It's a punk song
Tuesday, December 5, New York City.
It's 11 p.m., and Patti Smith is rehearsing "Rock N Roll Nigger" with her reconfigured band at a Lower East Side rehearsal studio. This will be big news on the Babel list ( firstname.lastname@example.org ), the nascent e-mail network of Smith scholars who dissect every lyric and comment made by our girl. These folks are under the impression that Patti, a mother, no longer sings "Rock N Roll Nigger" because she doesn't want her kids using the word. This because at Patti's Thanksgiving weekend acoustic shows in Philly someone cried out "Rock N Roll Nigger!" and Patti, ever the stand-up comic, snapped back, "Watch your mouth!" That one comment has launched a hundred posts in cyberspace.
Tom Verlaine and Lenny Kaye work through a song. (Photo by Patti Hudson.)
Jay Dee Daugherty, Patti's original drummer, kicks in with a pounding rhythm. Lenny Kaye, her musical alter ego since 1971, when together they took the Lower East Side by storm, smiles as he rattles his Strat; he is the co-author of this song. The new bass player, Tony Shanahan, is a five-year member of the Lenny Kaye Band. At 36, he brings new power to the trio.
And there's another player joining in, that man in the corner: Tom Verlaine, whose lead-guitar genius was first recognized in the '70s when his own band, Television, helped build the CBGBs scene with Patti and Lenny and the rest. Verlaine is playing a countrified treble-filled lead that clashes with the anarchist spirit of the tune. Patti stops the song in mid flight, usually a strong signal of her disappointment in somebody. Tom, sensing it's him, says, "How psychedelic can I make this?"
"Not at all," Patti snaps.
Lenny translates, "It's a punk song, Tom."
"Yeah," says Patti. "Listen to Lenny. It's his child."
"Oh, I see," says Tom.
The door to the rehearsal studio opens, and Michael Stipe, the scraggly baldy from R.E.M. , walks in with three buddies. He sits down on the piano bench and fixes his gaze on Patti at the microphone.
Oliver Ray, Patti's 22-year-old protégé and pal, sits up in the corner, where he's apparently been sleeping, and begins to pay attention to the rehearsal. Oliver's been Patti's collaborator on some new songs. They've been learning how to play guitar together. He will play a song onstage with her each night of the Dylan tour, ready or not.
Patti begins to sing:
Baby was a black sheep
baby was a whore
baby got big and she's gonna get biggah . . .
baby want somethin'
baby want more
baby, baby, baby was a rock n roll niggah. . .
Verlaine enters the anarchist groove immediately, effortlessly chopping those strings, up and down the fretboard. Stipe is shaking his leg up and down, like he's had too much coffee, his eyes bulging, staring at Patti. Her voice is more powerful than ever. She belts:
Jimi Hendrix was a nigger
Jesus Christ and grandma too
Jackson Pollock was a nigger
Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger!
Patti's belly-dancing around the microphone as if in a trance. "Lenny!" she cries out, and Kaye sings the refrain, "Outside of society." Then Patti jumps in with, "They're waitin' for me!"
Yeah, they -- we -- have been waiting. Waiting too long for this. Here it comes, on the 20th anniversary of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour, the return of the poet-shaman who can even strip the hate from a word like "nigger," making it a term of beauty.