The Gospel of American History Patti Smith, Penny Arcade, Sonic Youth and the new “auto/biography”


Rami Shamir

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.

The Gospel of American History
Patti Smith, Penny Arcade, Sonic Youth and the new “auto/biography”

By Rami Shamir

Retrospectively, the critical reaction in 1973 to Gore Vidal’s Burr: A Novel was one of massive confusion. Unwilling, unprepared, and resistant: several critics refused to acknowledge the precedent that was being set, and analyzed the work along the binary dimensions of history and literature, whose collapse into Gospel—and subsequent nullification along opposing lines—is the central victory of the work. Burr: A Novel is America’s book of Matthew: the moment when “history” is metamorphosed into literature to create Gospel, American Gospel.

It has taken forty years for the revolution of American Gospel to fully bloom. Today, the boundaries that Mr. Vidal broke—stylistic, catenary, and structural—are witnessing their organic evolution in the radical ways America’s current historical figures are writing about their lives, and in so doing, the modern life of the American nation. While the examples are plentiful, three works define the moment: Patti Smith’s Just Kids; Penny Arcade’s Bad Reputation; and Sonic Youth’s Sensational Fix.

Modern American life is a diaspora of unanchored homelessness; a multi-media movement of itinerant individuals marching through the bombed-out towns and abandoned shipyards of the American dream. America has long since moved away from the mirage of living daily life in a Jack-and-Jill simplicity; to write about America truly, our historical representatives must abandon any standard formula—we are too far past the desert of the narrative arc—and be true to the fractured American moment, as these three representatives have been.

When Patti Smith was Just a Kid

Patti Smith’s Just Kids is an autobiography about a pre-Horses Patti Smith, which upon the introduction of a pre-X Portfolio Series Robert Mapplethorpe also becomes a biography (about Mapplethorpe) to very quickly become neither but something completely new. Just Kids is a portrait of the artists as young kids; since it describes the struggles of two of America’s artistic icons, on whom several generations have—and continue to—build, it provides a comfort that Joyce’s masterpiece may lack. By skewing the perspective away from her life as an American icon to her life as a developing young artist, Patti Smith has created a lighthouse of a literary masterpiece, which is comforting a whole generation of struggling and rising young American artists. Smith’s embracement of her working-class roots is providing America’s younger generations with a new working-class hero and will be immensely responsible for the development of a new American working-class intellectualism, which has been retarded by the corporate inundation of too many Real WorldsFriendsSeinfeldsGlees, and My Super Sweet Sixteens being presented to young Americans across class lines as the only goal and the only economic reality present in our country. The spellbinding importance of this treasure in contemporary letters did not go unnoticed by the National Book Foundation, which awarded Smith the very-much deserved 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction. 

Smith can rest assured: she has fulfilled that Easter yearning which haunts the beautiful conclusion of Just Kids: “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead?” Having been introduced to Mapplethorpe through Smith, a generation of artists previously unaware of his work is falling under his spell. It’s a rare gift to see an artist succeed like this: in the face of historical ignorance, in a highly conservative literary environment, Patti Smith has magically done the seemingly impossible: Patti Smith has raised the dead.

Written In: Penny Arcade’s “Bad Reputation”

Bad Reputation is the memoir of a pastiche-in-sustained-performance named Penny Arcade. Arcade, the creation of Susana Ventura, is fortified by her Warhol stardom—the essence of iconic flatness—to appropriate, then evaluate, and finally destroy the prevailing flatness of contemporary American values and to transform the infantilized cultural mode into new effective art.

Bad Reputation is composed of salons (dialogues between Arcade and {and stand-alone monologues by} contemporary powerhouses from the American intellectual left) photo albums (reproductions of fliers, stills from performances, and personal snapshots), and the canonization, or writing in, of three of Arcade’s primary texts—La Miseria, Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, and Bad Reputation, the play that’s the namesake of the memoir—which can now be performed beyond Arcade’s directorship, as frequently and as deservedly as any Pinter play.

Arcade’s work as playwright is especially noteworthy. Neither dumbing down nor academically exclusive, the philosophy behind Arcade’s work as a playwright en general can be seen en particulier in the opening section of La Miseria:

MARIA (Speaking Southern-Italian dialect): Ma, Che Fai? (But, what are you doing?)

PENNY (Speaking Southern-Italian dialect): Penso (Thinking.)

MARIA Stai louca e no fai niente. (You are sitting there and not doing anything.)

PENNY Penso, Mari, Penso. (I’m thinking Mari, I am thinking.)

Arcade’s decision to include English translations to their Italian textual counterparts better equips the actor to focus on his work—character development—without having to learn, or more likely feign learning, this particular dialect of Italian. As playwright, Penny Arcade is the anti-Ezra Pound.  As memoirist, Penny Arcade provides a postmodern roadmap to boundaryless autobiography, which future creations of pastiche-in-sustained-performance can look to as a touchstone.

“Fragmentation is the rule”: Sonic Youth creates the perfect postmodern book

Sonic Youth’s groundbreaking autobiography, Sensational Fix, is one of the most important books to come out of the twenty-first century so far. This first truly postmodern autobiography will be as important to our fin-de-siècle as Ulysses was to the fin-de-siècle of the Moderns. The similarities lie at the very heart of both works in their complete disregard for the stilting and harnessing conventions of their own highly conservative times: like Ulysses for its, so Sensational Fix for ours is destroying the very notion of what it means to be a book.

Most importantly, Sonic Youth, all twenty-nine years of age, knows very well how to communicate to the generation born from 1981-1989—as it should, having molded and defined our countercultural tastes, and having originally carried the aesthetic traditions of William S. Burroughs to us in the form of aural (as opposed to written) noise (something Paul Sztulman and Christophe Wavelet articulate excellently in one of several biographical contributions to this ”auto/biography”: “The Beat Generation’s counter-culture and the underground scene embodied by the pop figure of Andy Warhol were… followed by an independent—“indie”—culture, having to deal with the new mainstream figures being broadcast by those powerful media giants symbolized by CNN, MTV, and Hollywood. It was against this backdrop that Sonic Youth burst onto the scene with an outstanding capacity to embrace several things at once…. Through an unbroken succession of albums and concerts, this group has managed to go on touching the hearts, minds, and bodies of generation after generation.” (SF, 410). This aural transmission of the literary postmodern—the very essence and extreme of what William S. Burroughs called the “book spill[ing] off the page in all directions” (Naked Lunch229: GP 1962)—comes full circle to create the Fix—neither word, nor picture, nor word-picture collage, nor sound transmission alone, but everything at once like a terrible thunder tamed into a terrible thunder tamed.

(Sorry, but while you’ve been out to your long lunch the Word moved. The Word doesn’t live where it used to anymore. It doesn’t deal the same way anymore—catch?)

Between the scan-style reproductions of letters, typescripts (and their original holograph white-out/ bic-pen-edits), posters, photographs, paintings; the curatorial reprinting of three decades of interviews; and the two 7” records (in this edition, one red, one blue) where Gordon, Ranaldo, Shelley, and Moore—the four parts that make up the body of this postmodern author, Sonic Youth—break down the word into the beautiful purity of primordial noise, it will take another forty years to fully dissect the massive cut-and-paste opera of Sensational Fix. Even then, no one will ever really establish anything concretely beyond the only lesson that a book like this can ever concretely establish: the lesson of a very much-needed earthquake that never stops shaking.

Indeed, it isn’t until the gentle reader goes off the page to where the Word has spilled; it isn’t until the gentle reader experiences what happens in that new zone of literature by listening to the two 7’’ records—an innovation that is destined to be one of the most influential contributions to twenty-first century letters—that the full revolution of this book can be understood.  The metaphor of uncivilizing the word into its original form as sound is expressed here like nowhere else. The lone Word of Gordon’s breathy a cappella Song for Reverse Karaoke is forced to cohabitate with the acoustic string of Ranaldo’s Rats, begins to collapse in Shelley’s distorted Ivan, and reaches its a priori state as sound-without-historical-contamination—or noise—in Moore’s Aerosal. (An alternate line of thinking wonders what occurs when four record players meet two copies of the Fix, or when two record players meet one: Gordon’s reverse-karaoke may find its song with Moore’s Aerosal; and what does the author sound like when all 7’’ records are played at once?) With Sensational Fix, literature has finally overcome Judge Woolsey’s aesthetic critique of Ulysses: “a double or… a multiple exposure,” a kaleidoscopic breakthrough, has finally been achieved; and there is no going back.

It’s True: Concluding Notes for a Fragmented Statement

It’s true that America is America in many ways no more. It’s true that the dark communion of the corporate clouds has blackened out the once-expansive Western skies to, at most, the height of a condominium high-rise. It’s true that we are in exile from America; but it’s also true that from exile, looking across the scorched landscape, is where gospel has bloomed before, and where it is now blooming once more. Patti Smith, Penny Arcade, and Sonic Youth have created some of the greatest works of our time because they speak so genuinely well by form, through structure, and in content to the way the light bounces from its many different angles off the broken glass in the cathedral.

Yes, yes, yes—it’s true that from literature we have been raised before and by literature we again will rise.

Just Kids, by Patty Smith (Ecco, 2010)
Bad Reputation, Performances, Essays, Interviews, by Penny Arcade (Semiotext, 2009)
Sonic Youth: Sensational Fix (Walther König, 2010 2nd ed.)