Madwomen Unchained

News of the Dead…April 24 – 30

And no more tears; this transparent woman,
who today is sealed away,
this woman who now is walled
in a niche grave
like a madwoman chained
to a cruel bedstead in an airless room
with neither boat nor boatman, among faceless strangers,
this woman who, alone, is
The One,
who held us all in the heaven
of her body.
Blessed
be her womb.

Gonzalo Rojas, December 20, 1917 – April 25, 2011

if there is a heaven, it is, no doubt, a crowded place by now.  in a world full of questions there is one thing we know and know for sure: everyone who has ever been born, without exception, has died.  rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, stretching back to a time when Lucy first stood upright and walked across Ethiopia’s Awash Valley, no one has escaped this common fate of humanity.

my original inspiration for this blog was to use it as a kind of radical obituary.  i wanted to pay tribute to that rite of passage that unifies us as sentient beings.  i wanted to provide a forum for reflecting upon the legacies of those who have shared this world with us and to meditate on the mark they have made on the commons.  to reflect upon death is, in truth, to honor the living.  it is to meditate on our own place in the world.  towards that end, News of the Dead will attempt to shine some light on the courageous, the sad, the ugly, the odd, the epic and the ordinary.

i begin with a pensive confession

as we age, most of us develop what i suppose might be called a quiet truce with death.  although i am neither old nor excessively morbid, i already feel myself being seduced into a quiet compromise with time.  the contours of my life are slowly beginning to feel as if they have been sketched.  i have the uneasy sensation that i have seen all this before.  the movies,  the novels, the daily news cycle; they no longer entice me into that state of suspended animation the way they once did…i watch, i read, i follow, but i am more, how shall i say it, “emotionally elastic” than i once was.

becoming an “elder” has never been something i longed or bargained for.  it entails some dangerous wisdom. in my mind i am and will forever be 24.  but my heart often feels as if it is following a different path.

there are times, however, especially times like these when winter is making its inevitable turn into spring, when there is a crack in the veneer and it all comes rushing home.  time stands still as it once did.  it could be a phone call to an old friend, crazy laughter with my partner, a thousand little moments as simple as a knowing glance with my child or a brief exchange with a stranger in the street and the timeless gravity of immediacy returns.  the strains of music can also give this gift to me.  a familiar song or motif can send me back to moments of clarity and inspiration…this has always been the case with the music of Phoebe Snow.  for many years her first album was just another of those records in my parent’s stack of vinyl.  something i loved but took for granted.  the songs contained a truth that hit me like a shot of breathless inspiration; they sprang out of a recognition of some inner experience i thought was mine alone.

as it happens, Phoebe’s music touched me at a moment, the late seventies, when i was first discovering what it meant to be swept away by love and life…by that expansive naiveté that gave me the sense of the future laying out in front of me like an endless open road.  it was a time infused by the sadness of my mother’s mental illness and my father’s emotional absence;  by the emptiness and poverty of high school; by those first, fierce, magnet attractions for another person, indeed, by the very idea of another person.  i discovered Phoebe’s music when those dizzying teenage crushes were all consuming…a time when holding hands or making eye contact or simply being in the same room, building or world with an object of desire was enough to make me float away.  i discovered her music when scraping knuckles felt like making love…was making love.

and then, of course, it was over.  “love” became more raw and real.

over the years i experienced long stretches where Phoebe’s music never seemed to enter my life at all, and then, as if by magic, there she would emerge…in the car on the way to go shopping…in the airport waiting for my plane…on a late night television show performing a new song.  and with her music, wherever I have found it, has always came a flood of feeling/memories.   as i grew older my appreciation for the deeper pain behind her ballads grew more rich…the more one understands beauty, and truth, the more one recognizes the need to take the bitter with the sweet.

This week, I want to pay a special tribute to the wonderful, timeless, Phoebe Snow who died on Tuesday from a brain hemorrhage at the young age of 60.

in terms of Phoebe’s voice we can go on and on about her technical abilities ~ her operatic range, the full, rich tones she produced.  and anyone who has attempted to recreate her guitar patterns will tell you how intricate and original her signatures are.  but it is the intangibles that make her style so distinct.  it is that something rooted in the black musical tradition that I guess we’ll just keep calling the blues for want of a better term.  when all is said and done, her honesty is what touched me.  her ability to reach down and grab hold of that mixture of sadness and joy; her ability to walk that fine line between pleasure and pain, love and hate that all great artists possess.

it was, i imagine, this spirit and fullness that allowed Phoebe to walk away from the spotlight just as her career was beginning to skyrocket in order to care for her newborn child, Valerie Rose.  as a result of medical malpractice, Valerie was born with hydrocephalus ~ a condition resulting from fluid in the brain cavity that left the baby severely handicapped.  against the advice of record executives, business managers and doctors Phoebe refused to put her daughter in an institution and she spent the next 31 years caring for her, almost literally, around the clock.  she broke her recording contract with Columbia, found herself wrapped up in legal nightmares and by the eighties she was reduced tosinging backup vocals for other artists and recording voice-overs and jingles for companies such as AT&T just to make a buck.

still, she never lost her creative power and was recently working her way back into the public eye.  even when covering the music of other artists, Phoebe added something distinct, a personal stamp of her own to the mix.  when my own daughter was born, a decade after the release of Poetry Man, i would sing her to sleep at night.  one song i would lay her to bed with was the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” ~ but it was always Phoebe’s version that I sang:

the Lackawanna and Western Railroad cut through Phoebe’s hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey.  she was linked to a hybrid musical tradition born of the African-American rhythms which streamed north during the great migration and the bohemian Folk revival that was blossoming across the Hudson River: as a teenager she made her way, guitar in hand, over the George Washington Bridge, into the Port Authority at 175th street ~ where the old man’s fort once stood to defend the colonial settlers against the British Empire ~  down the subterranean gray tunnels, onto the Duke Ellington A train and out into the cultural, sexual and political revolution that was taking place in Greenwich Village.

another way for us to understand Phoebe is to place her within the larger context of women’s struggles for self-determination.  born in 1950, she belonged to a generation of young females who made up new rules to replace the social norms governing and regulating their autonomy and freedom, improvising and fighting as they went along.  Phoebe’s retreat from the corporate star making machine might be read as a logical response to the pressures being brought to bear upon women during the long 20th century.  as it was for the generation of women who came before them, during the 50s, 60s and 70s the public sphere was fiercely contested. these were decades when sexuality, gender conformity and the commoditization of the female body, along with its voice, were being challenged and radicalized.  struggles which had always taken place below ground burst above ground.  among women singers, in particular, rituals of dissent and reappropriation abounded…name changing and identity masking were a part of this rebellion.  at times these new identities clashed with societies ideals, tarnishing the established figures of beauty it held aloft and other times this new breed of women wore them with a willful defiance, flaunting their sexuality, owning their desire and reappropriating “femininity”: reclaiming it from its status as subordinate to the heteropatriarchal gaze and control. name changing was a part of this cross-identification: earlier in the century Sophie Abuza, the child of Russian immigrants, became Sophie Tucker; Mary Jane West, a rugged city girl from Brooklyn, became Mae West and black women were no different.  Billie Holiday changed her first name of Eleanor in favor of the Hollywood screen idol from the 1920s and ’30s, Billie Dove…

Phoebe adopted her moniker after the fictional Phoebe Snow, a character developed by the  Lackawanna and Western Railroad to promote their “clean”, soot free locomotives, machines which ran on special anthracite coal and thus, or so they claimed, wouldn’t cover passengers clothing in black.  As a child,  Phoebe would see this larger than life-size image of purity and whiteness as it passed through Teaneck.

So, yea, we must pay an extra tribute this week to the women who were on the front lines of breaking through the post-war barriers of heteropatriarchy, its domination in the public sphere and its hegemonic regulation of the female.  visibility and audibility were contested terrains; representation itself was a battleground.

commoditization, up yours!

hindsight, they say, is 20/20.  looking back on it now, we are able to recognize just how pivotal the 1970s were.  as an era it is, for the most part, remembered in black and white, a time of flickering obscurity overshadowed by its romanticized elder sibling, the ’60s.   today, it is clear that the 70s were a decisive age of global and domestic restructuring.  capital went on the offensive.  it abandoned modernity in favor of the “post” industrial, the “post” structural, the “post” Keynesian.  the work force was made flexible, casualized and outsourced.  social movements were ruthlessly repressed and commodity culture was ever more streamlined, glittzy and organized under an authoritarian appeal to capitalist values.

nobody led the assault against the psychic, emotional and ultimately physical vacuum of capitalist restructuring with more clarity and passion than Marianne Joan Elliot-Said, the lead singer of X-Ray Spex.  before there was Blondie or Patti Smith or Chrissie Hynde, there was this teenaged, braces wearing, half-breed punk coming out of London’s south end district of Brixton.  Poly Styrene’s voice cut through the sentimentality and romantic allure of commodity culture with searing precision and she did so in a way that played with gender norms while at the same time ripping to shreds any notion of submission to a man’s patriarchal or corporate agenda.  on their most influential cut Poly begins with a deceptively plaintive reflection in a tone that could be spoken by Minnie Mouse… “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think…” and then she plunges in the dagger “…Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”

like Siouxsie Sioux, who was also from the South End, she walked that razor thin line between seduction and refusal.  “I chose the name Poly Styrene because it’s a lightweight disposable product” she told an interviewer, “and that’s what pop stars are meant to be, therefore, I let everyone think that.”  On another occasion she opined, “I like to consume, because if you don’t, it consumes you.”  if her posture invited listeners in only to throw an ugly mirror of society in its face, the music of X-Ray Spex played similar tricks, at once seducing and rejecting the codes of the music industry.  Their first and only true major album, Germ Free Adolescence, crossed a line between the Situationist, anti-art negation of punk and the radical adaptation of commercial culture’s style that announced the transition from modernity to post-modernity.  it was the most true expression of the brief movement that was called “New Wave” which would desolve in the onslaught of cable television and video programing…

by the time i put down the acoustic guitar and found a voice of rebellion in the power chords of punk in the early 80s, Poly Styrenewas a legend, a mysterious figure who served as an ethical guiding light for the movement.  from 1983 to 1988, the peak years of hardcore, she lived with her daughter in George Harrison’s Hare Krishna living community, turning her back on the material world even as Madonna was appropriating her styles and postures to glorify, indeed to become the very embodiment of corporate friendly, user-friendly femininity…becoming the very anti-thesis of what Poly stood for in her words, music and life.  it is not hard to trace a lineage from 2nd to 3rd wave feminism through the work of Poly Styrene and any history of the Riot grrrl movement absolutely must give her homage for paving the way.

this year, she released her final album, Generation Indigo.  it is an amazing work which proves that she never budged from her core principles and remained a true light to the very end.  here’s a great track she made with her daughter, Celeste Dell Dos-Santos:

sadly, Poly Styrene died from breast cancer on April 25th.  do we ever miss her and the spirit she brought us!  thanxs Poly!!!!!!  

Click Here:  For a great interview with Poly 

or

Here: for an article on Poly before she died in Flux Magazine with some classic images of her with the band

you can also visit her official website to wish her family, fans and loved ones well and check out a bunch of tunes, interviews and memories while you’re at it: Poly Styrene Generation Indigo

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~ by dAlton Anthony on April 29, 2011.

2 Responses to “Madwomen Unchained”

  1. welcome to the blogosphere, old friend. Great tribute I will be mulling over. Looking forward to more.

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