Monday, August 30, 2010

'It Gives You That Lift': Class, Rock and Roll, and Breasts

... because Linda Schumacher asked... I gave this paper at EMP in 2004...


Thirty years ago, when I was fourteen, I saw a photo of Patti Smith in 16 magazine. (Yes, 16 magazine; Danny Fields, the Ramones’ manager, was editing it then, after the bold tenure of Gloria Stavers.) I dug how Smith looked: weird scraggly hair, untweezed eyebrows, a haunted, intense affect. I’d never seen anyone who looked like that in 16 magazine before (except for maybe that guy who played the vampire on “Dark Shadows”). The small article that ran next to the photo claimed: “She’s a poet, a playwright and soon to be rock and roll star!” The poet/rock and roll star thing got me. I’d been reading everything I could find by Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath at the library, and believing that the lyrics of Bread’s David Gates were something to aspire to. The article continued: “Patti first was a poetess and would ‘perform’ her poems any place that would have her . . . Now she’s much in demand and has just been signed to an Arista record contract. Her favorite clothes are funky old jeans and t-shirts.” I cut out the photo of Smith, taped it to my mirror, and tried to find some funky old jeans and t-shirts in the Juniors’ department of Goldblatt’s the next day during lunch hour. (No luck.)

A couple of months later, coinciding with my discovery of the Salvation Army-as-punk-fashion-outlet, I saw another photo of Smith, this time with her band, in Lisa and Richard Robinson’s Rock Scene magazine. The group photo revealed more of Smith’s physique: in a well-worn t-shirt (which read “New Brunswick Zebras”) she appeared skinny, unpretty and flat-chested — like me. I learned nothing more about her from the caption (like, that she wasn’t flat-chested), but finding a skinny, unpretty girl rock star was a big deal. In 1975 the pantheon of female rock performers was interesting but limited for a girl looking for a skinny, unpretty role model who could rock (if one were a boy, on the other hand, one had more luck: think Pete Townshend). The ballsy-but-tragic image of Janis Joplin still reverberated, and there was Suzi Quatro, who played guitar in leather outfits and the widely popular shag haircut. But Suzi was sexy. She couldn’t speak to issues of not belonging. And Tina Turner (who, in ‘75, the year of her separation from Ike, appeared as the Acid Queen in The Who’s “Tommy”) seemed powerful beyond any hope of emulation. (In later years, of course, her story would reflect the realities of many women’s lives.) Also in the mix was the all-girl band Fanny, but after their ‘71 hit “Charity Ball” they never got much airplay. But theirs was not a cult of personality, but rather sexuality, and sexuality (or, rather, the escape from it) was the issue. Who spoke to the desire to escape the (perceived) confines of the feminine body? Heart? They looked like Edwardian lampshades. Stevie Nicks? What was an Easter basket like that doing in a band with a serious blues singer like Christine McVie anyway? And McVie? Like Glasgow’s Maggie Bell she’d had an incredible blues style; what was she doing singing that MOR crap? Janis Ian? “At Seventeen” did not rock. Kim Fowley’s Runaways were still a year away, but they would come off like high school bitch goddess fantasy camp (although Joan Jett later transcended all that). In fact, until Chrissie Hynde — perhaps the apotheosis of all I’m talking about here — most ‘70’s-era female rock stars seemed like they’d been formed from the collective desires of record-buying boy-men. It wasn’t their fault, of course, and Linda Ronstadt didn’t help. But what if one were the female equivalent of Pete Townshend? Who was one’s totem animal? Where were the women who filled that niche?

It was a relatively new niche anyway, created by rock and roll in combination with the women’s movement, in response to a new category of girl. In my working class, Polish-Catholic high school, the girls fell into one of four broad (no pun intended) categories: sluts, prisses, normals or freaks. There was some crossover; a slut could approach freakdom, for example, if she smoked pot with the guys in the alley behind the convent during lunch and knew the names of everyone in Bad Company. But unless a slut had visionary feminist qualities, she avoided the burdens of rugged individuality at all costs. The freak category, of course, had the most variety (a variety that was augmented by rock and roll). On one end were the girls who always seemed to have a problem with menstruating on the backs of their skirts, and on the other was the new breed of freak: the girls who not only knew the names of everyone in Bad Company, but wanted to be in Bad Company. That would’ve been me. However, had you looked through my record collection, you would’ve been able to count the albums by women or “all-girl bands” on one hand. It was easier for me to relate to Pete Townshend than to, say, femme-y, tit-y Carly Simon. Janis Joplin approached my idea of a female role model (especially after I’d read that her Port Arthur high school classmates had scrawled “PIG” on her locker), but she was dead. I needed someone alive.

Smith filled the gap in the pantheon — the geeky urban tomboy who write and rock. In a 1976 interview with Lisa Robinson in Hit Parader, Smith said the following:

"I didn't want to be a girl because they wore those Elvis charm bracelets and I couldn't get into that. With a lower class upbringing it was real desirable to have big tits and a big ass, and I wanted boys to like me, but they didn't. They liked me as a pal."

“I didn’t want to be a girl.” What kind of feminist rhetoric was that? It was shameful to feel ambivalent about one’s body in the midst of the flowering of the women's movement. Of course, that statement spoke to a huge untapped set of anxieties (covering both straight and nascent lesbian territory), something that Julia Kristeva would later address in her discussions of revolt and creativity in the adolescent “split feminine subject.” But those anxieties had yet to be codified by power chords and/or French feminist semioticians, and all I knew was that even though I had been made fun of by both boys and girls for my lack of décolletage, I really didn't want to have breasts. Breasts meant you were like those benign-looking Virgin Mary women modeling bras in the Sears catalogue. But at the same time I wished I had big breasts, for revenge purposes. It was a very schizy time, and there was no one around with whom I could discuss this conflict — my mother? no way! —although I did mention to my dad once that I didn't ever want to wear a bra.

"Why not?" he said. "I heard it gives you that 'lift'".

In the poem, “Female” (from her 1972 collection Seventh Heaven), Smith had written:

Every feminine gesture I affected from my mother humiliated me . . .
Growing breasts was a nightmare . . .
Bloated. pregnant. I crawl thru the sand. like a lame dog . . .
Roll and drag and claw like a bitch. like a bitch. like a bitch.


This was a novel, polyvalent blend of authenticity and artifice. Smith was deploying a new kind of feminine identity, rooted in the acceptance of difference, of profound (and not altogether understood) other-ness. On her much-touted 1976 album, Horses, Smith defined and redefined that identity — those identities — with ease: as the pursuer (male or female) in her revisionist “Gloria”; as a female paramour mourning her drowned female lover in “Redondo Beach”; as the genderless observer of a boy-on-boy rape in “Land.” Dissatisfaction with existing, limiting gender parameters was not the end of the line, but rather the beginning of a desire to explore rather than ignore those most problematic aspects of sexuality. Suddenly, gender was a fluid moment: male or female, gay or straight, androgynous or voluptuous were just streams in a sea of possibility. Smith also drew on unsettling, often violent images in her poetry as well: in another poem from Seventh Heaven, “Fantasy, for Allen Lanier” (her boyfriend, a guitarist in the band Blue Oyster Cult), the female narrator is visited in her bedroom by a man with a gun who first points the weapon at her head, then commands her to get on her hands and knees:

I crouch down./ he shoves the barrel up / my cunt. cocks the lever / pulls the trigger.

Yet in “judith” (from the same collection), the scene is quite different:

… she is no angel baby. / no candidate for a glass slipper. / she is not the kind of girl / youd find in an eyebrow pencil ad. / no jelly bitch. / but the girl I’d like to touch. / we shared a bed but I could not touch her. / she turned on her side. / rustling of new sheets. / a very humid memory. / I turn out the light. / after awhile desire is overcome. / retracts. retreats. then sleeps and sleeps / and keeps on sleeping.

The other part of Smith’s statement to Lisa Robinson — “With a lower class upbringing it was real desirable to have big tits and a big ass” — also telegraphed something important but, at the time, amorphous: that opinions about the body could be generated by economic circumstances. And if one could escape those circumstances, new ways of being would present themselves. That odd idea had never occurred to me because at that point I’d never been out of my neighborhood (Back-of-the-Yards, named for its proximity to Chicago’s Union Stockyards), where everyone’s father was a butcher, and everyone’s mother was a floor clerk in a discount store, and most girls had learned to equate being “built” with being “beautiful.” But because she moved in different milieux, Smith had been able to connect those disparate and ridiculous ideas. The class realities of her adolescence — as described, for example, in “Piss Factory,” her first single — had no doubt been thrown into sharp relief once Smith foisted herself upon the New York art world, as they would be for me once I foisted myself upon the Chicago poetry scene of the early ‘80’s. What a shock to discover that those kids living in squalid apartments and eating generic pork and beans out of cans were not actually poor! But, on the other hand, breast size really didn’t matter, so the problem then became how to navigate those waters, but that’s another discussion.

At the time of its release, “Piss Factory” was not a repudiation, or even a validation necessarily, of “real” people’s lives; it was just a retelling of an experience many people could understand:

Sixteen and time to pay off.
I get this job in a piss factory inspectin’ pipe.
Forty hours, thirty-six dollars a week, but it’s a paycheck, jack.
It’s hot in here, hot like Sahara, you could faint from the heat,
but these bitches are just too lame to understand,
too goddamn grateful to get this job to know they’re gettin’
screwed up the ass.


In 1975 it was generally accepted that rock had a working class backbone — Rod Stewart was a newsagent’s son; Roger Daltrey had been a sheet metal worker; Springsteen’s lyrics were distillations of his adolescence in a factory town; Hendrix’s first guitar cost five bucks, second hand — and no one really made a big analytical thing out of it. (On the other hand, the fact that all the members of Queen had graduated from college — with honors! — was always mentioned in articles about them as being something a little out of the ordinary.) But, again, all those examples were men. What about the women? Again, Smith’s experiences answered that need as well. The backbone of her image, unlike the images projected by male rock icons, transcended class and gender issues because she allowed herself fluidity in both arenas. She cannily crafted that image from the dynamic tension of honesty and artifice, horror and deliverance from horror (the epigraph for the poem “Female” was by Andre Breton: “To escape from horror bury yourself in it.”) And because of something else. In another poem from Seventh Heaven, she wrote:

Longing. That desire. That tapeworm. A word I hadn’t learned . . .
Seven years old. A song on the victrola:
"He flies thru the air with the greatest of ease/
The daring young man on the flying trapeze/
His movements are graceful, he flies as he pleases/
How I’d love to be like him someday!"



By exploring (and exploiting) the vagaries of shame — and thus liberating herself from it — Smith finally articulated the female longing for . . . what? For everything.

8 Comments:

Blogger Angela Genusa said...

We must be the same exact age, Sharon ... In high school, I was a freak, too, who knew all of the lyrics to David Bowie songs, loved that poetry could look like Dylan's in "Tarantula" and -- then -- discovered Patti Smith and wanted to "be" Patti Smith. Oh, if only I'd grown up in Chicago or New York...

A great post on a great woman!

7:20 PM  
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5:24 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

Hey Sharon, it's Ann Husaini. Don't know if you remember me from almost 9(!) years ago - it was a crazy Accidental Realities class with Kris Schiefele and Daria Brit and that kid Zachariah and that wild brightly burning coal of a guy I can't remember who cut a dashing figure and wrote about Michigan only at the end. I went off to film school after that class.
I'm writing because I'm considering joining Accidental Realities again tomorrow, and I'm wondering if you're teaching anything else anywhere else because I'm joining the workshop there so late. Been feeling a strong impulse to work with you again so trying to follow that. Hope by some luck you get this tonight. My email is annhusaini@gmail.com or 917 375 1622, if you have any time to reach out.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

your writing is incredible.

I run a collaborative blog called Dysfunctionalbeginnings.com. Stories about growing up, family, stuff, beginnings in general... told in a variety of different forms (multimedia, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, photographs, etc.)
Submissions to dysfunctionalbeginnings@gmail.com.
Let me know what you think, and thank you for your support!!
I'll be checking out your blog more often.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Stan Apps said...

Hi Sharon,

This is lovely. I like the part about how ways of being beautiful are tied to economic circumstances--great point. Preppie girls for example don't need breasts, because they have ruffles. It may be that the reason breasts are so important when your working class is that the clothes are simpler and the body shows more, whereas, when your clothes are more money, curves are less relevant.

I went to a mostly working class high school in rural Texas, and it sounds much like yours except there were only three categories of people instead of 4.

4:55 AM  
Blogger LP said...

Great paper...so articulates why loving Patti Smith gives me courage to be androgynous.

7:17 AM  
Blogger reynolf oliveros said...

have you ever heard about formica sheets ? just wnna ask though...

4:37 PM  
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