The purpose of this post is to explore work by three artists, Patti Smith, Jem Cohen, and Kurt Cobain and to show how, through close attention to it, we can get more out of it.
My focus originally was on the Patti Smith/Jem Cohen cover video, but it pretty quickly stopped making sense to try to analyze it without discussing Cobain's lyrics and the original Nirvana video. I began without any idea where my analysis would lead; the new video just seemed to me so carefully wrought that close attention would likely be fruitful.
My analysis led me to conclude that the Smith/Cohen version responds in profound and powerful ways both to the original Nirvana version and to our times two decades later. In short , I believe the new version mourns both Cobain and our present lot – Cobain's lyrics have proved only too prescient – while on the other hand, also pointing toward a better future; but one we can hope to reach only if we persevere in trying to understand, to create, and to pass on the results of our and our forebears' efforts.
If you haven't already done so, please go ahead and watch the Smith/Cohen video; I like people to have their own experience of a work before someone else tells them what it's "supposed" to mean (apologies for any ads in front):
Here's the original Nirvana video:
Also, you can find the complete lyrics here.
The following analysis is based on the lyrics, music, and videos, together with whatever general knowledge I possess of matters I think the song may be concerned with. I have no background knowledge about Nirvana, Patti Smith, or Jem Cohen, other than what I picked up recently through brief research on the 'net. (Also, I do not by any means suppose I've managed to exhaust the meanings of these works. So, if you think I've missed or misunderstood anything of interest, please let me know!)
According to Wikipedia, the song was released in 1991. It was quickly "dubbed an 'anthem for apathetic kids' of Generation X." Since then . . .
"In 2000, MTV and Rolling Stone ranked the song third on their joint list of the 100 best [ever] pop songs, trailing only The Beatles' 'Yesterday' and The Rolling Stones' '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.' The Recording Industry Association of America's 2001 'Songs of the Century' project placed 'Teen Spirit' at number 80, above Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue' and The Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' albums. In 2002, NME awarded the song the number two spot on its list of '100 Greatest Singles of All Time,' while in 2003 VH1 placed 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' number one on its list of '100 Greatest Songs of the Past 25 Years.' . . . Rolling Stone ranked 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' ninth in its 2004 list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time . . . . In the 2006 VH1 UK poll, 'The Nation's Favourite Lyric,' the line 'I feel stupid and contagious/here we are now, entertain us' was ranked as the third-favorite song lyric among over 13,000 voters. In contrast, Time magazine proposed in its entry for Nevermind on 'The All-TIME 100 Albums' from 2006 that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" [. . .] may be the album's worst song.'"
I find the title of a work is usually important. "Teen spirit" seems related to "school spirit" or "team spirit" – an attitude encouraged by school administrators, parents, and other authorities of enthusiasm and a sort of patriotism toward one's school and its student teams; this take is of course consistent with the visuals in the Nirvana video.
Learning to work as a team may be helpful, but patriotisms of various kinds have often been used by authorities to shut down debate and induce the rest of us to sacrifice our own pursuits in order to carry out unpleasant or dangerous tasks chosen – perhaps wisely and perhaps not – by the authorities. As Samuel Johnson said, "[p]atriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
"Teen spirit" implicates whatever "teen" includes, which is a lot; but here I think of creatures with more than sufficient size, strength, and sexual drive to challenge and defeat their elders, but who also suffer from raging hormones, inexperience, and insecurity.
Adults may hope through school spirit to direct teen energy away from questioning their authority, and perhaps in particular male teen energy away from inseminating teen or other females, and to channel such energy instead toward pseudo-warfare against teens at other schools – characterized as a wholesome outlet. The fantasy seems to be of teens transformed from an ungovernable and potentially dangerous rabble, threatening adults in ways as diverse and unpredictable as individual teens are themselves, into a uniform corps obedient to every authority other than their own desires and hopes.
To me, "smells" indicates skepticism toward this kind of spirit or patriotism. The word conjures l'air du locker-room, possibly evoking a salacious underside of the "spirit" fantasy, an underside one suspects adults enjoy as much as the fantasy itself, at least so long as it remains under their control.
But it also states unequivocally that there's something about "teen spirit" that stinks. I suspect at least two kinds of odor. Given the rest of the song, "smells" must surely refer to the stench of being a teen. I don't accept that attitude and doubt Cobain did; but many teens suffer a degree of insecurity that blurs into self-loathing. Without getting too psychoanalytic, among the many changes teens must come to terms with is the fact that their own bodies are literally emitting new substances and smells, at least some of which Madison Avenue and the corporate interests they represent would have teens believe repellant – we should load up not only on guns but on mouthwash, deodorants, and douches (see, e.g., this recent WSJ article: "Next week, MTV plans to air 'The Gamekillers,' a new TV series about young men's quests to win over women. . . . the series is also about Unilever PLC's quest to sell more Axe antiperspirant.") Size is another challenge: teens' bodies are suddenly expanding in various directions; meanwhile, Madison Avenue continually and simultaneously urges them to eat while warning they'll be unattractive unless reed-thin. For these and other reasons, it's easy for teens and all of us to fear that we may in fact be defective and repellant.
The other kind of stink refers, I believe, to the more "real" meaning: the stench of authoritarian subjugation through propaganda and manipulation.
Of course it's not just school administrators and parents who encourage "spirit," but governments, corporations, industries, religious leaders – virtually every kind of authority you can point to seeks to foster its own version of a "healthy" attitude that basically consists of my-team's-better-than-yours, my leader is the most important person on my team, and I'm ready to sacrifice myself for my team and my leader. Real benefits to the corps may or may not actually materialize from this attitude, but it's invariably advantageous for the leader.
So, while on the surface, the title sounds like a slur on teens, and I'm afraid it accurately expresses many teens' self-perceptions, I think we'll find its more important purpose is to caption an indictment of the society in which teens and the rest of us find ourselves.
The original Nirvana music video was directed by Samuel Bayer, who's said he believes "he was hired because his test reel was so poor the band anticipated his production would be 'punk' and 'not corporate.'" According to Wikipedia, Cobain exerted a strong influence over the result. It was his idea, at the end of a long afternoon of shooting, to allow the extras to mosh, which resulted in the demolition of the set. In addition, Cobain "disliked Bayer's final edit and personally oversaw a re-edit of the video that resulted in the version finally aired."
About the Patti Smith/Jem Cohen version, Cohen says, "[t]he film is a domestic portrait of Patti and her son, Jackson. William Blake was invited in the form of a plaster cast of his death mask. Kurt Cobain (conflicted, fierce, gentle, and another mother's son) was invited as an admirer of Leadbelly. Cats were invited as household saints. The film invokes New York and rural America. It is about picking up guitars and doing dirty dishes." (See Video Data Bank)
Smith was a fan of Cobain's and after his death, recorded a tribute to him, "About a Boy," although she was reportedly angered as well as saddened by his suicide. (Wikipedia)
As the original Nirvana video opens, the first thing we see is the school janitor. His head is cut off by the picture frame, perhaps suggesting anonymity. By the time Cobain's voice kicks in, the camera is cutting back to the janitor for the third time. Note that of all the adults in a school, the janitor may be the one with the least authority – the most invisible, a servant even to the kids – the adult closest to being on their level, equally outcast, perhaps even more thoroughly subjugated than the teens. He's holding a mop handle, and oddly, he has a rag or something in his hand, which he dips into the bucket and then uses to wipe the pole, which makes little sense unless read as standing in for jacking off. The reference to masturbation is also apt in that, to the extent authorities succeed in controlling teen sexuality, that's what teens are left with.
(Please understand, I do NOT believe it's a good idea for high-school kids to engage in full-blown sexual relations; but I do think the Nirvana video implicates the issue, and more importantly, the means by which adults seek to control teen sexuality – and, perhaps most importantly, that these matters serve as metaphors with respect to the possibility that the same or similar means are used by other authorities to maintain control over other populations with respect to other behaviors.)
The Smith/Cohen video opens with a "5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1." To me this connotes a reversal of time, or at least some kind of blast-off, insemination, conception, or birth – something only creativity can accomplish. The next thing we see is a death's head of William Blake, largely in shadow, perched on an arm before a brighter wall – which might seem paradoxical, until we realize that this momento is not just of mori (death) but also of immortality: Smith, making brilliant work in 2007, still finds Blake's work inspiring enough to keep this object from a mold of his head made 180 years ago (and Slate confirms, Smith's songs "have been known to involve digressions about William Blake.")
I think we'll see that heads or the lack thereof may be significant in these videos. (My friend Danette thought of Goya's painting of Saturn devouring his son – an association I find apt.)
Cohen gives the picture a couple of jumps at or after the "2 – 1," as if there's some kind of slight stutter involved in getting our time machines, memories, or cognitive faculties focussed in on this scene that incorporates so much, good or ill, of how we got to where we are at this moment. (By the way, I find the visual surface of the entire film utterly gorgeous, black and white, gritty, smudged, glinting like charcoal.)
Throughout the song as played by Nirvana, the music seems to sound from the depths of anger and depression, yet the opening is snarky and energetic.
Smith's opening notes are an order of magnitude lower and slower than Cobain's. Her music and Cohen's images convey depression or perhaps mourning, lethargy, neglect, perhaps waste. We see a close-up of a cat, gazing, engrossed (a predator, among other things). Cut to a descending dove (emblem of peace, and cats' prey, among other things). Another glimpse of Blake's head, now on an end table littered with CD's and miscellany, at one end of a couch, the seat of which is covered with a plain blanket. Then we see Smith's hands, washing dishes next to a cluttered counter. The banjo has cut in; and at some points, Smith's vocalization is unmistakably, one can only presume intentionally, "country."
Load up on guns, bring your friends – The lyrics seem to reference the militia movement-types, perhaps the NRA, and a lot of nations, certainly including the U.S., which now manufactures little other than weapons and divertainment. (Note: the Columbine shootings occurred in 1999, eight years after the Nirvana recording.) As we first hear Smith's voice, we see her descend a staircase, which we might read as a visual for a trend toward decline and depression. This echoes the previous descent of the dove, a likely visual for the decline of peace.
Smith's hair hangs in twisted strings; she's wearing a men's plaid flannel shirt over a flimsy flowered nightgown or skirt, with combat boots (Danette, a Gen X'er, says the shirt probably references Cobain). She carries her guitar at times almost the way a small child would a security blanket, dragging it unconsciously behind or bearing it in front of her like a shield; at other times she wields it like a guerilla with an AK-47. (Art can, of course, destroy as well as create.)
It's fun to lose and to pretend
She's over-bored and self-assured – A possible, initial interpretation of Cobain's lyric is that he's been rejected by some girl and assuages the pain by pretending she's flawed. More particularly, "[i]t's fun to lose" – there may be satisfaction in being rejected, among other reasons because you don't have to interact more closely with the Other, of whom you might actually be rather frightened, and also in pretending you didn't really want the Other anyway because she was too oblivious to have engaged in genuine interaction anyway. Also, could Cobain possibly also have had in mind "overboard" – as in over the top or maybe "man overboard"?
But of course, I don't think this stanza is just about spinning romantic rejection, but also invokes similar processes on other levels. Public figures of all kinds seem to have grown increasingly confident that they can spin every setback as a triumph (e.g., V.P. Cheney's "last throes"); some neocons even seem to believe they can actually replace reality with "truthiness" (see also Bush's aide's infamous disdain for the "reality-based community"). Spin has been carried to extremes during the last several years, but the trend was well underway when Cobain wrote his song.
It's also fun to lose in the sense that it excuses one from further effort and affords relief from any pressure for further success. Note that the next stanza speaks of being "worse at what I do best/ and for this gift I feel blessed." That could mean a lot of things, and we'll get to some of them below, but it may pick up on this thought.
At this point in the Smith/Cohen video, Smith herself looks perhaps overbored and self-assured, though we're not sure how genuine that is. She seems to sing, she's overbored, "myself assured" – possibly a suggestion that oneself (Smith) is now alive and safe, in contrast to the fact that the Other (Cobain?) has fallen overboard? This may be a stretch but seems consistent with the rest of the piece.
(I don't necessarily believe artists consciously plan all of these meanings in advance, but I prefer at least to give their unconsciouses credit for choices that happen to enhance the meaningfulness of their works. And if you find even that implausible, I'd argue that even if this meaningfulness was completely inadvertent on the part of the artist, it may help account for why the work has resonated so strongly with so many other people.)
Oh no, I know a dirty word – This sounds like a little kid who feels titillated but unsure of whether he should be speaking about it or even what it's all about. The suggestion seems to be that teens (or we) have to some extent been kept in an infantilized or regressed state, perhaps as a result of having been deprived of the maturation that might have come through greater experience of reality in the course of attempting to act on our own authentic desires.
What's the word? I can't be certain what the artists had in mind; one possibility might be "whored" for its rhyme with bored and the way it would suit the other kinds of referents mentioned above – politicians, Madison Avenue, etc. And I think we have to speculate that the "oh no" isn't just about names that could be applied to the Other, but also about names for the speaker/singer – the teens or consumers whom others want to use as whores; certain rock musicians . . . .
Of course, putting things into words is the beginning of knowledge, without which there is no real power – "[i]n the beginning was the Word . . . " – and it is by speaking words (or expressing our experience through other media) that we can begin to reclaim our own power. But words are always "dirty" in the sense that they inevitably degrade or distort "reality" to some degree – though to what degree certainly matters.
Hello, hello, hello, how low? (3X)/ Hello, hello, hello! – The Nirvana instruments suggest a wooziness; we are so drugged – by what? – that we can barely stand. Hell to Earth, can you hear me? Is anyone paying attention?
With the lights out it's less dangerous – Smith's intonation makes it sound like, we're wounded, but in the dark we can hide; Kurt's intonation makes it sound more like, it's dark, cool, we're less likely to get caught – only maybe he really feels more like Smith sounds, and the rest is anger or bravado.
Here we are now, entertain us – This lyric proclaims a key motif. Of course, Cobain probably had rock concerts in mind – the lights are lowered, the crowd demands to be entertained, those of us not inebriated feel stupid, the mob atmosphere is as contagious as it gets.
But I also I envision small groups of teens or others in dark rooms, absorbed in the most passive form of entertainment ever invented, TV. (Note that MTV was launched in 1981; for the 1991 premier of Michael Jackson's "Black or White" music video, the MTV audience was estimated at 500 million (Wikipedia).)
We all live in an ever more fully-saturated mass-media environment that continually urges us to consume and invites us to flee consciousness above all. Studies have shown how much TV has in common with both addiction and brainwashing – see here, here, and here. TV is unusual in that on the one hand, the brains of people watching it appear much more inert than usual, with their critical faculties turned almost completely off, while on the other hand, they are nonetheless uncritically absorbing the commercial and other messages being transmitted.
It's commercially-encouraged isolation, passivity, and inertia vs. the universal human need not just to consume meanings and products fabricated by others but also to connect with ourselves and other living beings, to experience for ourselves our own authentic desires in interaction with the real world, to find and express our own meanings, to create our own works, to procreate.
In the Smith/Cohen video, the cat, after pawing Smith's guitar case, now finally leads us to Smith, who is sprawled on the couch, one arm extended toward us, her hand hanging limply down. Although in both videos, the lead singer looks pretty much destroyed, Cobain at least had youth going for him; here, Smith comes across as someone thoroughly ground down by the years and who's now barely subsisting (of course, I don't for a moment think that's Smith's real situation, just that that's the impression given at this point in the video). Note that Cohen's lens and camera movement exaggerate the foreshortening, so that Smith's hand looms twice as large as her face. Cohen will continue to emphasize her and her son's hands, which, of course, they use to play their instruments.
I feel stupid and contagious – Certainly, ignorant. The corporate media as well as other authorities have acted to withhold or divert us from a great deal of information of critical importance in order for us to exert meaningful influence over our nation's conduct and our own welfare. It's become increasingly difficult just to find out what's really going on, while simultaneously more irresistible to give up and sink back into that chair in front of ever-larger, more perfectly engrossing TV screens.
And yet there always remains uncertainty about the degree to which any attempted manipulation has actually succeeded – a potentially excruciating torment to both sides of the teeter-totter, those who are manipulated and also those who seek to manipulate them. For our part, we teens or other consumers feel stupid, afraid, and angry because we're not even sure what we don't know, how we've been affected, or what we should be doing, thinking, or feeling differently; we didn't exactly choose subsistence as our fate.
Perhaps by this point in the Smith/Cohen production, we've noticed the beginnings of a gradual but steady increase in both the level of intensity and in the tempo of the music.
The music in the Nirvana video is despairing but by comparison to Smith's version, violently angry, unmistakably expressing youthful energy and testosterone. But despite the violent anger expressed in the Nirvana version, Cobain's lyrics are repressed, depressed, satirical, and intellectually allusive. When Cobain's voice kicks in, the music amps down and the energy at first seems dissipated or at least contained, only to crank back up again into violence. The intensity or force of the sound rises and falls cyclically throughout the course of the song, while the tempo of the music never changes but remains steady. Similarly, the video cuts in and out of slo-mo.
In contrast to Nirvana's cyclic intensity underlaid by a consistent tempo, in Smith's version, both the intensity and velocity start out low and slow but gradually and steadily increase. The video remains in slo-mo throughout, but the effect of increasing intensity and velocity is nonetheless reinforced by Cohen's selections of footage and editing. The instrumentation grows increasingly dense – the picking and strumming goes from a couple of wasps to hordes, the tempo gradually accelerates, and the urgency in Smith's voice will steadily build in force to equal, in its way, Cobain's.
It seems to me that there is also a generally, gradually increasing sense of light in Cohen's visuals.
On "contagious," Smith, looking like hell, turns her head to look, unarguably, directly at us – as if "looks could kill," reminding us there's the potential for contagion in even the briefest connection. She then turns to do something to her guitar; and one's music or art is, of course, one means of inspiring, inseminating others, or as some authorities might say, infecting them.
I can never do full justice to these works, but I have to stop and say, Cohen's filming and editing, among other things, are simply genius. Every shot seems both suitable and meaningful in connection with the lyrics and music at that point. Another aspect I love is how we'll be going along, seeing Smith apparently depleted or perhaps just deeply jaded – and then, in a perfectly edited flash, we glimpse some seemingly immortal fire in her eyes – or seem to see it die.
Here we are now, entertain us We next see Smith from behind, standing, still grasping her guitar, silhouetted in her open front door and facing the world outside, a street filled with cars and people walking or just hanging out – the only time we see her in the same frame with the outside world; her door step is above street level, so she's elevated as if on a stage, but the public seems to ignore her.
A mulatto – an albino –
A mosquito – my libido
Yay – To me, all of these labels seem apt though ambivalent names for any of us, perhaps especially for any artist. Racial or cultural mongrels; freaks from whom all protective color has been blanched; insects sucking others' blood and injecting our viruses into them; an all but unstoppable drive to procreate.
Smith, still standing in the doorway, lifts her guitar with its stem upward, phallic.
We next see a board, leaning upright against a wall, shaped at the top like a very simple, round head with shoulders, with lines of Arabic writing crossing its width and spaced rather like the struts on the guitar stem that stands before it. I've made a few unsuccessful inquiries and would be interested in any information about what this object or its purpose are.
I'm worse at what I do best
And for this gift I feel blessed – Perhaps the more obvious meaning here is that Cobain sees his or other young people's best creations as being those that authorities pan – i.e., he expects his works to be deemed "worse" because, like the paintings in the pre-Impressionist Salon des Refusés, they violate norms recognized by authorities as to what's "good."
Another possibility is that Cobain is referring to the creative process, its struggles and rewards. A useful analogy might be the story of the sea-god Proteus, who held the secrets Menelaus needed to learn in order for the Greeks to end their long wanderings after the Trojan War. Proteus had the power to assume the appearance of anyone or anything, including any of the monsters or sirens encountered by Odysseus. In order for Menelaus to gain the needed knowledge, he had to grip Proteus and not let go, no matter what horrific or seductive shape Proteus might assume.
Similarly, I believe artists struggle toward realities visible only from the edges of what's acceptable to the mainstream; they wrestle with appearances that both comprise and conceal the truth, that can and sometimes do assume any shape necessary in order to thwart the creation of truly inspired work: band-mates who fight with you; parents or others who teach you while filling you with prejudices, anxiety, and self-doubt; lovers who distract or dump you; commercial interests that seek to lure you toward ever-increasing consumption or bully you into working harder, longer; governments that betray you; your own mental or emotional stench; etc. Artists may feel overwhelmed by the challenge, that their best is much worse than it should be.
Yet Cobain characterizes this as a blessing: maybe it's only because of this struggle that at least some of our creations can be "best."
Our little group has always been – blessed, and worse at what they do best? The group could of course be Nirvana, and of course we might think of our own circles of friends. The group could be the one rotting together before a TV; the group could be our team, our gang, our political party, our nation, etc., with loyalty to the group seen as among the highest virtues.
Cf. the quotation from Margaret Mead, "[n]ever doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." This is just what the neocons have done. It's something others can do, too.
And always will until the end. – Pick which end you think Cobain had in mind. Cohen's camera swirls above a Persian rug, with an effect at least slightly hallucinogenic.
Hello, hello, hello, how low? (4X) – Smith's hand grasps the neck of a guitar, passes it off to the hands of a younger man, her son, Jackson, who I gather to be close in age to that of Cobain when the Nirvana video was made. Cohen's visual here reads the "hello" as spoken by one generation to the next.
Note that in both videos, the hands on instrument necks rhyme visually and metaphorically with the janitor's hands on his mop pole. In the Nirvana video, this perhaps suggests a concern that the young musicians' efforts might be merely masturbatory rather than creative, that their efforts might not actually engender anything vital. Also, Teen Spirit was Nirvana's break-out song; prior to its release, the band was not nearly so widely known.
In contrast, we know Smith's already had a successful career and produced a son. Whatever the implications about the way she handles her instrument in Cohen's video, here we see her pass it to the son she helped create.
With the lights out it's less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us – In Cohen's video, we see the paired shadows of Jackson's shoulders and profiled head and the thin head of his banjo, gliding across a flat roof; the image is almost tender, as if what we watched were the silhouettes of two lovers. Then we see Jackson, facing us, playing, his whole shadow pointing toward us; but the young man's head is neatly cut off by the picture frame, perhaps suggesting that this could be any young man, or that the head of the banjo somehow stands in for the man's. I have to also ask whether Cohen might have intended a reference to the jacking-off janitor, also initially headless, who opened the Nirvana video; either way, the Smith/Cohen video seems to be developing a more procreative meaning or emphasis for the sexual motif.
A mulatto – an albino
A mosquito – my libido – Cohen shows us a hand presenting in an oval frame the bleeding corazon: a bas-relief heart bound with encircling thorns, from the top of which spout flames and a cross. Like the video itself, it's an artwork framing dense reminders of prophets, crucifixions, and resurrections. This is just shy of the midpoint or heart of the video and might indicate a turning point.
Yay – In the Smith/Cohen version, we see now for the first time the whole young man at full-length from across the roof, strolling as he plays.
And I forget just why I taste
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard, it was hard to find – We and especially a frustrated teen may feel, what's the point of taste or appetite, if our desires are always manipulated and we're only allowed to express those that are prescribed for us? That these appetites include the sexual seems supported by "it makes me smile" and "I found it hard"; but of course other kinds of frustration or thwartings are also evoked.
Smith sings, and "I forget just what it takes." If it's true Smith was angry that Cobain "threw [his] life away," perhaps her alteration was deliberate. If so, that would seem to me at least slightly ironic, since I think Blake would have appreciated the original line – see Blake's illustration, I want! I want!, left. In my view, while we certainly should not act on every impulse, our genuine personal desires are important – I agree with my friend Carol Heideman's belief that it's part of the job of every creature on this planet somehow to express its true preferences.
Another example of Cohen's delicious editing is the apparent flickering-out he captures at ca. 3:11 – 3:13 min.
On "found it hard, hard to find," Cohen has us looking over stacks of CD's. To me, the idea here is that it takes effort generally to sort through to find the real thing, to find something genuinely worth wanting.
Oh well, whatever, nevermind – Nevermind of course being the title of the Nirvana album. Cobain's delivery suggests confusion or loss of focus; but such words can also evince a realization that the person spoken to isn't going to be able or willing to respond helpfully.
On "nevermind," Cohen's lens lands on Blake death's head again for the first time since early in the video, closer than ever before.
Hello, hello, hello, how low? – Smith's voice still sounds subdued, yet like a prelude to something more serious, more urgent and frightening, than what has come before. The hellos fade while the strumming becomes more urgent; we see a hand working hard on an instrument neck.
At around 3:40 min., Smith's left hand starts "flashing" in the air, five fingers extended outward, star-like. The music has continued picking up in tempo and complexity, but this first "flash" may be the point at which the accelerating pace and tension become obvious. Cohen then gives us a few frames of the sun flashing between the roof and a chimney, again timed perfectly so that the fingers of refracted light flash outward on the loudest beat, this time with ten fingers.
Cohen next cuts to rapidly passing scenery, while Smith's voice sings, softly but shaking, hello, hello, hello, as if almost out of control. While the video remains in slo-mo, the effect is as if things have sped up.
After the exceedingly urban location of the previous scenes, the switch to a more rural location registers distinctly. I don't think it's Appalachia, but there fly past us (seemingly shot from a car window) tangled trees and brush, a cheap, face-like two-story on an over-large lot, two small houses and a trailer, a granary; groves and forests, the sun again flashing through them as if in Morse code. The instruments are pounding, though still in a highly controlled way.
For some of us, these images and the "country" aspects of Smith's music might suggest a more primitive way of life; in this regard, they can perhaps be read as a reminder of how short the distance may be between where we thought we were and a much ruder existence, how fragile the accomplishments of civilization really are.
On the other hand, I think most of us recognize that the "primitive" can in fact be highly evolved and sophisticated. As my friend Larkin Tom pointed out, a shift to rural scenes can also be read as involving renewal or rejuvenation. I can't help thinking of how often Shakespeare's characters, having reached a crisis in their urban worlds, retreat to the woods or other settings remote from civilization where, sometimes with the assistance of magical forces, they manage to reinvent themselves and their relationships. The flashing of the light through the trees seems consistent with this interpretation.
With the lights out it's less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious – Cohen's visuals cut to Smith's right hand, which is positively glowing, caressing a slender vine or branch. She drops the vine to gesture in the air; her hand mimics almost perfectly – I wanted to say, that of God granting life to Adam on Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, but that's not it; it's Adam's hand. And indeed it's true that our creations give life to us, as much as we give it to them.
Here we are now, entertain us – We see Smith and her son, facing the camera, Smith looking still somewhat ravaged, but haloed with an almost infrared glow.
A mulatto – an albino
A mosquito – my libido – Jackson lifts guitar and banjo up almost as if saying to us, it's your turn. Smith's almost laughing. Cohen cuts back to the scene in which she handed the banjo off to Jackson. Smith smiles up at her son.
A denial (9X) – On whose part? By the pacified, emasculated youth? – which is uncertain how it's reached its miserable state but knows something's not right, but can only begin to define itself differently by denying everything it's been taught about itself and the world? We’re not sure what we want, we don’t know who to blame or whether to blame ourselves, we don't know how to get out of this place; but we can still say “NO!” to everything about the way things are now.
But this denial has only been made necessary by the denial of those who have sought to manipulate us – isn't it because those with power and authority have denied too much of what we and perhaps they are and could be, have denied too much about the realities around us, that we now see no way to try to retrieve ourselves except to reject everything we've been taught? Both kinds of denial – our NO! and the NO! of those who seek to control us, are applicable (and they are perhaps in some sense similar).
At the end of the Nirvana video, the energy, which has risen and fallen cyclically throughout the song, explodes into Cobain's screams and the destruction of the set by rioting youth. As we learn from the I Ching (see Hexagram No. 29), our natures are like water, and while you can block them temporarily, they don't necessarily stop flowing. Eventually we will fill every cranny and either burst forth or simply overflow.
In contrast, the energy in the Smith/Cohen production can't be discounted as merely testosterone-driven (not that Nirvana's should be, either); we sense emotion but also maturity and determination behind the words now sung by Smith more clearly than ever, and we therefore are, or should be, more concerned than ever about the state of the world they evince. Yet meanwhile, as the Smith/Cohen video has progressed, the visuals have become somewhat more optimistic – Smith's hair has fluffed up, the light has become more pervasive, and kinder.
Cohen cuts back to scenery moving past us, but now we seem to be on a train approaching a city. We see what I take to be the NYC skyline, screened by wind-blown fronds. Again, a bird, this time a gull overhead.
We see Jackson on the roof, intently concentrated on his banjo playing. Cohen cuts to a man cradling Blake's death's head. Smith is not only keeping her own head, she's also keeping Blake's and working to pass both on to the next generation.
Smith's right hand, glowing, palm now upward. Blake's death's head again, now sunlit, apparently on Smith's stoop; the cat passes closely by on its way to the outside world.
Cobain screamed "a denial" nine times; Smith never sings it – just la la la la, then reverts to mosquito libido, implicitly expressing a denial of Cobain's denial, perhaps mainly of his ultimate denial, his suicide. While destruction can be a prelude to creation, the energy in the Smith/Cohen video never explodes; rather, it is channelled directly into creation – as, in fact, Cobain's own energies were, while he lived.
The Smith/Cohen version seems to me to suggest that, if we try hard enough to connect, create, and to pass the results on to our progeny together with whatever we salvage from our predecessors (Cobain, Blake et al.), there may be hope. As William Butler Yeats put it in "Lapis Lazuli," "[a]ll things fall and are built again,/ And those that build them again are gay"; or as Joseph P. Kennedy put it, "[w]hen the going gets tough, the tough get going."
Or as Cohen wrote, "[i]t is about picking up guitars and doing dirty dishes." It's a message we perhaps need to hear now more than ever.
September 21, 2007
The purpose of this post is to explore work by three artists, Patti Smith, Jem Cohen, and Kurt Cobain and to show how, through close attention to it, we can get more out of it.