Days Between Stations: The Beauty of Bad Singing (09/96)

Patti Smith’s Gone Again (Arista) is one of the year’s most celebrated albums—justly so—and the soundtrack to Georgia (Discovery) is one of the oddest and most compelling. Among other things, they’re both about the wonders of bad singing—the places bad singing can get that good singing couldn’t find on a map. And both records are hard to hear. They arrived—the Georgia disc long after the movie had left the theaters—loaded down with baggage, with gossip, confessional artist interviews, critical buzz: enough surface noise to distort whatever real sound came through.

Patti Smith has been ushered back into public life—eight years after her last, pretty well disastrous record, Dream of Life—as a saint. Stacey D’Erasmo’s incense-burning hagiography in the Village Voice was typical. “We read this record,” D’Erasmo said of Gone Again, “against what we know of Smith’s personal losses—her husband, her brother, and her spiritual brother, Robert Mapplethorpe. [What about Richard Sohl, her piano player?] ‘Oh till death do us part,’ she keens on ‘My Madrigal.’ Listening to this and many of these other dark, beautiful songs, one remembers that, traditionally, the measure of a marriage is how close it gets to death. Heard as Smith’s private document, Gone Again seems to sound the depths of a marriage—of mar­riages—we couldn’t possibly understand, so intense were they.” Lest that let the listener off the hook, D’Erasmo flings open the doors of her church: “But Smith’s innermost angels and demons have always occupied a mythic dimension, amplified through art and fame… she comes to us after her long absence in mourning robes, sister Isis to torn Osiris.”

Smith hasn’t exactly turned her back on this stuff. “An artist wears his work in place of wounds,” she told an audience at a recent reading from her Ear­ly Work 1970-1979. “Here, then, is a glimpse of the sores of my generation.” In the face of such pious promotion, I fled mentally back to that scene in The Fugitive where Tommy Lee Jones is about to collar Harrison Ford. “I didn’t kill my wife!” screams Ford in anguish, like Smith or her followers attempting to sanctify her work with her sorrow. “l don’t care!” Jones screams back.

Georgia pits Jennifer Jason Leigh’s no-talent junkie punk singer, Sadie, against Mare Winningham’s Georgia, Sadie’s sister and a folk singer all but worshiped by her legions of fans. Georgia’s voice—Winning­ham’s—is all mellifluousness to Sadie’s—Leigh’s—hor­rid cracks and discords. Nearly every review of the film homed in on the scene at the big AIDS benefit. Win­ningham sings “Mercy,” lifting the hearts of all in her audience. Then comes Leigh with nine minutes of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back.” Her seizing the stage for an endless, no-range, flat, mindless assault on this defenseless song is presented as a psychotic episode, and seemingly it’s meant to be as excruciating for the audience in the movie theater as in the movie’s concert hall. Plainly, Sadie will keep singing until either she or the song drops dead; ultimately, her sister appears on the stage like a fairy, softly strumming her guitar, easing the madwoman off the stage.

Neither of these setups—and Smith’s carapace of suffering and Sadie’s insufferability seem equally theatrical to me—has anything to do with what one is given to hear. The first thing you hear on Smith’s Gone Again is muscle, then melody, then Smith’s own queer noises—the way she pulls words out of their phrases or phonemes out of their words as if they’re a new kind of food. “Eat, eat!” you can hear Smith chanting on the radio in the thrillingly creepy hit “Summer Cannibals”—Smith seems to stumble over a sound in her own music, stop, pick it up, stare it in the face, learn its language, and then speak it in a new song, all in an instant.That’s what happens in “About a Boy,” discussed in reverent terms in interviews and reviews as Smith’s tribute to Kurt Cobain. As a lyric, it gets no further past Hallmark-card rhymes than most of the lyrics on Gone Again—the appearance of Bob Dylan’s “Wicked Messenger” on the album almost upends it—but the song doesn’t function as a lyric. It’s an opportunity for Smith to dive into a confusion latent in the music and then somehow pull it into a greater chaos: what she does as she twists her mouth around that phrase “about a boy,” a play on Cobain’s “About a Girl.” There’s a Gothic tangle in the words as she fixes on them; as she extends the sounds, drawing the words out past their ability to carry specific meanings, they could be snakes, hair, or mistakes. There’s so much attitude in Smith, so much pose and stance, it can overwhelm any choice—that’s what happens in “Wicked Messenger.” Dylan sang it as if it were a mystery he was just beginning to crack; Smith sings it as if the story were obvious all along. Bring the wrong mood to it, and “About a Boy” might sound ridiculous—a singer out of her depth, trying to cover up. But if you give Smith the chance to change your mood, the song might blow up in your face.Nothing so dramatic happens with Leigh’s “Take Me Back.” Here you can’t tell if this is actor Leigh singing as Sadie or just Leigh doing the best she can, and it doesn’t matter. Leigh has nothing to bring to the song but will: no lift, no tone, no tricks. But she sings with the same up-and-down, back-and-forth refusal of time that women have always brought to songs, specifically work songs, and as musicologist Wilfred Mellers has written of such music, “Through repetition it carries the singers beyond the body’s thrall. It at once affirms and transcends the physical, inducing a state of trance… which is beyond literate sequence and consequence.” What a remarkable thing to say: “beyond consequence.” You can hear Leigh travel beyond consequence, though; or, rather, when the consequences of her performance arrive, they seem false. Winningham’s Georgia finally gets her sister to finish the song, to shut up. There’s the barest ripple of clapping, just a sigh of relief. Leigh—Sadie—immediately falls back into her consistently unconvincing crazy-pathetic persona: “Keep drinkin’! I love ya!”

For nine minutes, in a trance of terrible singing, she’s taken you right out of her not-very-good movie; while you were out, you were somewhere oddly quiet, a place that’s hard to find. As with Smith. The great drama that has been erected around her comeback is so suffocating that the only way to escape it may be to play her record, to listen to her sing that drama to pieces.

Interview, September 1996

One thought on “Days Between Stations: The Beauty of Bad Singing (09/96)

  1. Very courageous ,and necessary puncturing of the carefully cultivated ,manufactured Smith aura.G.M.’s insistence on”what one is given to hear” is salutary-and should be applied to all singers-especially those with big reputations.

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