Why It Matters

Kerouac asked in “Lion, No Lamb”, “and, what difference does it make?” This remains one of my favorite questions to ask when considering the continued relevance of an idea. What difference does it make? This goes back to the questions that I posed at the beginning of this paper. What difference does it make that I spent quite a bit of time writing on what many consider a “has-been” rock star?  What is so special about Patti Smith? And why is it so hard to talk about it? It makes a lot of difference– or it can. What Patti Smith as a whole illustrates is the lesson she said Robert Mapplethorpe showed her: that “contradiction is often the clearest way to truth”

Instead of just writing these contradictions off as inconsistencies, we learn and profit more by allowing them to exist in an evolving relationship with – and inform- one another. What “Because the Night” illustrates is the ability to relate a feeling largely through voice and music. This is universal, in many ways. The urgency in Smith’s pleas and commands can be understood regardless of what language one speaks. This is important in a world where language so often only serves as a barrier to divide and pit us against one another; music may not be the perfect answer to this, but it could be one of the answers. The focus on the feeling inherent in music , in addition to the meaning the meaning conveyed words and lyrics can also serve as a call to find new ways of dialoging with and understanding those around us. It is crucial to acknowledge that for all the high ideas and goals that one may have (and that are important and valuable), the fact still exists that right now, you are here. Right here, in body and with a limited time (like the night) to interact with and touch others  Those goals may sound too lofty and perhaps they are. In “attending to affective as well as cognitive experience” we need neither to play “intellectual games” nor to do “away with critical distance altogether”, as Neil Nehring puts it. ( rock around academy). What I am really asking for here is not a privileging of feeling over intellect or vice versa, but merely the acknowledgement that meaningful knowledge is gained when we try to add to our understanding in new ways, when allow ourselves to exist within the contradictions of ideas instead of asserting one way of understanding at the expense of all others. Why is all of this important? What drives us in life – or what should drive us? I think the answer is passion, and feeling (regardless of whether it is for business or science or listening to rock and roll songs). What drives us is a feeling and we need to realize that it is okay to admit to feeling. Ideas and intellectual contemplation have a power unequaled in some ways but it is okay to admit that you feel something also. It is a good thing to admit that you feel and are driven by something that you just can’t quite put your finger on, to paraphrase Barthes. That is how I feel about Patti Smith. If “Because the Night” teaches us any “lesson”, I hope that it’s that feeling something, the goose bumps on your arm, the chill down your spine, any physical reaction to a piece of music can be a good, existence (body)-affirming, thing, even if we’re not quite sure exactly why we feel that way. What is important is to realize the contradictions and duality that go in to our feeling this way and allow ourselves to learn from it instead of limiting it. Lenny Kaye sums it up nicely by saying, “The whole point of Patti Smith was beyond gender, beyond politics, beyond, beyond…Any time you were defined, you were caught. . . I used to use that quote from Mayo and the Red Crayola, one of my favorite sixties albums, where they say, ’Definitions define limits’. That was our philosphy…I mean, we were feeling like missionaries, carrying the word out there and trying to stir up trouble wherever we went”. This act of stirring up trouble is the very spirit of rock and roll; combined with the commitment to knowledge, equality and “beyondness” that should , ideally, characterize academia, one might find the results quite wonderful.


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