Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

Lives Saved, Lives Lost

To get right down to it, Carrie Brownstein's new memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, is about a life saved by rock and roll and Patti Smith's new memoir, M Train, isn't. Granted, you could say there's an excellent reason for this, and you'd be right. Punk materfamilias Smith, who at 69 is 28 years older than Brownstein and helped invent the music that made Brownstein's titanic Sleater-Kinney possible, took care of the theme in her National Book Award-winning 2010 memoir, Just Kids, where the last third traces the Patti Smith Group's rise to stardom before culminating with the AIDS death of Smith's fellow kid, first love, and lifelong inspiration, Robert Mapplethorpe. But that's too easy, because M Train never mentions rock and roll at all. It presents itself as the diary of the year and a half when Patti Smith bought a house--a decrepit bungalow near the Rockaway boardwalk. The year in question was mostly 2012, as we know because (and only because) her real estate adventure is half wrecked by Hurricane Sandy. Yet although M Train reports that she toured Europe hard that summer so she could pay for her house, the few performances it details are lectures. We never learn that in September Smith released Banga, her first album in five years, or that she was performing with her band and sometimes her son, Jackson, from June to October. For punk's materfamilias, these are striking omissions, especially in a book that makes so much of her solitude and, by extension, loneliness.

Maybe in 28 years Brownstein will publish something equally sidelong--she's already established herself as a master of ironic indirection in Portlandia, the IFC post-sitcom that won her more fame than Sleater-Kinney. Nonetheless, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a straight memoir that begins with Brownstein's childhood and proceeds in engaging, well-paced chapters to Sleater-Kinney's 2006 "hiatus," with a three-page epilogue devoted to their 2015 revival. And although she declines to tell us much about her love life, Brownstein compensates by briefly but incisively describing the uneasy sexual experiments of her youth. But the most formally unconventional thing about her memoir is the rock criticism--reflections on Sleater-Kinney's music woven into a tale dominated by the band's rise to a historical stature every bit as solid as the Patti Smith Group's. Post-hiatus and pre-Portlandia, Brownstein contributed a record blog at NPR, and this is a first-rate breakdown, the most insightful writing I know about the band Greil Marcus declared the best in America in Time magazine in 2001. And Marcus is hardly the only critic worth reading to try to explain why his famous rave might be true. Most of us have. But compared to my own labored attempts, certainly, Brownstein's analysis is so sharp and inside it's thrilling.

She explains how Corin Tucker's "completely arbitrary" C-sharp tuning established "a sourness, a darkness that you have to overcome if you're going to create something at all harmonious." How Corin's and Carrie's shared responsibilities for the trio's bass register made their guitars clash as well as intertwine. How dueling guitars joined with vocal countermelodies--which they chose over harmonies without ever discussing it--to set listeners the puzzle of deciding "what to follow" in a song that "sounded like a tightly bound entity, fragments clinging to each other for dear life." How their lyrics addressed issues rather than suggesting stories, often from a meta perspective that examined the band's aesthetic practice. How in 1996 power drummer Janet Weiss--"the most musically gifted member of the band, the one with the largest musical lexicon"--led them into greatness by "translating the secret handshake into a more universal greeting."

But as compelling as Brownstein's rock criticism is, it barely suggests how her life was saved by rock and roll. That's why the third of the book devoted to her upbringing isn't just well told and engaging--swift yet detailed, often funny yet in the end no joke--but formally essential. Although most of Smith's personal history is laid out in Just Kids, it's a major presence as well in M Train, where her father appears often, and the contrast is striking. Smith reports she grew up so poor her family could afford to take her to the Philadelphia Art Museum only once, thus transforming her life. Yet her factory worker father was a book lover who read Plato aloud; her mother gave her a Diego Rivera biography for her birthday; and everyone pitched in when a teenage Patti conceived out of wedlock and gave up the baby for adoption.

Brownstein, on the other hand, grew up comfortably but also wretchedly upper-middle-class just outside of Seattle--her dad was a corporate lawyer. Although I tend to snort when alt-rockers bemoan adolescence in the lifeless suburbs, Brownstein's is undeniably a horror story: her mother severely anorexic, her father a long-closeted homosexual, the emotional temperature dipping from chilly to frigid by the time her parents split in her mid-teens. Add her chronic anxiety, her history of obsessive fandom, and her lifelong compulsion to perform, and it's easy to understand why rock and roll was such a good fit for her: "I could play at bravery in the songs, I could play at sexiness or humor, long before I could actually be or embody any of those things."

Thus she became braver, sexier, and funnier. But rock 'n' roll wasn't there to stay. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl begins with a prologue in which Brownstein's anxiety has manifested in a severe case of shingles that compels her to "destroy" Sleater-Kinney, "the first unconditional love I'd ever known." Her portrayal of the physical and emotional pain of Sleater-Kinney's farewell tour is as harrowing as her tale of the family dog dying of emotional neglect. Having come through the breakup ordeal, Brownstein slowly healed into a successful young arts professional. Yet it's no surprise that this up-and-comer wasn't content with NPR and Portlandia--that she felt the need to assemble, record, and tour with the excellent all-female Wild Flag in 2011 and 2012. And it's more than fitting that the book ends by recounting Sleater-Kinney's reunion: "Tears stung my eyes. Corin started the first notes of 'Price Tag,' the opening track on the new album. Two bars later, Janet and I came in. I was in my body, joyous and unafraid. I was home."

Sleater-Kinney's mythic period lasted 11 years, ending when Brownstein was 31. The Patti Smith Group's was much shorter. Since few have mythologized rock and roll with such intensity, aesthetic abandon, or, to quote the author, "abundance of romantic enthusiasm," it's strange to remember that Smith closed her band down after only five years--in 1979, when she was 32. It also signifies that Smith's mythologizing had a distinctly sexual dimension, albeit shamanistic rather than self-objectifying--she invoked sex rather than acting "sexy"--and that in addition she was the less than secret lover of Mapplethorpe, of Sam Shepard, of Tom Verlaine, of the Blue Öyster Cult's Allen Lanier. It was quite a switch when she threw away the star power she'd sought and the Manhattan of Just Kids to marry a working-class rock and roller with a much smaller place in punk's genealogy: onetime MC-5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, with whom she was raising two children in the modest Detroit suburb of St. Clair Shores when he died of a heart attack in 1994. M Train is indeed about Smith's new old house. It's about her love of coffee and TV detective shows. It's about the art heroes--Genet, Plath, Kahlo, Osamu Dazai--whose graves she visits. It's about the many Polaroids that illustrate it. But haunting it all is the absence of Fred "Sonic" Smith.

This is not an easy book to describe, and naysayers who feel Patti Smith is too full of herself by half will find corroboration within. Those lectures "scrawled," as she puts it, on the napkins of the cafes where she takes her spartan nourishment? A major Patti fan I know witnessed her Pratt commencement address and came away feeling that this was someone who'd learned she could get away with anything. But the reflections and experiences she scrawled for M Train, in notebooks she wasn't fated to lose like her faithful camera and her treasured raincoat and the MetroCard she so resents, transported me. There are dreams here, and flashbacks, and digressions, and pointedly quotidian occurrences. There are critical observations about Plath and Bolaño, about Horatio Caine and Kurt Wallander and Midsomer Murders and The Killing's Sarah Linden, about Japanese writers too obscure for little old me. There's a laconic imaginary cowpoke uttering apothegms. There are lacunae that announce themselves. But there are also lacunae that don't, prime among them rock and roll. Lenny Kaye, identified as her old friend rather than her old bandmate, gets a fond cameo. But while these are the reflections of a born artist, an artist by inescapable psychological necessity, that artist's life wasn't saved by rock and roll except in the sense that music remains the foundation of an income that's nothing to write home about and a miracle anyway.

Like most of the bunch of albums Smith has recorded since her return to New York in 1996, with Fred two years gone and her 50th birthday rushing up, Banga rides just enough striking songs to keep a fan's hopes up, with neither the conquistador meditation "Amerigo" nor the blithe trifle "April Fool" sparking nearly the magic of the Neil Young cover "After the Gold Rush." Many rock and rollers make terrific music after 50, but with important exceptions (Lou Reed, say) it tends to be rock and roll mostly by historical association. Unsurprisingly, the belief that you can get up, over, and out by emoting about it over the right beat proves difficult to sustain. And so it's been with Patti, whose post-mythic material tends reflective, elegiac, at best exhortatory--seldom fast or funny and almost never kick-out-the-jams, as the MC-5 once put it. But she knows kick-out-the-jams made her a myth, and anyone who figures this mode is lost to her altogether should hear the live 2004 remake of her seminal, quasi-orgiastic "Land: Horses / Land of a Thousand Dances / La Mer(de)," which rocks harder for twice the length of the nine-minute original without an extraneous moment. Clearly she still gets it. But it's no longer how she defines her life.

It's easy to forget that in the wake of "Land" Horses closes with a brief, fluting envoi called "Elegie" that ends: "I think it's sad / It's much too bad / That our friends can't be with us today." In 1975, this was somewhat anticlimactic. The 2004 version, also twice as long, isn't. It's deeper because both Smith's voice and her hyperactive emotions have deepened, and it names names: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Mapplethorpe, her brother Todd Smith, Fred "Sonic" Smith to serious applause, bandmate Richard Sohl to equal applause. In the wake of M Train, however, this hardly seems Patti Smith's last word on such matters. Her life was made by rock and roll. But she was a writer first, and it's as a writer that she prefers to express her older, more mortal self.

Presented as a memoir, M Train reads more like some kind of poetry. Images, feelings, and characters recur, and the big ones intensify as the book rises brokenly to a close. We read of Fred's funeral and then a month later the sudden death of her bulwark in that moment, her brother Todd. A chapter considers the execution by network fiat of Sarah Linden. Fred looms larger, finally exiting in a dream where he rescues Smith from a precipice and then disappears chasing a clock with no hands. As she remembers her father to begin the final chapter, the sense of loss is pervasive. Smith has laid the groundwork for this sequence some 40 pages from the end: "We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother's voice. I want to see my children as children." But by the very last paragraph she's managed to understand her life, for that moment at least, as a cosmic gift: "I was my own lucky hand of solitaire."

So how will she deal the next hand? "I'm going to remember everything and then I'm going to write it all down."

Barnes & Noble Review, January 13, 2016