Tag Archives: just kids

Music Books I’ve Been Reading

Patti Smith Just Kids

Besides her own version of “Gloria” and “Because the Night“, prior to reading Just Kids I knew little about Patti Smith.  I knew she was a punk icon, and that’s about as far as my knowledge of her went.  Around December I saw that she had won the National Book Award for Just Kids.  Having just finished the book a few weeks ago, it is more than justified.  It’s a moving portrait of a young woman on the cusp of fame finding her voice and her inspiration.  As influential as her records are in the rock and roll canon, it’s art in general that moved her – whether it be Rimbaugh, The Beats, or Dylan.  And at the center of it all is her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  Sometimes they were lovers, but most of the time they were kindred spirits who not only saw art as a way of life, but also salvation.  Smith’s prose is breathtaking, gorgeous, and always enlightening.  After reading Just Kids, I’ve started to really dig into more of her stuff, but the book also made it clear that even if Smith wasn’t famous as a singer, she would still be known in the art world for something.  For her, rock and roll just happened to be her the medium she used.

The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved The Soul of America – James Sullivan

The Hardest Working Man tells the story behind James Brown’s famous April 5th 1968  Boston Show and Telecast.  I’ve been a fan of Brown’s music for a while, but listening to his music some 45 years later, it’s almost impossible to understand how big his impact on music, popular culture, and Black America really was.  Sullivan does a good job of bringing all three parts together and make a compelling book.  It’s really interesting to read about the relationship that Brown had with Civil Rights Activists, and his own thoughts on the subject.   According to the book, the telecast nearly didn’t happen.  The Mayor’s Office of Boston had already arranged the film crew to be there, leaving Brown in a predicament where he could potentially be sued for video infringement if the show was broadcast.  Last minute phone calls were made, and as history shows, Brown ended up giving one of the most important concerts ever.   I suspect that Brown isn’t rapped most sampled artist just because his music is amazing, but also because of his impact on African American culture.

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5 Songs About New York

I’m in the middle of Patti Smith’s fantastic memoir Just Kids which recounts her early years in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe.  I’ve compiled a mix of songs about New York as a soundtrack while reading it.  Here’s a few of the songs I picked.

Leonard Cohen – “Chelsea Hotel #2”

It seems like every artist that lived in New York during the 1960s resided in the Chelsea Hotel for a period.   With its sparse guitar and Cohen’s naked lyrics – “giving me head in the unmade bed” –  present a heartbreaking portrait of his affair with Janis Joplin.  She tells him that she prefers more handsome man, but she’d make an exception for him.   “We are ugly but we have the music” seems to represent not just Cohen and Joplin, but rather all of the artists that lived there.  For many artists the Chelsea was a mecca for artists looking for their muse.

The Clash – “Koka Kola”

At first, “Koka Kola” might seem like the weakest song on London Calling.  It’s short and concise.  But in under 2 minutes, Strummer manages to attack stock brokers, advertisements, and businessmen’s love for cocaine and party-girls.  “The money can be made if you really want some more,” Strummer muses.  London Calling was released in the December 1979, so in its own way “Koka Kola” could be seen a song that foreshadows what some saw as a decade of corporate greed.

U2 – “The Hands That Built America”

U2 has written several songs about New York.  Some are great (“City of Blinding Lights”) some are not (“New York”).   “The Hands That Built America” falls into the “forgotten” bin.  Written for Martin Scorcese’s under-rated “Gangs of New York”, the song recalls the trials of immigrants and how they shaped the US and specifically New York.  The bridge contains some operatic singing from Bono – a theme he would explore on “Sometime You Can’t Make It On Your Own” a few years later.  The final verse contains references 9/11 – “it’s early fall, innocence dragged across a yellow line”.  One of U2’s best songs in the past decade.

Simon & Garfunkel – “The Boxer”

I could probably write a whole post on this song – which remains one of all time favorite songs.  Largely known for its chorus, “The Boxer” contains some of Simon’s best lyrics, a first person account of struggling to find his way in New York.  There’s also some pretty fantastic guitar picking courtesy of Fred Carter, Jr. Urban legend had suggested that the song is an attack on Bob Dylan, however Simon said that the song is mostly an autobiographical account.  If you’ve ever heard Dylan’s version released on Self Portrait – it’s one of the worst things ever put to record.

John Lennon – “New York City”

One of Lennon’s best “rockers” from his solo career.  With its fast-paced lyrics recalling tales of wandering around New York, in some ways its similar to “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, except less serious.  There’s also hilarious lyrics as well: “the pope smokes dope everyday”, and “up comes a preacher man singing, ‘God’s a red-herring in drag.'”.  Lennon seems pretty animated throughout the song and sums up his feeling about the city at the end with: “New York City – what a bad-ass city!”



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