Sign up for our free newsletter
Why is it that “poet Patti Smith” always attracts the modifier “punk” instead of the more obvious and correct “bad”? True, some of the best rock has been lousy poetry, but the author of such lines as “The waves were coming in like Arabian stallions/Gradually lapping into seahorses” and “The winds ablaze/Angels howling/The sphinx awakens/But what can she say?” has actually invited consideration of her work as both sung lyric and written verse. Though universally lauded as a feminist forerunner of rock’s distaff side and a kick-ass jump-starter of punk in general, Smith is in fact responsible for some of the most insufferable twaddle of the rock eraand she’s not very punk to boot.
In June, Smith released Gone Again, her first album in eight years. Arista has accompanied it with remastered reissues of her five earlier albums, each augmented with bonus tracks. The five are available separately or as The Patti Smith Masters, a box set supplemented with a completely useless sixth disc, Selected Songs. A greatest-hits package of sorts, Selected Songs includes two tracks each from Horses (1975), Easter (1978), Dream of Life (1988), and Gone Again, but only one song each from Radio Ethiopia (1976) and Wave (1979). It appears to have been created solely as a merchandising gimmick; marked “Promo Only. Not for Sale,” it is available outside the box set only to people on Arista’s PR mailing list.
Packaged as a miniature charcoal-gray monolith that is tempting to read as a tombstone for Smith’s career, The Patti Smith Masters suggest that it’s time to examine whether their creator is really “the high priestess of punk” (or “the mother of alternative,” as Option recently dubbed her) or rather the harbinger of a genre as yet undefinedand perhaps not all that desirablesay, “Hard-Edge New Age.”
Although Horses, like the other Masters, benefits from the 20-bit treatment, Smith’s debut album is most notable for its historical reception. It announced the concerns of an idiosyncratic performer to a mid-’70s pop intelligentsia that in retrospect seems inexplicably bent on welcoming the record as an antidote to prog-rock pomp and classic-rock bloat. In fact, Horses partook gluttonously of the feast of self-indulgence laid out at the time. It just did it more grittily. And it did it from the perspective of a woman.
Much as prog rock’s misguided ashamedness of popular music led to such showboat performers as the “classically trained” Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman or the “virtuosic” Jeff Beck, a sense that rock was somehow necessary for but insufficient to the satisfaction of her muse led Smith to fancy herself as something more than a singer-songwriter. Having published verse in fastidiously small limited editions, she considered herself first an artiste. In a rather touching gesture, she at least attempted to guard against the preciousness of literary writing by larding her lines with references to the merely semi-precious (opals, pearls, and jade fill the songs; she apparently never considered that her words were less than lapidary) and scenarios (parting as suicide, murder as sex) brutal enough to rough up her self-obsession a bit.
Of course, Horses is completely undone by Smith’s voice (not that her lyrics ever dispel the specter of Misty of Chincoteague). Every freighted utterance, every studied mispronunciation explodes, as if calculated to convey that she is special, her pain that of an artist. When the heavy stuff goes down, she abandons melody entirely. But what results is less reminiscent of a poetry reading than a country-music recitation. Whenever Hank Snow, or Elvis for that matter, was just so overcome with feelin’ that he jus’ couldn’t pick that ol’ guitar, he just spoke his mind, testifyin’ to the solemnity of the occasion. On “Birdland,” Smith goes elegiac, on “Kimberly,” frenetic, on “Land,” filmic. When she does sing, her style becomes so heavily mannered and ornamented that, 20 years later, she has emerged as the Black Yodeler, a down-home Barbara Fritchie rallying the shock troops of the Alanis Nation.
Any rock critic worth his salt knows rock to beas Smith puts it in “Land”‘s third movement, “La Mer (de)”a “sea of possibility.” Said “possibility” is a saw so oft made to sing in rock writing that you’d think the music’s earliest creative rumblings were felt not by Robert Johnson but Robert Schuller. Just because a sea is banal, though, doesn’t mean you can’t drown in it.
Last Saturday afternoon, I was engulfed by a possibility I hadn’t foreseena Patti Smith epiphany. While I was listening dutifully to Horses, trying with all my heart to hear for myself what others took to be the howlings of genius, the most famous offspring of rock’s original My Pretty Pony mommy broke free of its restraints and (like its ’70s contemporary, “Wildfire”) “busted down its stall.” It whinnied. It strutted and cantered and trotted around the room. Flame flew from its nostrils. Sixteen times it tapped its forehoof on the carpetwhich I immediately saw as a sign of the irrefutability of its status as the 16th greatest record of the past 20 years, as determined in 1987 by Rolling Stone.
In my mind, at last Horses had gelled. That it did so as camp is something for which I refuse to accept any responsibility. After allin terms Patti well understandsshe is the potter, I am the clay. So long as I resisted her, I denied her charms, remaining aloof and superior. At last, I was in it. When something “camps” on you, however, your laughter at doesn’t become laughter with, it only feels like it does. Because true camp resides in the friction between your perception of something being bad beyond denial and its maker’s complete obliviousness to its failure. Born of that friction is a thing rarer than the fruit of mere artistic competence: The camp icon is an engine of
Camp is the transcendence of the awful, and like all things sublime, it can’t be faked and it can’t be summoned up on command. It would be almost four years until it again graced Smith’s work. In the interim would come the Patti Smith Group’s Radio Ethiopia, which is distinguished primarily by a 10-minute live title track that is as impressive a display of group noodling as any album-side-long art-rock opus, and Easter.
Smith’s third long-player will always be remembered as having produced her only top-40 hit, “Because the Night,” co-written by Bruce Springsteen. The album’s chief function, though, should be to serve as a reminder of what a bad idea it was for an all-white band to appropriate the term “nigger”particularly an all-white band prepared to let Lenny Kaye sing.
The follow-up, Wave, contains Smith’s best song, “Dancing Barefoot.” Perhaps familiar to most listeners via U2’s cover, “Barefoot” received definitive treatment at the hands of the Feelies. For years, in fact, I thought the song was written by Feelie Glenn Mercer, especially since the promo disc containing the song credited it to himand I had yet to hear Smith’s last ’70s release. Still, there was that problem of the terribly un-Merceresque prattle at the end: “Why must we pray screaming? Why must not death be redefined?”
Turns out I was cheating myself out of her other “great” album. Wave starts with three potential singles, including “Barefoot,” then runs gloriously off the rails, with the laughable, autoharp-accompanied “Hymn,” before bursting into a brilliant, 20-minute firestorm of overproduction: “Revenge” starts with arpeggios worthy of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and shrieks with a guitar solo recalling Animals-era David Gilmour. “Citizen Ship” won’t disappoint fans of Styx’s Pieces of Eight, “Seven Ways of Going” foreshadows the Grace Slick imitation of Dream of Life, and how can you miss with a stately choral march named “Broken Flag” that hails the “weeping yarn from Algiers?”
How did it happen? The answer’s right there on the back cover, the only words printed in red that aren’t “Jean Genet”: “Produced and Engineered by Todd Rundgren.” Patti had nicknamed Todd “Runt,” and he, knowing how to handle pompous trash, returned the favor, providing Smith with the first settings that weren’t dwarfed by her voice and her ego. Recall that in 1977, Runt was the driving force behind Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell; the record was as much his as Jim Steinman’s.
The Rolling Stone Album Guide recommends Bat Out of Hell “to punk and disco scholars” as a reminder that “there really was something to rebel against.” But it’s worth noting that the simply stunning 10-minute title track from that kitsch masterpiece recapitulates all of Smith’s major themes (the artist as Beat-damaged street hood, as avatar of personal and sexual liberation, as lightning rod of mystical perception, as pagan saint sacrificed on the altar of Biblical iconographynote that Smith never really cares what happens to the nonartist). It also incorporates her Springsteenesque longings (not to mention several members of the E Street Band) without succumbing to “Because the Night”‘s turgid plod, and ends up outrocking anything PSG ever did. And it does all these things more honestly than Smith ever could, because it is assured of its own status as schlock (it’s much easier to succumb to the sweep of self-conscious operatics knowing that you’re being taken for a ride than to accept as gospel the unwittingly comic pronouncements of a delusional sylph).
In 1980, Smith married ex-MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and retreated to suburban Detroit. She re-emerged eight years later with Dream of Life, a maddeningly bland collection of MOR ditties. “People Have the Power” should one day be covered by Celine Dion. I bet Smith’s son hates her for “The Jackson Song,” his lullaby. The album’s inclusion in the box set seems some sort of sleazy trick.
Although Gone Again, dedicated to the memory of Smith’s husband, seems less out-of-place than Dream did, it feels every bit as insubstantial. Half the credit goes to Smith, who has actually listened to some new music since her uninformed comeback flop, the other half to big bands such as Pearl Jam that have made the bins safe for albums filled with sonically diverse arrangements of diffuse, introspective songs. There’s even a Kurt Cobain tribute song (can we please have a moratorium on these things?); it’s called “About a Boy.”
The death of her husband aside, it’s pretty clear why Smith’s moment is now. Credulity is at an all-time high (witness the success of such muzzy new-age tracts as The Celestine Prophecy), while coinciding with a rejection of traditional beliefs. Compound this with the consumerist receptivity of a generation raised on psychologists and self-help (what is the ’90s’ surprisingly enduring fetish for angels if not a desire for a creed that makes no demands on its followers?) and the time is ripe for Smith’s phony religiosity. Milking the King James Version for its poesy, but not its authority, she seeks to harness the gravity of myth to her own babblings, while ensuring that what it all means is subject only to her whim.
Today’s punks and alterna-fans ought to know better than to fall for such rot, and I suspect they do. It’s more likely that their parents and older siblings have an interest in affirming the continued viability of a performer best known for work done over a four-year period some two decades ago. These younger boomers, who chuckle at each Rolling Stones or Who reunion, probably think getting Smith back onstage is a swell idea.
In the end, it’s somewhat difficult to fault Smith herself, even if, as James Wolcott said in the New Yorker, “I think she’s overdoing her widowhood.” (She needs a job, after all. And she clearly is devoted to her muse. Is she to blame that it’s never been a very good one?) Over the years, her public has egged her on, caring about her vision, her rebellion, and her passion, such as they are. Why not her grief? When, several years back, Eric Clapton milked his son’s death for a song, the record-buying public, not to mention the industry, seemed in no big hurry to remind him of the dignity of private suffering.
Although I prefer to think of her “musical sabbatical” (as Selected Songs’ official chronology puts it) in terms of all the albums on a par with Dream of Life or Gone Again she thankfully never made, instead of as a quiet period where she replenished her inner energies (to paraphrase Kaye’s notes to Songs), it makes it clear that Smith has two public modes: complete invisibility and utter self-indulgence. To expect different of her now would be foolish.
When Smith performed back in the ’70s, it was with an intensity unchecked by taste and uncolored by a desire for comprehensibility or any other typical artistic imperative. Was this a formidable influence on performers from the Raincoats to Courtney Love, providing a free zone from which they could launch their explorations? Sure. But it also proved liberating to singers like Michael Stipe, Bono, Kim Gordon andthis should certainly give us pauseKat Bjelland. Much as an art world that lived through the ’80s doesn’t need Judy Chicago and her vaginal-imagery-laden Dinner Party anymore, so rock in the ’90s, which no longer sees the participation of women as freakish, should have little use for Smith and her Horses.
Why indeed must not death be redefined? I’d say she’s done.CP
Patti Smith plays a Lifebeat benefit Oct. 12 at the Warner Theatre.