3:41 pm Oct. 10, 20122
On Saturday afternoon, in the midst of the weekend-long New Yorker Festival—the annual gathering of New Yorker profile subjects, New Yorker editors, and the people who love them—something was wrong with Patti Smith’s lapel mike: it sounded crackly, somehow off.
She was issued a handheld microphone by a festival staffer.
“[It’s] half dick, half ice-cream,” Smith said, looking at the object with untrammeled disgust. “I hate these things.”
Wearing jeans, a black blazer, and brown biker boots, her hair in two braids, Smith managed the curious feat of simultaneously looking her age—she’ll be 66 on Dec. 30—and yet somehow ineffably youthful, her voice girlish, even giddy as she spoke with Paul Muldoon, the Irish poet and the magazine’s poetry editor. Much of her conversation with Muldoon involved the creative impulse and its transformation into music and poetry.
“I don’t sit around writing songs,” Smith said, describing her process as improvisatory and noting that all of her long songs, the nine- to fifteen-minute pieces, are the result of improvisation. But she also admitted that these feats of ad-libbing require significant preparation. By way of illustration, she explained the makings of “Constantine’s Dream,” a ten-minute song about Saint Francis of Assisi from her new album Banga, released this past June.
“I knew I wanted to go into the studio and improvise,” she explained, “but I had to study for a year before I could do that.” At least the melodies for the songs came easily, perhaps the result of Smith’s professed contentment to write one-chord songs.
“It’s got to be the right chord,” Muldoon ventured.
“Oh yeah! It’s D. D is always the right chord,” Smith replied
But songs, Smith said, were different from poetry.
“Poetry is the most terrible of all the arts. It’s exquisite, and it’s laborious…. Poetry is like … it tortures you. It torments you.”
Muldoon nodded his own tortured, tormented assent.
“I’m only concerned with what I think,” she said in regard to her poems. “But with songs, I write them for people. It’s to communicate.”
Smith spoke then of her persistent belief that every record she makes will be huge, an article of faith that has frequently been called into question by her peers.
“In the ‘70s,” she said, “I wanted to write the hit of the world. How fucking great would that be?”
She is still waiting for that hit record, but she did enthuse about the popularity of Just Kids, her 2010 memoir about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. That book inspired an audience question about how New York has changed since the heady days evoked in Kids.
“The great thing about New York is you can get coffee any time of night,” Smith said, before launching into a brief rant about the city’s less welcome aspects.
“When I can’t take anymore,” she said, “I’m just leaving.”
She concluded the afternoon with a five-song set, accompanied by her longtime guitarist and collaborator Tony Shanahan. She began with “a little song for William Blake,” “My Blakean Year” from 2004’s Trampin’, with its reassuring refrain that “joy will conquer our despair,” and concluded with her now-iconic “People Have the Power,” a song she prefaced with a call to vote. (She herself would be voting for Obama, she said.)
“I’m not political,” she had said earlier. “I’m just a human being and a mother.”
THAT SAME AFTERNOON, ALISON BECHDEL AND JUDITH THURMAN, author of an April New Yorker profile of the author and cartoonist, were also discussing improvisation, or lack thereof.
“We are so organized, and this is supposed to be spontaneous,” Bechdel said.
“And we are both control freaks,” Thurman added.
The dangers of spontaneity had been demonstrated moments earlier, when, introducing Bechdel, Thurman noted, “Alison turned 52 in August.”
“You’re not supposed to talk about people’s ages,” Bechdel, who looks at least a decade younger, mock-chastised. The conversation under way, Thurman asked about Bechdel’s two graphic memoirs, 2006’s Fun Home and this year’s Are You My Mother?, the first concerning her closeted gay father who committed suicide shortly after Bechdel’s own coming out, the second her emotionally distant mother Helen.
“It’s much easier to write about a dead person,” Bechdel said. “I would have written a different book if [my mother] couldn’t read it.” Still, her mother’s reaction was blasé: “She didn’t give me much commentary, except to describe it as coherent.”
Regardless of the fraught complexities of her relationship with her parents, Bechdel credited them with her artistic ambitions generally and with her cartooning career specifically:
“Sometimes I think I became a cartoonist because it was the only creative turf my parents did not have a claim in,” she said. “[And] I loved The New Yorker when I was a kid. I especially loved the analyst cartoons. So I wanted to be an analyst or a cartoonist.” (There was at least one such New Yorker shout-out at all of the events I attended.)
With Are You My Mother? she got to be both:
“I think the protagonist of this new book is Donald Winnicott,” she said, referring to the English psychoanalyst renowned for his work with children, and whose work, along with that of Virginia Woolf, structure Are You My Mother? and help the character of Bechdel make sense of and come to terms with her distant relationship with Helen.
How close did Bechdel get with Winnicott? In what was the unambiguous hit of the 90-minute event, she showed a series of photographs of herself dressed and posing as each of the book’s characters, the analyst included. The audience roared seeing Bechdel as a be-suited Winnicott tumbling on the floor.
“Can’t you see I’m suffering?” she jokingly asked.
Bechdel was reticent to discuss upcoming projects, explaining that, though she had an idea in mind, it was too new, too tenuous to discuss publicly. (She was, however, much enthused about the upcoming adaptation of Fun Home as a musical at The Public Theater.) All she would say definitely was that her new work would not involve family history.
“My mother wants me to give the whole family thing a rest,” Bechdel said. “And I know I shouldn’t listen to her. But I’m going to.”
As discussion wound down, Bechdel was asked about her willingness to represent scenes of overt sexuality in her comics.
“I want you to trust me, and how can you trust me if I don’t show you everything?” But the truth was, she said, “I don’t like to think about the masturbation scenes.”
INTRODUCING SALMAN RUSHDIE AS "A REAL HERO OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION," David Remnick, the editor of the magazine, invited the author—looking relaxed despite an obvious cold—to read from Joseph Anton, his new memoir detailing the decade he spent living under the fatwa issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini following the publication of The Satanic Verses.
“[I’ll read] the bit where I first find out about the so-called Satanic Verses,” the much-disputed Koranic verses that, according to some traditions, were composed from a false revelation. “This is from before my life became a James Bond parody,” Rushdie said.
Rushdie read for perhaps half an hour, sounding elegant, if somewhat nasal. The section from which he read, like the rest of the memoir, made of him a character, referred to in the third-person (a choice, he would later clarify, motivated by his interest in writing about himself as a fictional character). It concluded, “Good story, he thought, when he first read about it…. Twenty years later, he would find out just how good a story it was.”
Though this book and many of his others show a deep interest in religious matters, Rushdie grew up in a home largely untouched by religion.
“Islam at our house stopped at ‘no swine,’” he said. Once out of that house, while at Cambridge as a student, Rushdie finally broke that single rule with a ham sandwich. He was not struck down by a thunderbolt.
“That was the moment,” he deadpanned, “I realized god did not exist.”
Remnick asked after Rushdie’s brushes with controversy prior to The Satanic Verses:
“Mrs. Gandhi tried to sue me,” he said with equal parts incredulity and pride. (The suit was over Rushdie’s mention in Midnight’s Children of the rumor that Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay blamed her for the death of his father and that, being aware of this, Mrs. Gandhi was under Sanjay’s complete control.)
But nothing in his past could prepare him for the Satanic Verses affair.
“The weird thing is, I thought I was being quite respectful about Islam,” Rushdie wistfully noted. He also described showing a manuscript of the novel to Edward Said, who warned him that the mullahs would not care for the book.
“What’s worse than a bad review from the mullahs is a good review from the mullahs,” he recalled himself thinking.
Then, on February 14, 1989, after the book had been out for about six months, Rushdie received a phone call from a BBC reporter asking how it felt to be condemned to death by the Ayatollah.
“And I thought, What a question to ask on Valentine’s Day?,” he said. “And so I said something stupid, like, It doesn’t feel good, and then I ran around locking things.” Yet even amid a few book burnings and lots of nasty talk, Rushdie believed the threat was largely rhetorical. (In an excerpt from Joseph Anton published in The New Yorker, Rushdie describes going to an interview at the CBS offices in London and asking a reporter there if he should be alarmed: “‘Oh, don’t worry too much,’ the journalist said. ‘Khomeini sentences the president of the United States to death every Friday afternoon.’”)
“Everybody thought it would be over in a few days, including the police,” Rushdie said. “Such things were simply impossible at the end of the 20th century. [But] instead of taking a few days, it took a decade to fix.”
During that decade, Remnick pointed out, a number of prominent authors spoke out against Rushdie, accusing him of various crimes against cultural sensitivities.
“John le Carré I can almost understand,” Rushdie said. “I gave one of his books a bad review. I stopped doing book reviews after that.”
(Not quite: on Fifty Shades of Grey, of which he confessed to reading the first chapter, Rushdie succinctly remarked: “It makes Twilight [his previous standard for the most terrible example of writing imaginable] look like War and Peace.”)
Several things kept him sane through the ordeal, Rushdie said. One was the fact of being a novelist:
“Because I did something you could do alone in a room, I could go on doing it.”
He expressed particular pride at the fact that his writing did not change as a result of the fatwa.
“If you didn’t know anything about me at all, and all you had to was the books to go on, I don’t think you’d say, There! Something terrible happened to him in 1989.”
Another saving grace was humor, even if it tended to run dark.
“Friends of mine used to say, ‘If this weren’t not funny at all, it would be very funny,’” he said.
Rushdie described a clandestine visit to New York to speak at Columbia University in 1991.
“People were still clapping, and they were getting me on the plane,” he said. Riding in a white limousine as part of an eleven-car motorcade, Rushdie asked his police escort if the big production was necessary. This was protocol, the officer told him. “Protocol for what exactly?” Rushdie pressed. And the response was: “Arafat.”
“At this point, I realized what it’s like to be the leader of the P.L.O.,” Rushdie concluded.
But in 1995, on a small book tour of Australia, Rushdie got his biggest scare. Driving to visit friends he was run off the road by a truck. But the driver, submitted to intense scrutiny, turned out to have no connection to the fatwa. It was just an accident.
“I then found out this truck was carrying a very large load of fertilizer,” Rushdie said. “So I was almost killed by a load of shit.”
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