A 90s tale of sex, drugs and rock & roll in New York

A 90s tale of sex, drugs and rock & roll in New York

In new book, The Ballad of Speedball Baby, Ali Smith revisits an era that glitters like shards of broken glass scattered on the sidewalk.

Growing up in Manhattan during the 1970s and ‘80s, photographer Ali Smith came of age against a backdrop of neglect and decadence. As New York teetered along the brink of bankruptcy, entire neighbourhoods were torched for insurance checks. Buildings were abandoned, only to become squats, studios, and galleries across the Lower East Side at the epicentre of the punk scene.

At the age of 11, Smith discovered the city’s legendary scene watching late night TV with her Mum while sipping Pink Champale, the malt liquor for ladies of the Boogie Down. After seeing Wendy O. Williams spray live ammo during a set, the seeds of rebellion slowly took root, eventually driving Smith onto the stage to claim the spotlight for herself as bass player for the ‘90s New York punk band, Speedball Baby.

In the new book, The Ballad of Speedball Baby (Blackstone), Smith revisits an era that glitters like the shards of broken glass scattered on the sidewalk. As a self-taught musician and photographer, her DIY skills readily lent themselves to the art of the memoir. Ostensibly charting the band’s chaotic European tour in a dilapidated van, Smith draws us into memory holes where trauma lives long after the precipitating incidents.

“For the first time in my life, I refuse shame,” Smith says. “So many things that happen leave us with this burden of shame, when really those burdens — like being attacked, being sexually hurt, being beaten — are not ours to hold.”

By laying those burdens down on the page with a tenderness and care she did not receive at the time, Smith restores dignity and honour to all who have confronted those same demons. “So many people now talk to me about their experiences and it breaks my heart because it’s ubiquitous,” she says. “At the same time I’m honoured. It’s about connection and honesty.”

As the only woman in the band, Smith stood her ground like so many other musicians whose stories have yet to be told. “It’s good for young women to understand that there were lots of us grabbing for that mic, and record labels, were saying things like, ‘We've already got a woman this year,’” she says. “It isn’t just Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, and Chrissie Hynde; they all did us all a great service and gave us great art but there were thousands of other women living the life.”

With The Ballad of Speedball Baby, Smith captures the freewheeling spirit of bohemian New York just as the millennium came to a close, when Generation X transformed the last vestiges of the outlaw city into their very own outdoor playground.

“We used to play in all those fancy ass tenements around surrounding Tompkins Square Park,” Smith says. "They were abandoned for the most part, many were squats, and we would run a cord from the base of the street lamp into the backyard to power the amps to power the PA and we play shows that benefited squatters. There was always a way to do it… you need to be a little bit illegal.”

The Ballad of Speedball Baby is out now

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