I finished Patti Smith’s M Train this week, and I highly recommend it. It’s quite hard to describe what it’s about, but broadly it’s part journal, part exploration of her creative process, and part autobiography. It is beautifully written, and I’ve not read a book that pulled me in quite as tight as this one did for a long time. It’s an incredibly thoughtful book, and it’s dense with ideas and thoughts that create sparks of new thoughts. One thing that struck me so heavily was Smith’s creative process. There’s no rush. No rush to create, and no rush to consume. There’s definitely moments of intense frustration at not being able to create, and she applies a craftsman’s approach (aka inspiration doesn’t ‘strike’ and what you create is perfect, instead perfection comes from whittling and working on something), but there’s no sense of being overloaded. She’s in charge, and she’s controlling her inputs and (to a certain extent) her outputs. There’s a sense of calm in everything she does.
I finished the final pages of M Train while I was on my way to work on Tuesday morning, and I’d become so consumed by the book, that once I’d finished it, I had a sudden panic; I’d forgotten my ritual of building a long list of music to listen to. Each week, I scour hundreds of different sources, and create an enormous playlist of music to listen over the week in order to find new music. As time has gone by, I’ve caught a rhythm, and each week I gather the last seven days worth of new music. It’s an intense system, but it works. Or at least, I thought it did until Tuesday morning. The panic rose, and almost immediately I clocked the sharp contrast with what I’d been reading and my own process. My system had become an overloaded habit. Worse still, it wasn’t just a habit with music, it had seeped into my behaviour with magazines, books, websites, newsletters, flyers – I wanted anything I could get my hands / eyes / ears on, because I thought the more I had, the more interesting stuff I could squeeze out. Like a juicer, the more oranges, the more juice. But my brain isn’t a juicer, and at some point the juicer gets overloaded and jammed.
I think this week was the week I realised I’d jammed my juicer.
I think I’ve inadvertently equated consuming quantity with producing quality, and forgotten that the value comes from the process of being able to properly consider what’s important and interesting. Not just skipping through five second snippets of more than 1,000 songs, and skim-reading the first and last paragraphs of 100+ articles. (I know, now I’m writing it down it sounds ridiculous.) I think I’d lost sight of why I started this thing in the first place – it was never to be a filter for everything that’s happened in every culture over the last seven days, it was to bring you a snapshot of what I thought was interesting and important that week. To share my process and music that I thought was brilliant.
I’d forgotten how to listen properly, and I’d forgotten how to go deep.
So I decided to make some changes. I went out and bought a new notebook, I gave away some magazines and kept only those that I knew had something interesting in, and I made a much smaller pile of books that I’d been wanting to read for ages. I forced myself to ignore my phone whenever I was in bed (before I slept, and when I woke up), and put off checking emails, feeds, and the like until I was in the office. In only three days I’ve finished two more books, written up all my Kindle notes by hand (the only way I remember anything is if I physically write it out) , read six in-depth magazine interviews, and created a mixtape that I think is one of the best I’ve done in ages. I forced myself to go deep. I remembered how to care again. Most importantly, I think, I broke this rancid cycle of ‘more more more’, click-bait-style behaviour that had become seemingly habitual. My intention was always to learn more about lots of different cultures and subcultures, using music as the guide for that exploration – I think I had accidentally become someone who used a tiny bit of skimmed information to ‘signal’ that I knew more than I really did. Culture signalling, basically.
If you’re signalling, then all you have is a tiny bit of knowledge. You’re stood in the middle, with everyone else, and you’re (basically) one step ahead of them because you’ve leaned a bit to the side. You’re not on the edges, and you’re not really exploring. You’re showing off. The excellent Paul Ruffles put an Insta story out this week with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut that cut me down in my stride, Vonnegut said; “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the centre”. You have to lean so far you might fall. Hopefully this week you’ll hear how the music guides you through a culture, and the links above in the TL:DR section are mostly connected to the subject too.
With this renewed focus, I’ve been reading the Beastie Boys book this week (please, I beg you, buy it now) after one of my all-time favourite people, Frank, suggested I give it a read. It’s about so much more than the Beastie’s – it covers the rise of late 70s New York as the cultural epicentre of the world – but about a quarter of the way through there’s an essay from Anita Sarko. It’s a brilliant first hand account of how the DJ came into contact and gave the Beastie’s a huge helping hand, and cements Sarko as a driving force behind everything good that came out of the 80s. I would argue that Sarko is probably one of the most underrated DJs in history; she was one of the first (if not the first) paid female DJs, she toured the world, and in New York she put Mudd Club and Danceteria(two of the most influential clubs in music history) on the map. She gave Madonna her first big break. She gave Basquiat a sofa to sleep on. And she created a space for LGTBQ+ cultures not just to be safe, but to thrive. I first came across Sarko in Tim Lawrence’s brilliant book Life and Death on a New York Dance Floor, where she’s given her rightful credit in the New York / London musical pantheon.
Rekindling my love of Sarko this week, I sat watching a short video interviewshe did a few years before she passed away, and I was hit smack between the eyes by something she said; “what’s interesting about now, and what’s so dangerous to the creative people in history, is that there’s so much information out there, that people can get lost in the cracks”. I hope we never lose people like Anita Sarko, because they are the totems of culture. In tribute, the music I’ve included on this week’s mixtape is almost entirely made up of songs Sarko would’ve played at Mudd and Danceteria, and where there’s new music, they’re songs that I think she’d have approved of.
All hail Anita Sarko ❤️