“A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”

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I seem to only check in these days to commemorate the passing of a celebrity or other luminary.  2016’s been a really hard year.  Beyond the cataclysmic political changes, my personal life has kind of gone to hell in a handbasket.  With Mom’s illness (illnesses, if you count the last couple of weeks), I’ve just been barely keeping my head above water.  A hard rain is indeed falling on me.  It’s falling on a lot of people, but I’m having a tough time getting out of my own way enough to care.

Patti Smith’s performance of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” is something of an antidote to my personal storm, in spite of this song’s melancholy and ominous sense of doom.  She is so breathtakingly human, so perfectly imperfect.  Smith is that rare artist who means what she says.  She is not putting on characters in the sense that she is masking herself from her audience; the personas she adopts for her music and poetry are all authentic reflections of the person she is.  When she bothers to adopt a persona that is.  Mostly, when Patti Smith says “I” she means herself.  That kind of honesty and bravery is really beautiful and terrifying.  And her fumbling of these lyrics–from a song she probably knew inside and out long before heading to Stockholm, a song by one of her greatest influences–is beautiful in its own way.  She admits to her own fear and nervousness, something most artists would never do on any stage.  But Smith remains as open about that as she is about pretty much everything.  I don’t think most people know how to deal with that.

It’s one of the reasons I tend to retreat when I have problems of my own.  I have a tendency to not want to bother people (something I know I got from my mother; the last couple of months have shown me that many of the qualities I find most upsetting in myself seem to have been inherited from her, either through nurture or nature).  But my retreat is more than that.  It’s also more than my feeling that my problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world (quick. . . name that movie!).  I know, deep down, that people really don’t know what to do with honest emotion and I am crap at hiding my emotions.  I know I don’t know what to do with other people’s feelings.  I always want to do something to help, to make them feel better, but I also know how fucking annoying I find it when people do the same thing to me.  I don’t always want comfort; sometimes, I just want to feel.  It’s hard to do that around other people without making them really uncomfortable.

So I’m gonna try to come out of my self-imposed exile.  Music helps heal me, and I’ve been neglecting even listening to it lately.  I don’t need advice or comfort, although I won’t stop anyone from offering it.  Distraction is nice; waving shiny objects in front of me almost always helps me feel better, but it’s not obligatory.  I just want to break out of my own tangled web of emotions.  I’m still gonna feel them, I’m just gonna try not to hide it so much.  I might melt down on y’all.  I know I’m gonna say stupid stuff.  And like Patti, I’m gonna fumble the lyrics occasionally.  But I’m gonna own that, just like she did.  If Patti Smith can be that open and generous and honest, then I can try it too.

Crap.  I think I just made a New Year’s resolution.

Happy Birthday, Patti!

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Today is the birthday of the brilliant, inimitable, utterly wonderful Patti Smith.  After all the deaths this week, and today’s surprising pop culture news, I thought it would be nice to celebrate something happy.

Aside from her incredible talent and skill as a writer and performer, I love Patti Smith because she is herself.  She doesn’t hide or lie or pretend to be anything else.  Her refusal to be what anyone else thinks she should be, to fit into any easy stereotypes, has probably cost her fame and money.  But those are such fleeting things, and there’s so much more value in living the life you want to live.  Smith has lived her life–all the joy and pain and anger and sorrow of it.  And the art that has come out of that life has made the world a much better place.

Now it might seem odd that I chose a song from Gone Again, the mourning album she recorded after the death of her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith.  But “Farewell Reel” is one of my favorites, and I think it represents the kind of artist and person Patti Smith is beautifully.  It’s open and honest, sad and joyful, both a eulogy for what she lost and a promise to keep living.  That’s what I love about it.

“Rock & Roll Nigger”

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I thought about editing the offensive word out of the title, a word I can’t even say, but that would be disingenuous.  It would also be contrary to what Patti Smith was trying to do with this song.  If Frank Zappa is the Godfather of the Freaks, then Patti Smith is our Queen.

“Outside of society.”  This was a song about what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.  It’s a furious rant at the corporate and conventional forces that keep so many people outside.  It’s a celebration of being on the outside.  Because freaks know that outside is where you really want to be.

See, we freaks, we know that we can pretend and look the part for short periods of time.  We can fake it and fool people into believing we’re “normal” for a little while.  But then one day we’ll slip up.  “Oh, I’m a ________________.”  Fill in the blank with whatever you want; it doesn’t really matter.  Because whatever you put in that blank is going to label you a freak to someone.  They’ll mutter it under their breath like it’s some kind of insult.  But it isn’t.

So listen to this song and remember the power you have.  Yeah, I’m a freak.  I’m a weirdo, a nut job, a looney tune.  I’m a liberal, a pacifist, a feminist, a GLBTQ ally, and I vote.  I like animals better than most people.  I name inanimate objects.  I read fanfiction.  I still watch Scooby Doo.  And I might be a freak, but so is everyone else.  Everyone does something freaky.  Freaks are the only normal people out there.  Thank goodness for that.