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Patti Smith’s Duet with the Devil

I had pleasantly not thought for years about that ghastly song “You Light Up My Life,” until this week, when I heard about the suicide of its writer, Joe Brooks—a hack of genuinely monstrous proportions, who was awaiting trail for charges of drugging and sexually abusing more than a dozen young women lured to his apartment on the pretext of helping to fulfill their young dreams of careers in show business. I will admit to being disappointed by the news of his death; I would have preferred for Brooks to have been tried and, if convicted, sentenced. (Brooks, 73 at the time of death, was facing up to 25 years in prison.) Suicide denied the justice to which both Brooks and his victims were entitled.

With fresh contempt for Brooks and his best-known song, I went to YouTube to revisit the one version of “You Light Up My Life” that I remembered tolerating, an unexpected performance of the tune by Patti Smith on the sunny children’s show Kids Are People, Too, taped in 1979. Smith sings the song straight, belting it out like a cabaret star, accompanied by Brooks at the piano. In the punk era, when Smith appeared on the show, few of her fans knew about the performance, and VCRs were just coming into use. The YouTube clip looks salvaged from one of the VHS tapes of the show that musicheads started trading in the 1980s. Watching the clip for the first time in years, with Brooks’s fate in mind, I was struck by the hopefulness and the earnestness in Smith’s singing—hopefulness that I couldn’t help associating with the wishful fantasies of Brooks’s captives, and with the earnestness that I imagined him faking to get his way with them.

In both her chatter with the show’s host before the song and her respectful rendition of it, Smith makes plain her view of childhood as a time of uncorrupted optimism. The punk movement mattered, she said, because it showed that “rock and roll belongs to the kids again.” Three decades years later, she would title her memoir of the 1970s Just Kids, employing the “just” ironically to toy with the conception of youth as a lesser state. As she tells the young audience of Kids Are People, Too, she wanted as a girl to be a missionary and a teacher, and she has ended up as a little of each, a cheery, punky advocate for the very optimism that Joe Brooks exploited and betrayed.

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