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Happy Birthday to Mikhail Bulgakov, from Patti Smith and Beatdom!

On May 15, 1891, Mikhail Bulgakov was born.

Today, also May 15, Patti Smith was kind enough to talk to Beatdom about writing, her favorite Apostles, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, and Herbert Huncke, among other things. You will have to wait until Beatdom Issue 12 comes out to read the full interview, but since today is Bulgakov’s birthday, and Patti likes to keep track of such things, we thought we would share the birthday salute, along with these words from one of the greatest singer-songwriters living today. On June 5, she will release her first collection of new material since Trampin’ in 2004, and Bulgakov, and a favorite canine character of his, figure prominently in the work.

Here is what Patti had to tell us about Mikhail Bulgakov and the connection to her new CD/album/LP/digital download, or whatever you prefer to call it…it is her new music.

“Bulgakov is one of the great Russian novelists and playwrights who was suppressed by Stalin and, very simply, he wrote one of the masterpieces of the Twentieth Century,  The Master and Margarita. I am not really ready to give a lecture on political culture today but I do like to wish him a Happy Birthday. I think the best way to know Bulgakov is to read him.

“The album title (Banga) came from the dog in The Master and Margarita. It was Pontius Pilate’s dog and his dog’s name was ‘Banga.’ The reason I wrote a song for Banga, for those who have not read the book, Pontius Pilate waited on the edge of Heaven for 2000 years to talk to Jesus Christ and his dog, Banga, stayed faithfully by his side and I thought that any dog that would wait 2000 years for his master deserves a song. Its really a song for my band and for the people. It’s a high-spirited song, dedicated to love and loyalty.”

High-spirited, dedicated to love and loyalty…sounds like familiar territory for Patti. As usual, we hear Lenny Kaye’s great guitar playing, Tony Shanahan working the grace out of the keyboards and bass, and the rock-steady beat of Jay Dee Daugherty. There is love and loyalty for you – Kaye has been with Patti since 1974, Daugherty since 1975, and Shanahan since 1988. New to the mix are Patti’s son Jackson Smith on guitar, and Jack Petruzzelli, a new face in the Patti Smith Group since 2007, on guitar and bass. Old friend Tom Verlaine makes an appearance, as does Patti’s daughter Jesse Paris.

There is a sense of continuity to this LP, more than with many past offerings. The sound is fantastic but is undoubtedly better live and loud. The subject matter starts with Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus makes an appearance near the end. Mixed in are songs dedicated to Johnny Depp, the survivors of last year’s Japanese nuclear disaster, Amy Winehouse, Nikolai Gogol and, of course, Bulgakov. Plus there is a lot more, but we have only had three days to listen, and, as usual, it is lyrically dense.

It is noteworthy to mention that Mick Jagger,  one of her early role models and heroes, wrote the Rolling Stones song, Sympathy For The Devil, after reading the same book. It seems like the best way to enjoy Banga is to order the deluxe edition (featuring the excellent bonus track, Just Kids, which is a classic that seems perfect for a loud performance), along with her most-recently released book, Woolgathering, and order yourself a copy of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. You can pre-order today, while it is still Mikhail’s birthday!

We hope you enjoy all three but especially some long-awaited new music from Patti, one of the most talented living performers. For more information on how to pre-order Banga, please visit www.pattismith.net.

What Do The Rolling Stones Have In Common With Mr. Burroughs?

Aside from the love of guns, hard drugs, being cultural phenomenons and part-time movie stars, what did William S. Burroughs share with the Rolling Stones?

Recently released on DVD,  Stones In Exile is a documentary premiered by the BBC in May.  Amid the great footage of the boys (?) jamming and living at Keith Richards’ house in France, we get a gliimpse of the song-writing process that put Jagger/Richards on the pop map.

One pleasant surprise, among many, is the creation of the song, Casino Boogie.

Casino Boogie was written in the famous ‘cut up’ style created by Williams Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Words and phrases and cut from sentences and thrown into a hat. Then the cut up pieces of language are magically arranged by the forces that be and are divined by the artist, who randomly picks out the cut up pieces and puts them together into some semblance of order.  Burroughs based novels on the concept, as is explained in David S. Wills’ essay on Burroughs and Scientology in the soon-to-be-released Beatdom Number 10, The Religion Issue.

Here is what Mick and Keith did with their cut ups…just click on the link below.

Casino Boogie

Come Join Uncle Sam’s Band

by James D. Irwin

It’s about ten past four on a Sunday afternoon. I feel like I’ve been beaten up; there is pain… bruises… cuts… none of them I can explain with any certainty. I think I have whiplash. I feel dead and decaying on the inside and all I’ve eaten is an apples, washed down with a few cups of coffee— the diet Christian Bale undertook for his role in The Machinist.

I could be doing this in better, more appropriate conditions. At least the sun is shining through the narrow window of my bare, white-walled room that’s covered in dirty laundry— all my clothes— and patches of mould slowly fading back from where it rained a few nights ago. And so I’m in a hovel of a room feeling like death could come at any moment, and would be quite welcome. But today is the deadline. So I better turn my thoughts to the subject I promised I’d write something on…

More build up first: a few months ago I got into a discussion with a few American friends about the notion of the ‘Great American Rock Band.’ We kind of concluded that there was no such thing. No band could compare to the cultural importance and impact of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. America has produced a great many rock bands, but none have the same cache… the same monolithic significance as the British bands that became big in the Sixties and peaked in the mid-Seventies. We talked about how Creedence Clearwater Revival were called ‘The American Beatles,’ but their success doesn’t translate. KISS has the success, but theirs is a success comparable to McDonald’s— the vast sales of products aren’t a signifier of quality.

But then perhaps comparing American groups to British groups doesn’t stand up. Maybe our cultures are just too different. It’s certainly true when it comes to literature. We have different standards… expectations. For example the ‘Great American Novel’ exists, and doesn’t need to compare itself to the British literary canon; it is instead focused more on the truest expression of America. This would draw The Ramones into the mix, but then they’d have to be thrown out. For as much as they embody a lot of the ‘American Spirit’ their music, whilst great, is tied forever to the narrow confines of punk culture, whether it should be or not.

I think perhaps the best we could do is compare the ‘Great American Novel’ to the ‘Great American Band.’ I have a friend who refuses to read American literature, something which I find incredibly narrow minded and downright stupid. There is a perception among some, like my friend, that because ours is the older country, with longer literary tradition ours is just better. And that’s what I was doing with bands earlier on. Maybe CCR are on par with The Beatles.

American literature is slightly different to British literature. Even now ours tends to be in the stuffy, uptight mould of Dickens and the Victorians. It’s modernised, of course, but our literary tradition remains very traditional. That goes for our journalism too. We never had ‘New Journalism’ or ‘Gonzo Journalism’… some of the best writing in the Twentieth Century… Meanwhile I’m getting marked down on my Non-Fictions assignments for not writing ‘properly.’ My tutor writes for The London Times.

I referenced Hunter S. Thompson in an accompanying essay, which didn’t go down well. British writers stuck in the notion of prestigious papers don’t like writers like Thompson. Only poetry professors have any time for Kerouac and the Beats; meanwhile guys like Norman Mailer and George Plimpton don’t get a mention. Neither does Tom Wolfe. So you transformed journalism in the 1960s? Well, not in Britain you didn’t. We like our journalism dry and fact based, keep your opinions to yourself…

Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 introduced me to the band that would eventually become my All Time Favourite Band: the Grateful Dead. They are also the band I think come closest to being ‘The Great American Band’, at least by my measure of comparing them to the ‘Great American Novel.’ Of course for this to stand up I should lay my cards on the table and state what I consider to be the ‘Great American Novel.’ We can safely assume it’s not Spider-Man #1, otherwise I’d still be talking about KISS.

There are strong arguments for a couple of books. It’s not The Catcher in the Rye though— miserable, whiny and a contributing factor to the murder of John Lennon. Huckleberry Finn is basically the sequel to a children’s book— a very good book, but not the greatest. Not the Muhammad Ali of American literature. The Great Gatsby lacks scope and scale… For me it’s not just a case of the Great American Novel, but the greatest novel I have ever read: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

Why? Because it has everything; it is epic in the scale of location, of human emotion… it has humour, sadness, is a timeless slice of history and, perhaps most importantly, has the Joad family chasing the same mythical American Dream Thompson failed to find in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

It’s not my favourite Steinbeck novel either. That would be Cannery Row, in which Steinbeck revisited the Depression with a more romantic, nostalgic eye. One band wrote a song inspired by a rundown building that features in Cannery Row. Unless you’re mentally retarded, or just plain stupid, you can probably guess it was the Grateful Dead— the song being ‘Brokedown Palace’ from 1970’s American Beauty.

Both Steinbeck and the Dead are uniquely American. Britain doesn’t have any writers or bands than can really compare in terms of cultural relevance and significance. And wasn’t that what we were looking for earlier? Both the writer and the band have always been more popular in their own country than they have been in Britain. However, both have also been outsiders in their own time and place too.

The Grapes of Wrath was banned for a long time in a lot of schools and libraries on publication. Similarly the Dead were always an underground, counter-culture band that only the liberals dug and enjoyed. And it’s not like the Dead have always been cool. Through the mid-70s and most of the ‘80s they weren’t counter-culture, but simply obscure and faded. They had a resurgence though, and in 1987 finally scored a number one with ‘Touch of Grey.’

It took a long time, but both Grapes and the Dead finally got the recognition they deserved. Steinbeck’s novel is now widely regarded as one of the best ever, whilst the band from San Francisco finally got a bit of mainstream attention and recognition.

Maybe it’s a bit of a flimsy comparison… It’s not, I don’t think, meant as direct as a comparison as perhaps I’ve been attempting. I don’t know, but as far as I’m concerned the Grateful Dead are as close to a ‘Great American Band’ as there is.

They played at the President’s inaugural ball: Great American Band or not, they are Uncles Sam’s Band…