Easter With Patti Smith, Madonna, Jaz Coleman & The West Memphis Three

The above photo was taken on April 12, 1976. That’s yours truly with Patti Smith at the student radio station at the State University College at Brockport, New York. Five days later Patti and her band were performing in New York City on NBC-TV’s Saturday Night Live. It was the night before Easter Sunday and Patti dedicated the performance to CBGB’s, the nightclub located in New York City’s Bowery that spawned The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television and the Patti Smith Group.

It is now Easter Sunday, 36 years later and Patti has been on my mind recently. I’ve been reading her book, Just Kids. It covers the period from 1967-1974, when young Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe were living in New York City, trying to figure out who they were and what they were going to do with their lives. It is an inspiring piece of writing and I recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in Smith, rock & roll or the arts. Also, Patti Smith is just about to release a new album called Banga, her first record of new material since 2004. You can listen to the first single, April Fools, here. And, of course, Patti released an album titled Easter in 1978. It’s the one with her only hit single, Because The Night. But it also contains such powerful tunes as Till Victory, Rock n Roll Nigger and Privilege (Set Me Free). Privilege is a cover song, taken from the 1967 film of the same name. The plot revolves around a “pop singer who is manipulated by the church and state which seek to turn him into a messianic leader” (according to Wikipedia).

Which leads me to Madonna.

I can’t say that I am a huge fan of The Material Girl. I prefer to Blitzkrieg Bop rather than Vogue, but I do admire what she has accomplished. Despite their musical differences, Madonna and Patti Smith do share a few common points. They both have been influenced by the Catholic Church. Patti prefaced her version of Gloria on 1975’s Horses, with the statement, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”. On Girl Gone Wild, the first track on Madonna’s new album MDNA, she sings, “Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee and I detest all my sins”.

Click here to listen to Girl Gone Wild from MDNA

Both women have changed the face of popular music…Patti more as an influence that as a direct presence. Madonna, meanwhile, has taken on the mainstream on its own terms and come away the winner. Both women have taken a lot of flak because of their gender and their age. Horrible things were said about Patti when Easter was released simply because she showed off her unshaven armpits. Back in the 70s, 30 was considered old by rock & roll standards and Patti had just hit that milestone in December of 1976. How could a 30-year-old woman make (punk) rock?

Well 50 is the new 30 and Madonna is dealing with the same issues. What right does she have to be making dance music at the age of 53? And why doesn’t she look like a 53 year old should look?

Plenty of artists have continued recording past the age of 53…The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Paul Simon are all still active. But none of them have had a top 10 single at that age, and that’s one of the things that sets Madonna apart from everyone else. She’s still playing a young person’s game. Give Me All Your Luvin’ reached number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Incredible really, given the average age of most of the artists on the charts.

Of course with the internet, any knucklehead with a keyboard can make rude, insulting comments about anyone in public life. Just check out the comments section of any article on CNN. On-line bloggers seem driven to antagonise readers in order to generate as many comments as possible. The more negative the more comments. Stuff’s music critic/blogger Simon Sweetman seems to thrive of negativity. But then, who can blame him, when he writes something positive, he gets a few high-fives and the column is quickly forgotten.

So why are folks so quick to write vicious things about someone else? I know from experience that if I happen to make a typo or get a song title incorrect in a review on The 13th Floor, there very likely will be someone ready to point out that I am a “moron”, or worse. Heaven forbid if I give a slightly different opinion to someone. Rather than present a well-thought out rebuttal, they will most like just resort to name-calling.

This kind of “conversation” is turning out to be extremely destructive. And there have been casualties…Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson. Sure there were other factors in the deaths of these artists, but I can’t help but think that the vitriol that was heaped on them in the press and the gossip magazines and the blogs didn’t contribute to their demise.

Fortunately Madonna seems to be made of sterner stuff. Listening to the lyrics on MDNA, she seems to be thriving on it. “Don’t play the stupid game, cause I’m a different kind of girl, every record sounds the same, you’ve got to step into my world”, she sings defiantly on Give Me All Your Luvin’.

Unfortunately this kind of close-minded attitude to anyone perceived as different or strange is nothing new.

Which leads me to the West Memphis Three.

The West Memphis Three are three teenagers who were tried and convicted of the killing of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. I’ve just watched two HBO documentaries about the case. It is truly shocking. The three teenagers, particularly the oldest, Damien Echols, where convicted almost purely on the basis of the fact of how they looked. Damien, who received the death penalty, dressed in black, listened to Metallica and read a few books about the occult. In Arkansas, that’s enough to send you to the chair. Fortunately, the three have just been released after almost 20 years in prison. Peter Jackson has just produced a new documentary about the case. But this should serve as a warning for anyone who is seen to be operating “outside of society” as Patti Smith put it in Easter’s Rock n Roll Nigger.

Click here to listen to Rock n Roll Nigger from Easter: 

Which leads me to Jaz Coleman.

The Killing Joke frontman was in Auckland this past week and I had the good fortune to spend quite a bit of time with him. I couldn’t help thinking, as he sat there in his black jeans and T-shirt, telling me about his significant collection of occult related books, how lucky he was not to be living in Arkansas. Also, at age 52, Jaz is a contemporary of Madonna’s, yet he makes loud, uncompromising music that musicians half his age would be proud to be associated with. Just check out the band’s new album, MMXXII. He’s highly intelligent, a free-thinking individual and one who has spoken out about a number of controversial topics that, if he had a higher profile, would probably land him in jail, or worse…especially if he lived in America.

Click here to listen to FEMA Camp from MMXXII

So, what’s the point? Well, it’s Easter. I would urge anyone who has had the patience to read this far to think before speaking. There’s nothing wrong with strong, barbed criticism as long as it doesn’t get personal. Madonna has the right to look and sound the way she wants to at the ripe old age of 53. Jaz Coleman has the right to think and say what he wants to without worrying about being incarcerated. The West Memphis Three have the right to their freedom even if they continue to wear black and listen to Metallica. And as for Patti Smith…anyone who has ever tried to exist outside the mainstream of society owes her a huge debt for the life she has led and the art she has made. As she says at the end of her live version of My Generation, “We created it, let’s take it over.”

Marty Duda

Click here to watch Patti Smith perform Gloria on Saturday Night Live: