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Rock ‘n’ Roll N


Warning! Late-night language.

I think that the only time I’ve ever uttered the “n-word” out loud is in singing along with this song. I still can’t bring myself to type it or speak it in any other context, but the thing is that Patti Smith turns the meaning of the word on its head. She turns a terrible word into a liberating word, or as close to that as possible. She refers to a whole varied raft of people, inlcuding herself, “grandma,” Jackson Pollock, Jimi Hendrix, and Jesus Christ as “n”s. By doing so, she transforms the “n-word” into a commentary on the collective of all those “outside of society” and of the implied negative costs of conformity of whatever type. Fitting in is not a desirable trait here.

Whether this song works for you or is just too shocking and repulsive in its language, there’s an attempt to recognize a commonality and a solidarity. Certainly, I’ve never been the kind of hellion that Patti Smith once was, but I grew to love the way she examines what it means to be different from the norm. The album Easter came out in 1978, and for me it was the beginning of awareness that there are people who celebrate their differences.

It took me a long time to be able to listen to this song, and I was reminded of why when I read recently that the Memphis and Shelby County public school systems are in the process of merging, a process that is re-sparking some earlier racial tensions. It was perhaps in the context of busing for school desegregation (federally mandated in 1973) that I heard the n-word most often and most hideously. More than half the city’s white students’ parents sent them to private schools instead of cooperating, a process they justified in openly racist ways. My parents chose not to participate in white flight, and I was called an n-lover on numerous occasions.

So when, just a few years on, I first heard “Rock ‘N’ Roll N” I just couldn’t bear it. Its defiance, however, kept coming back to me. “Let’s redefine things,” it seemed to say. And I agreed that was a good idea. I had been put down as a woman, as a Southerner, and as an aspiring artist enough times already in my young life to feel a connection to the sensation of debasement, and I eventually embraced the song as a manifesto of sorts.

Patti Smith still has a habit of not accepting the usual definition of things. A.O Scott, in a recent interview, notes:

When I brought up the persistence of grief in her songs, Smith laughed — it was certaintly not the first time an interviewer had raised the subject — and gently corrected me. “I think it’s less about grief than remembrance,” she said. “Grief starts to become indulgent, and it doesn’t serve anyone, and it’s painful. But if you transform it into remembrance, then you’re magnifying the person you lost and also giving something of that person to other people, so they can experience something of that person. That’s why when I’m traveling with my camera, I’ll often take pictures of, you know, Keats’s bed, Shelley’s grave or Victor Hugo’s desk. It has something of them. If I’m taking a picture of Brancusi’s grave, I know that there’s something of him, of his mortal remains, beneath my feet, and there’s something beautiful about that.”

Smith is an artist who has gone through numerous transformations and phases, and I like that. She may not be as angry now as she was then, but she’s still questioning surface interpretations and emotions.

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4 responses »

  1. Funny. A sad funny though. Here in Canada were obviously much better when it comes to that black-white thing when compared to the Joseph Clayton’s and such in the States …not to say that we don’t have our ‘problem communities’ of sorts, but overall you’re at a whole different level. Just lately for instance, I ran across a blog recommending a book titled “Someone Knows My Name” -and so I began a search for it at my local book shops but couldn’t find it and was instead referred to something called “The Book of Negroes”. Turns out it’s the same book! Lol, the U.S. title is different on account of (I’m presuming of course) the tension that the word might still cause. Like I said …funny, but a sad funny.

    The Patti Smith song doesn’t do much for me musically, but lyrically I can appreciate its importance at the time, and today still. I was never a rocker in my youth anyway. “…I know that there’s something of him, of his mortal remains, beneath my feet, and there’s something beautiful about that.” -that’s a great perspective.

    Reply
    • Hi, Troy. Thanks for stopping by.

      My husband is Canadian (like you, he grew up in Saskatchewan and he lived for many years in Alberta), so I have heard a few stories about tensions regarding First Nations and, in his family, Pakistanis in Canada, but Canada fortunately avoided the evil practice of slavery, and so indeed doesn’t have the same type of issues the U.S. had and still has.

      Still, I have to say that in my naive younger years, I thought that only the South was so racist. Then I lived in a few more northern places and found that there was plenty of racism there, though perhaps less obvious. Not that the South didn’t and doesn’t have plenty to answer to, but it by no means has the corner on the issue.

      I actually love what you say about the Patti Smith song. There are other songs even on Easter that are much more interesting musically, but it had that defiant edge that so many responded to at the time. One thing I like about Patti Smith is that she seems to have grown up in a really great way. There are so many angry and defiant rockers that we lost along the way. We didn’t get to see how they grew up, but Patti Smith has come of age well, I think.

      Salut!

      Reply
  2. Ah, Patti Smith! I first heard her in the 1990s in a music store, headphones clamped onto my head, as the clerk put “Horses” into the CD player. The piano and bass groove of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” poured into my ears, but Patti purred, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine … my sins my own: the belong to me.” Between that and the title track, I was in love; Patti Smith was unequivocal: musical revolution or death. By the time I got to the song you have written about, with its droning riffs right out of Black Sabbath and the frenetic surrealism of the Babelogue, I felt the deepest envy. I still do. I am STILL responding to it.

    She is a sledgehammer of anarchy and love. And I am grateful.

    Reply
    • A sledgehammer of anarchy and love, yes.

      Because your comment brings back so vividly the way it felt to first hear her, it reminds me of how personal it is for me that Patti Smith has also aged well.

      Sometimes I long to be the ferocious young woman I once was. But I can look at Patti Smith and see that she’s still great even though she has mellowed and changed. That helps me value the person that I have become, too.

      Thanks.

      Reply

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