confident atmosphere, and such nagging prosaic questions disappeared.

In the past two decades Patti Smith has been highly prolific literarily; at 69, she is certainly aging well, and still inspiring generations of artists. An illuminating piece of Patti Smith trivia: after the phenomenal success of Horses, plus a few more albums, shopping-1.jpegSmith retired more or less from public life with her husband Fred, had two kids, and stayed home to raise them–getting up early each day to write. In a recent interview with Alec Baldwin she says that she loved her life at that time, and the continual writing served to hone her craft. She said she couldn’t have written the books she’s writing now were it not for those years of practice.

Certainly her books show a high level of skill, while leaving space for her dream states and moments of transcendence. In Devotion she outdoes herself, performing a feat of magic that I’ve never seen from any other writer: in a scant 93 pages she shows us her mental process.

This is how: In Part One Smith writes a journal of the hours leading up to a trip to Europe and the first few days of business with her French publisher; here she includes the minutiae of daily life: what she ate for breakfast, the book she read on the plane, the images on her television at night. Part Two, the centerpiece of Devotion, is a work of fiction–a short story, novella, whatever one wishes to call it–in which the reader gets to stare directly into the writer’s brain! Talk about “Show Don’t Tell!”  We get to see how characters and descriptions in a story reflect details written earlier, in Part One. We literally get to see life interwoven with art. And the story is so finely wrought that I completely forgot I was reading something by Patti Smith–something I, as a long-time admirer, am acutely aware of when reading her non-fiction. The final section of the book describes a visit to the home of Albert Camus’ daughter, where Smith reads his unfinished last manuscript, and eventually answers the question “Why Do I Write?”

The sum total of Devotion‘s parts is a glorious trip, an exploration of a writer’s mind. It should be assigned reading in every writing class from here on in.

POLAD518HIRES

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Everything I know I Learned From Art

 

Having just watched No God No Master, a 2012 film about the Palmer Raids of the 1920s and, peripherally, the railroading and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, it occurs to me that everything I know about history I have gleaned from movies, novels, and song lyrics. Before seeing

Sacco & Vanzetti (Photo: Wikipedia)

Sacco & Vanzetti
(Photo: Wikipedia)

this movie, I did not know that Emma Goldman was deported from the US, never to return. I had no idea what the Palmer Raids were, and though I knew about Sacco and Vanzetti, I was fuzzy on the details (though I knew a bit from Holly Near‘s song Two Good Arms.)

This is not the history they teach in American schools—at least, it’s not anything I was taught.

Thanks to Doris Lessing I know something about colonialism in Africa. I learned about the French Revolution from Marge City of DarknessPiercy‘s City of Darkness, City of Light. I know the history of India from dozens of novels by Indian writers, most notably A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and, to a lesser extent, the film Gandhi. Recently I’ve gotten a dose of Nigerian history from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Lest anyone think I’m swallowing works of fiction or Hollywood productions whole, I almost always look up the facts online afterwards; even before the Internet, I did my homework, especially when writing book reviews: I compared Piercy’s details in the abovementioned book to those of historians Will and Ariel Durant—Piercy, who does exhaustive research for her novels, was remarkably faithful to the facts.

When I was in my teens, my twenties, and beyond, I read so many books and saw so many movies about the holocaust and slavery that they no longer fascinated but enraged and depressed me, until I finally swore them off; besides, I could probably write up a syllabus for each. Recently I added domestic violence to the list; having worked in a battered women’s shelter some years ago, I don’t need anymore painful education in that department either.

I don’t listen to music, read literature, or watch movies in order to learn, but because it’s what I love to do. Still, it makes me furious that I wasn’t taught important historical events in school, where they just threw dates of wars and generals at us, not to mention lies about our country. It just goes to show that in the end, as Virginia Woolf noted, it’s the artists who’ll save us.

 

Nowhere Boy: Film Review

movie posterNow I know why I’ve always disliked the song “Julia”—the only Beatles song, other than the misogynist “Run For Your Life”—that I’ve ever said that about. It’s so dirge-like and mournful, so different from their usual upbeat fare, including their ballads. Having just seen Nowhere Boy, the story of John Lennon and his two mothers (Mother Julia and Aunt Mimi), I know why the song is such a downer: it is in fact a dirge, a kind of epitaph for the woman who gave birth to John and cared for him until he was five, when Mimi took and raised him.  Nowhere Boy brilliantly takes a slice of John’s life, short in duration but deeply significant, to create a film that encapsulates almost everything we  need to know about Lennon to understand the man and his music.

–MILD SPOILERS AHEAD–

The movie opens with John as a 16-year-old madly in love with American rock ‘n’ roll, but with no musical knowledge or training.  Through a series of events he comes in contact with his mother, Julia, who he hasn’t seen since he was five. At that time his father tried to take him from her, planning to drag him off to New Zealand. Julia passively let him go, but her sister Mimi grabbed him from his father and, with her husband, raised him.

Mum is now remarried with two daughters, and thrilled to see her long-lost son—who lived right around the block from her! Julia’s a lively gal, and behaves more like John’s girlfriend than his mum in every gesture and act, but this is never commented upon in any way by anyone. Julia’s husband doesn’t want John hanging around so much; apparently Julia’s prone to breakdowns, and he thinks she can’t handle it. And Mimi–well! It’s the age-old story of the sensible devoted woman who fed, washed and looked after John all these years being shoved aside for the flighty beauty who abandoned him.

Unfortunately, the story went a little differently, according to Julia Lennon’s bio in Wikipedia, than this cinematic portrayal; actually, not a little but quite a lot: “After complaints to Liverpool’s Social Services by her eldest sister, Mimi Smith (née Stanley), she handed over the care of her son to her sister. ” Additionally,  Julia saw John almost every day, and by the time he was eleven (and not, as the film tells us, 17) he was frequently staying overnight at her house. Having read the story after seeing the movie, I can’t help but question its point-of-view entirely.

One place where history and art agree, however, is that Julia influenced John’s development as a musician. In the movie she hands John a mandolin and teaches him to strum (“think Bo Diddley, she says”) and she’s always singing and dancing with him. “Why can’t I be Elvis?” he moans, and Julia replies, “Because the world is waiting for you to be John Lennon.” That quote is just too beautiful to complain about, even if the screenwriters made it up.

AaronTaylorJohnsonWhile John and Julia are getting to know each other John forms a band, begins performing, and meets Paul McCartney.  Thomas SangsterPossibly the best thing about Nowhere Boy, at least to my pure delight, is the casting for John and Paul: respectively, Aaron Johnson and Thomas Brodie Sangster. Each of them slips into his persona so effectively that after awhile they begin to look like the originals—and it couldn’t have been easy, psychologically, to play a pair of beloved icons for an audience mostly familiar with them. Their relationship is portrayed from the start as a rivalry, but I don’t know if the filmmakers were being faithful to reality or merely to legend.

The end of the movie is a matter of historical record, but if you don’t know it and don’t want to, stop reading. I didn’t know it, and was stunned when Julia got hit by a car and died.  When the movie was over, the song “Julia” kept slogging relentlessly around in my head on its endless loop of grief, and I had to play it—only to find that, knowing what I do now, I no longer hate it at all.Paul

JohnLennon-NYC

Bob Dylan On Tour

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Shoreline Amphitheatreamericanarama_web_1
Bob Dylan
Morning Jacket
Wilco with Bob Weir

He’s still got it. By it I don’t just mean talent, energy, brains, and that gravelly voice revealing not a single word with clarity, though there’s still all that. I mean that slippery quality so hard to describe: charisma. Only a few of the greats have it: of my generation’s idols, off the top of my head I’d name Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith. But nobody’s as charismatic as Bob Dylan.

For awhile back there I thought he lost it:  around the late 90’s, before the fabulous trilogy of Time Out of Mind,  Love and Theft, and Modern Times, when I saw him perform in Berkeley. At that show he did only the older songs, but he’d altered the melody of the tunes and mangled the lyrics in a different way than what he does now, i.e., unintentionally. That performance seemed to be without focus, passion, or even simple motivation. In hindsight I see he was experimenting, working his way back home. He has arrived—before last night no doubt, but this is the first performance I’d seen since then. It was nearly mesmerizing, and if not for an unruly audience it would have been (more on that later). The band was tight, practiced, right in there with, for, and behind their lead man. All but five older songs, as far as I could tell, were from his most recent album, Tempest,  which I don’t have—an oversight I will remedy today. A new-ish arrangement of She Belongs to Me was haunting, even better than the original. And he’s turned All Along the Watchtower into a danceable number with the addition of a few rockin’ musical interludes. But speaking of danceable…

…Here comes my tirade. The two earlier acts—Morning Jacket and Wilco, joined by Bob Weir on a few numbers—were pure rock n’ roll, loud enough that I needed earplugs, rockin’ enough that most of the audience was on its feet, including me. I like Wilco a lot, though they sound better, IMO, on their recordings. Clapping, dancing, shouting, and jumping around is entirely appropriate when these groups play. But when Bob Dylan sits down at the piano and snarls “You know something is happening/but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?” it’s time to listen up. You’d be surprised what can happen to your mind during a 3- or 6-minute song played and sung by this man. It’s a different experience than hearing a rock band, and not exactly dance music.

colorfulOldGalYa ya, Granny, I can see you kids rolling your eyes at the fuddy-duddy. Okay, so maybe you don’t want that kind of experience, maybe you don’t care one way or another. Fine. But do not prevent me from having it! Besides the dancing, the whole place was chaos during Dylan’s performance: going out to buy refreshments, socializing like they were at a party, and climbing over me to get out of the aisle. One girl had gone in and out at least 20 times during the last four hours, so when she interrupted my communion with Dylan to go visit with friends, I told her, “This is the last time!” She was stunned, but she never crossed my path again. A number of people even left the venue, as in went home, during Dylan’s performance! Who are these people?!

Bob Weir

Bob Weir

To backtrack for a moment: One of the show’s highlights prior to Dylan’s set was when Bob Weir,  Wilco, and My Morning Jacket together sang a bunch of Grateful Dead songs. Weir’s face is showing the years, but his voice is as powerful as ever. Their set concluded with a flawless version of When I Paint My Masterpiece. As the friends I’d come with said, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Fortunately, not everyone had Attention Deficit Disorder. As we made our way to the parking lot after the show, a young woman heard me talking to my friend about Dylan’s music, and she began asking me questions. It was her first Dylan concert, and she wondered if he might’ve been in a bad mood since he didn’t chat up the

Photo: Bob Dylan's website
Photo: Bob Dylan’s website

audience, not even with a hello or a thank you. As I told her, he never does: I’ve been to five or six Dylan concerts and I’ve never heard him utter a single word other than his lyrics. She asked a few more questions, and I delighted in answering her; seldom am I asked to pass down my Dylan folklore and rock history, and I much enjoyed the role of wise elder. It almost made up for the earlier audience behavior. Almost. Young woman, if by chance you’re reading this, I thank you. May you continue to cross generational lines and to revel in our magnificent musical heritage.

Poetry

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This first poem was written by my friend Joani Reinmuth, an artist who makes jewelry, and who doesn’t consider herself a writer and never wrote a poem before this one. Coming from someone who isn’t “a poet” it blew my mind.

A Day Really
By Joan Reinmuth

Before visiting summer we get Mothers Day,MothersDayFlowers2
the revising a draft day,
a saving and backup day.
24 hours of reference to no specific work or detail
just like the plug in a socket.
As if all transactions and reactions occurred on one
day, words borrowed and same day credit given.

Whatever happened to the daily fiddling,
critical thinking, pop-up engineering,
and all other problematic comparisons.

Who pressed flowers in the cast iron frying pan,
did homework with the dog, and
used a highlighter to assess and change the plan.

And, for a clearer idea, who else every day,
all day shoves the monsters back into their cave.

This next one is mine.

Strange Blues

Hildy had strange blues I mean she had
some mighty strange blues after Janie died.
Hildy knew all about the blues—
death blues & love gone bad bluesUnknown
no moneyfoodorliquor blues
homesick blues and Momma blues
Daddy blues and too old to tango blues
but these blues were nothing like those.
These were strange blues.

She was a Stranger accordin’ to the law.
That’s what she was to Janie said the judge.
(He called her ‘The Deceased’.)
They weren’t spouses. How could they be spouses?
They were both women, each having 2 boobs
one pussy and no dick on the premises.
Thus there’d been no wedding no license no cake
no spouses and what about spice?
Hildy could still laugh but
Legal Strangers said the judge
pounding his gavel.
That’s what you are by law: A Legal Stranger.

That’s what gave Hildy the strange blues
for sure. She’d held Janie’s hand
‘til her spirit left her tired body
so how was she a stranger?  No, said the judge, not
a stranger; a Legal Stranger. Look it up.

So she did. Hildy looked under L and S in the big dictionary
in the living room and the paperback dictionary
in the kitchen with the cookbooks
and she looked under the catboxes and
in the bookshelves and in the drawers of
all four desks. (One for each grownup, one
for each kid.  Intellectuals, friends used to tease.)

In every dictionary she turned to L and then to S.
but could not find these Legal Strangers
giving Hildy  strange blues tonight:
real strange blues.

Get out your guitar
and strum the Legal Stranger Blues.
Betcha can’t. Betcha won’t.
O sure, you can play the Sam Cooke blues
the Ray Charles blues   Aretha blues
Johnny Cash blues and
the last of the red hot momma blues
but music doesn’t do the Legal Stranger blues
or know ’bout Legal Strangers
only Strangers in a Strange Land
of judges no spouses no wives and no rights.