Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Patti Smith's 'Redondo Beach": The First Gay Reggae Song?

I've previously written about the ways that mainstream rock and pop artists have embraced reggae in a genuine fashion (Paul Simon, Blondie and Johnny Nash) or dabbled in a number of dreadful attempts (Cod Reggae any one?). However, it is very possible that the very first reggae song with a Gay story line may be Patti Smith's 1975 track "Redondo Beach" taken from her "Horses" album.

On the surface, a song that name checks a beach could be construed as a cliche for a rock-reggae recording. In fact Redondo Beach was a popular destination (or perhaps a safe-haven) for lesbians living near Los Angeles at the time. With the back drop established, Smith tells the tale of an untimely suicide of a young gay woman and a love that never was. Despite the laconic reggae sounds  the lyrics convey a kind of sufferers music that reggae artists of the 70's could have appreciated but never would have imagined. 

The song struck a chord in the the 70's and beyond when Gays and lesbians began to assert themselves culturally and politically, resulting in the movement towards marriage equality across parts of the United States today. However, nearly 40 years go, listeners heard Smith sing the lyrics (set to a reggae rythym) as a grieving and confused gay woman. As such, listeners assumed she herself was gay.  She revealed this in a 2005 interview:
'I always enjoyed doing transgender songs. That's something I learnt from Joan Baez, who often sang songs that had a male point of view. No, my work does not reflect my sexual preferences, it reflects the fact that I feel total freedom as an artist. On Horses, that's why the sleevenote has that statement about being "beyond gender". By that, I meant that as an artist, I can take any position, any voice, that I want.'
Smith revealed the inspiration behind "Redondo Beach" in the same interview.
'Redondo Beach', was also widely interpreted as the lament of a woman whose girlfriend has committed suicide and whose body washes up on a Los Angeles beach popular with lesbians and gays. Actually, says Smith, it's a song about her sister Linda, a sort of morbid fantasy rooted in remorse: the pair, rooming together in the Chelsea Hotel, quarrelled, and Linda disappeared, causing Patti much anguish. Written in 1971, the verses languished in a drawer for several years, until they were pulled out and given an incongruously jaunty reggae backing.
Despite his infamous “All reggae is vile” comment (later he claimed that the quote was just a joke and that he was a fan of reggae music), Morrissey released his own reggae-lite live version of "Redondo Beach" a few years back which has become a staple of his live shows. Have a listen to his take on this classic (complete with reggae organ!).

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