Patti Smith

By - May 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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The word “mulatto” jumps from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the National Anthem for the blanker than blank generation. And until all the kids memorized the lyrics and drove Kurt Cobain over the edge it was that one word that hung like cool, moist ground fog on a hot summer night. But before Nirvana there was Big Joe Turner. In fact before just about everything there was Big Joe Turner. One might even argue plausibly that Big Joe was the real nirvana when it came to rock & roll.

In his book Where Dead Voices Gather Nick Tosches writes:

But enough of color. I tire of every race. I shall, however, here glance for a moment in this context of color and auditory evidence and speculation, to the bellowed words of Big Joe Turner’s “Tell Me, Pretty Baby” of 1948:

They say brown-skinned women are evil.
And yellow girls are worse.
I got myself a mulatta, boy;
I’m playin’ it safety first.
Or is there no comma intended between the penultimate and ultimate words of the third line of this quatrain? –
I got myself a mulatta boy

Has the question of a solitary punctuation mark…, ever before or since presented an ambiguity of momentousness such as this? Get thee, then, a mulatto, regardless of gender, punctuation or pronunciation; and proceed, then, behind me, together as one.

While the Cobain saga proves once again, sadly, that rock & roll eats its young, what is more vexing is just how many generations it took for mulatto to resurface in a lyric.

Twelve, then, is Patti Smith’s twelfth album. (Longtime collaborators Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty are still riding shotgun.) It is an album of cover tunes. She has earned the right to coast, pay tribute, have fun – whatever the explanation of this album may be. She is the ultimate case of the fan who made the leap of faith to the stage. (She behaved admirably when she was recently inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame because her late husband Fred Sonic requested she do so.) Twelve gives us an even dozen snapshots paying tribute to The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the folky Neil Young, Jefferson Airplane and The Doors. Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder, too. The most interesting tune is an odd old- timey take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” itself, with playwright Sam Shepherd on banjo. We may never know Smith’s reason for covering Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider,” but Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” always sounded to me like it was writ for Muzak from the gitgo.

Friends, we are currently living in modern times. Some Old Testament types may even vehemently suggest the end is near. So what better time to sidestep the laws of The Man and track down bootleg recordings of Patti Smith’s real covers. Her first single was turning “Hey Joe” into a heavy liquid ballad, and along the way she’s covered The Velvet Underground’s “Real Good Time Together” and “Pale Blue Eyes”; The Byrds’ “So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star”; The Ronettes “Be My Baby”; “My Generation” and “The Kids Are All Right” by The Who; “Time Is On My Side” by The Rolling Stones”; Dylan’s “Wicked Messenger” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” What the heck, she even covered Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” and “White Christmas.” That’s my dozen, but who’s asking?

Smith’s debut album Horses shook the world. The world is still shaking. VS

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