DECEMBER 7, 2012
I FIRST MOVED to New York City in 1997. I was living there when Joey Ramone passed away in 2001, Dee Dee Ramone in 2002, and Johnny Ramone in 2004. Each death seemed to send convulsions through the city’s music scene, but as much as I tried I never felt like I entirely “got” the Ramones. I’d occasionally venture this admission to some elder statesman of the Lower East Side only to be met with that withering dismissal: “you weren’t there.”
There’s something so New York about this — as New York as the Ramones, really. New York City offers up inimitable cultural experiences along with an inimitable self-regard for those experiences, like gazing out a window at an expanse of beauty while keeping one eye fixed on your own reflection in the glass. “You weren’t there” is hipness accumulating at the expense of generosity.
Johnny Ramone’s recently-published posthumous memoir Commando is not a particularly generous book, nor one that does much to demystify the Ramones for the uninitiated. It’s also just not very good. Though it arrives eight years after the guitarist’s death, it feels as rushed as one of Dee Dee’s famous “onetwothreeFOUR!”’s, as if written out of a compulsion to settle scores rather than a genuine desire to tell a story. At times this is affecting — the book’s most moving passages come at its end, Ramone doggedly writing against his own mortality — but nowhere near frequently enough to justify the book’s droning self-involvement, punctuated by gripes over affirmative action, tossed-off derision for “queers” and “dykes,” and general air of closed-minded boorishness. Even Commando’s confessions give little in the way of access or insight: “People say that [Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist] John Frusciante is strange, but I really like him. In Rolling Stone’s top 100 guitar players of all time I’m ranked at #16, and Frusciante is #18,” reports Ramone, a morsel that should concern absolutely no one other than Rolling Stone’s fact-checkers. The fact that such an influential musician dying of cancer can so grossly overplay his hand with regards to both self-aggrandizement and self-pity is a dubious accomplishment.
In broad terms the musician memoir is a genre that breeds disappointment. Music is a hard thing to write about, and musicians usually aren’t much better at it than the rest of us. But Commando also disappoints because in the past few years we’ve been fortunate enough to receive two books by New York music icons that belong on both the short list of the best books ever written by musicians and the much longer list of the best books written about the city itself. Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Jay-Z’s Decoded — the latter written in close collaboration with journalist dream hampton — are artist memoirs that ascend to the higher levels of art themselves, works that expand and challenge the conventions of their form. They are also generous books in the best sense, holding that window at the perfect angle so that we might see themselves, ourselves, and all that lies beyond the glass.
Smith’s book is a peculiarly selfless autobiography, an encomium to art, love, and human collaboration. At its center is Smith’s longtime friend, sometime lover, and frequent muse, Robert Mapplethorpe, the visionary photographer who passed away from AIDS-related complications in 1989. Just Kids is both about and for Mapplethorpe, but the descriptive gifts that Smith bestows upon more minor characters are no less remarkable. Take, for instance, this loving picture of Smith’s brief affair with the late poet Jim Carroll, author of The Basketball Diaries and the NYC punk classic “People Who Died”:
Ours were ragtag days and nights, as quixotic as Keats and as rude as the lice we both came to suffer, each certain they originated from the other as we underwent a tedious regimen of Kwell lice shampooing in any one of the unmanned Chelsea Hotel bathrooms.
He was unreliable, evasive, and sometimes too stoned to speak, but he was also kind, ingenuous, and a true poet. I knew he didn’t love me but I adored him anyway. Eventually he just drifted away, leaving me a long lock of his red-gold hair.
Smith has often been called a “rock and roll poet”; she had published three volumes of verse and countless record reviews before her 1975 debut album Horses brought her to musical prominence. Just Kids won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010, and its prose can be cherished by anyone who’s never listened to a Patti Smith record, and anyone who never plans to. In fact, one of the more striking aspects of Just Kids is how little it deals with music: it’s suggestively sprinkled with references to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, recollections of fleeting encounters with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, but the vast majority of its narrative unfolds well before Smith herself became a rock legend.
Decoded, on the other hand, is a book about music first and foremost, one that approaches its subject with an attention that has no real precedent. What other rapper has released a memoir that doubles as a collection of annotated analyses of his own lyrics? For those who’ve followed Jay-Z’s career since its beginnings, Decoded’s intricate expositions of classics like “Can I Live” and “Streets Is Watching” are worth the price of admission, as is this summation of “D’Evils” from his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt:
The song ends with a dizzying carousel of conversations. […] The final two lines, contrasting the demons in his head with a God he thinks is powerless, show how deeply he’s fallen into a moral vacuum. The song isn’t about literal demonic possession, of course, even if some sloppy listeners claim that it is; the truth is you don’t need some external demon to take control of you to turn you into a raging, money-obsessed sociopath, you only need to let loose the demons you already have inside you.
Even if it were nothing else, Decoded would be one of the most illuminating collections of rap criticism ever assembled, but it’s much more. The chapters that make up the book’s nonlinear autobiographical narrative present a dizzying mix of memory and mythmaking. Backstory is the primary anchor of authenticity in the hustler-rap genre that Jay-Z helped pioneer and Decoded is dutifully obsessed with tales of its protagonist’s criminal past, pulsing with hard-boiled energy and feverish imagination. Like the rollicking scene of boxcar hobo violence that opens Woody Guthrie’s semifictionalized autobiography Bound for Glory, Decoded’s tales of cold nights in the Brooklyn grind and daring runs to Virginia serve to elaborate the character of Jay-Z; in a sense they offer the same vicarious behind-the-scenes thrills as the lyrical exegeses described above. If the artistic self is an oblique and elusive presence in Just Kids, in Decoded it takes center stage while still reveling in its own sneaky complexity.
There are many New Yorks and there have been many New Yorks at many different times, and the city of Just Kids and the city of Decoded are both adjacent and foreign to each other. Smith’s book is pre-Reagan, pre-crack, pre-hip-hop; even the AIDS epidemic that would claim its protagonist looms mostly in spectral form, a gathering, still-inarticulate apocalypse. The New York of Just Kids is a reimagining of Rimbaud’s Paris, a gnarled playground of adventurism, “shifty and sexual,” as Smith describes it. Her childhood was spent in Chicago, then Germantown, Pennsylvania, then Deptford, New Jersey — New York drawing her all the while, magnetically and inexorably. But Smith was a transplant, an artist who chose New York as surely as it chose her, and the city of Just Kids is an object of aspiration.
Jay-Z didn’t choose New York any more than he chose to grow up poor and black in the throes of a post-1960s urban crisis. Particularly in his later career, Jay-Z has dealt with social questions in increasingly open ways, and Decoded frequently probes the intersections of politics, art, and moral duty. “Charity,” he writes, “is a racket in a capitalist system, a way of making our obligations to one another optional, and of keeping poor people feeling a sense of indebtedness to the rich, even if the rich spend every other day exploiting those same people.” The anarchist anthropologist David Graeber couldn’t have said it better himself, and for all of the mythmaking that Decoded borrows from hip-hop, its prose has an unflinching realism that it derives from the music as well.
This multitude of New Yorks can breed a proximity marked by apartness, and its music scenes are no exception: Shawn Carter was five years old when Horses was released in 1975, and it probably got about as much play around the Marcy Houses of Bed-Stuy as The Blueprint did at CBGB in 2001 (not a lot, and in this case I was there). And yet both Jay-Z and Patti Smith present a vision of art as a profound and radically human necessity. Smith writes of a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art at age 12, after which “I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.” Jay-Z and hampton describe hip-hop as “a culture of people so in love with life that they can’t stop fighting for it […] they want to impose themselves on the world through their art, with their voices.” The awakenings that art offers require a constant wakefulness, and in its highest forms this results in something universal and unifying.
It’s also worth noting that while Jay-Z has never been much after Smith’s listenership, he might be rather keenly after her readership. When Just Kids took home the National Book Award it was a mild surprise but no shock, and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One had been in the mix for numerous such prizes only a few years earlier. When it comes to hierarchies of prestige, rock and roll is — to quote Danny and the Juniors, by way of Alex Chilton — here to stay. Hip-hop’s status in literary culture is still more marginal — a position indicative of both its relative youth and other, more insidious biases — but for the past decade Jay-Z has been a primary engine in pushing the music into the upper echelons of every sort of access, for better or worse. It’s now been nearly a decade since he declared “I don’t wear jerseys / I’m 30-plus,” and the same description probably applies to Decoded’s primary demographic. The book is lavish, substantial, expensive, a further consolidation of cultural capital for its author and the musical form it celebrates. When Lil Wayne wins the Pulitzer in 2022, he’ll have Jay-Z to thank — who will probably even be on the jury, right next to Patti Smith.
That New York City can produce two such works as Decoded and Just Kids in the same calendar year is a testament to its diverse capacity for creativity, and also a reminder that cities are largely the product of stories we tell ourselves about them. New York is better at this than most, which could mean that it actually has better stories or simply more people telling them, but when spoken in the right tones, “you weren’t there” is an endlessly powerful thing. Someday soon a kid from a suburb not unlike Smith’s will read Decoded and light off to New York, and some kid from a housing project not unlike Jay-Z’s is going to stumble upon a copy of Just Kids and do the same exact thing. And some other kid who always did get the Ramones might read Commando and actually like it, and that kid will move to New York too. We live in and with these places for the same reasons we pick up microphones or join bands: not because we believe they’re everything they claim, but because their best truths are in the telling.