Patti Smith helped save rock & roll once. She had to—she's said as much in interviews. Sound pretentious? Consider Smith and her era: a Chicago-via-Philly-via-Jersey-raised Jehovah's Witness, she escapes to New York City in the late '60s, drunk on Little Richard and Ginsberg and Dylan and revolution and Pollock. She wants to be an artist and tries painting, but she gives it up to become a playwright. Gives that up, too (but not before co-penning Cowboy Mouth with Sam Shepard), then tries rock criticism, then poetry. By 1971, she's happy at last with poetry and the public readings she gives around Lower Manhattan—but not happy with the state of her beloved rock & roll. What had become of the music's politics, which had flourished just a few years earlier? It was all turning into Bread; Carole King; Three Dog Night; James Taylor; and Emerson, Lake and Fucking Palmer! Money and blowjobs (it was still a guy-dominated realm) —not art, passion and community, and certainly not revolution—were the main catalysts for starting a band. Stadium-dum-dum rock was swiftly approaching like a new Ice Age, as were all those—shudder!—peaceful, easy, agonizingly mellow California bandzzzzzz. . . .
Smith was anxious. To make things more interesting, she got guitarist Lenny Kaye to play behind her during readings. Soon, more musicians joined in —hey, it's a band! The music became more experimental yet still grounded in '60s garage riffs. Smith's deliveries got wilder and more uninhibited, and the crowds swelled. The band found a dumpy, just-opened bar in the Bowery called CBGB's, where they played regularly with other young, hungry groups like the Ramones, Television and the New York Dolls. _Smith started wielding a guitar onstage; she didn't know any chords, preferring to make raw, angry sounds; somehow, it fit. A movement grew, and people got this insane, shocking idea that anyone could start a rock band, that you didn't even have to take any bullshit lessons or anything, as long as you brought the noise. By 1975, punk rock had been birthed—sent off to Britain for further development—and rock & roll was handed back to the people, where it could be a dangerous, populist weapon once again.
A good case for St. Patti's canonization? Rock writers thought so, especially by the time punk went global and Smith had released her first albums, 1975's monumental Horses and 1976's Radio Ethiopia. She was stuck with tags like "High Priestess of Punk," even though her music wasn't really punk—not by today's thrashy, piss-and-broken-glass-gargling standards, anyway. Back then, though, anything not dull was branded "punk"—and Patti Smith was not dull. Female musicians simply did not involve themselves in the kind of sweaty, manic, bounce-around-the-stage performances of the kind Smith gave every night. She exhaustively threw herself into each gig (one night in Florida, she flew off a high stage and landed on the floor, breaking several vertebrae in her neck and back). Her shows were positively Springsteenian in their electricity levels, and she was one of the decade's greatest rockers. Years before pandering print articles about "Women in Rock" began to pop up and run their predictable course, Smith pretty much was Women in Rock. Some even wondered about that, though: What was with the slyly androgynous look she modeled on the cover of Horses? Was she a she, or just a better-dressed Ramone? And why didn't she alter the pronouns on her version of Van Morrison's "Gloria"? Didn't the part where she orgasmically crooned "Looking out the window/ Seeing a sweet young thing humping the parking meter/Oh, she looks so good/Oh, she looks so fine/Gonna tell the world/I'm gonna make her mine" make her seem like a . . . well, you know . . . ? Yep, Smith—quite hetero, if it matters—was lesbian chic before lesbian chic was cool. The is-she-or-isn't-she? questions, her fuck-what-anybody-says 'tude (she didn't care that her armpit hair was in full bloom on the cover of 1978's Easter album), tuff-chick self-confidence and general pissed-offed-ness—all of which the record-buying public had previously seen only in guy rockers—made her an icon of many a gay man (just ask Michael Stipe or Tim Miller or her late onetime boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe or . . .) back when Madonna was still a high school cheerleader in Michigan. Really, her lyrics were cryptic enough. The very first line she smokily moans on Horses—"Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine"—well, what was that supposed to mean?
Easter gave Smith her only real hit single when, interestingly enough, fellow Jerseyite Springsteen loaned her "Because the Night." By 1979's Wave, she was at her popular peak, headlining stadiums in Europe. And then she disappeared for nine years, stirring rumors that she had spurned rock for Christianity, when all she really did was get hitched to former MC5 guitar god Fred "Sonic" Smith and have a couple of kids. She resurfaced in 1988 with Dream of Life. Though it displayed some of her best, most emotional, un-angry songs in "Paths That Cross" and especially "People Have the Power" (a rousing, populist anthem if ever there was one), the album was mostly shrugged off by critics as too slick and overproduced. Smith could've done better (like not have Jimmy Iovine co-produce it, for instance) and would do better, though it meant another long wait. While her first leave of absence was life-giving, her next dry spell, which lasted until 1996, was induced by death. The album she released, Gone Again, was a meditation on loss and reflected the passings, within a relatively short period, of Mapplethorpe, her brother Todd, longtime band member Richard Sohl and her husband. She wrote songs about people she never knew to help her grieve—"About a Boy" was penned for Kurt Cobain, an answer to his own "About a Girl." Death carried over to her next album, 1997's Peace and Noise, this time mourning poets Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, two of her greatest inspirations (she may or may not be the "High Priestess of Punk," but Burroughs once called her a shaman, which is enough of a blessing).
Her new one, Gung Ho, finds her more optimistic, something you pick up on just from the title. It's a far more rock album than either Gone Again or Peace and Noise, and she seems ready to take on the world again ("New Party" rails against politicians with classic Smith vitriol: "Why don't you/Fertilize my lawn/With what's running from your mouth?"). "Libbie's Song" is a gentle little country/folk song, in which Smith warbles her best Mother Maybelle along to the screech and ring of fiddles and mandolins. There are eulogies to Mother Teresa ("One Voice") and Jerry Garcia ("Grateful"), and Smith reveals her admiration for Ho Chi Minh in a theme running throughout the disc. It's a good album, but there are flaws, particularly the tedious 11-minute-and-45-second title track about Ho, an aural quagmire seemingly as long as the Vietnam War itself.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
What's also setting Smith off these days is one of her old enemies: bad, shallow music—people out there disrespecting the Rock. Now it's mainly the corporations she's after. Gung Ho's "Glitter in Their Eyes" savages the current rock-as-marketing-device trend ("Our sacred stage/Has been defaced/Replaced to grace/ The marketplace") and advertisers who view young people as consumers rather than multidimensional human beings ("They'll trade you up/Trade you down/Your body/A commodity"). On "Glitter in Their Eyes," Smith completes a circle, returning to the reason she got into music in the first place. She never says directly that it's time for some sort of new punk rock to drop—whatever that would be—but you know that's what she's getting at.
One moment from Smith's set at last month's South by Southwest music fest in Austin, Texas, is worth revisiting. After an enthralling, balls-out two-hour set that recalled her prime '70s shows, after most of Gung Ho, after "Dancing Barefoot" and "Free Money" and "Redondo Beach" and "Pissing in a River," this 53-year-old mother of two took the Vietnamese flag that was draped over an amp, wrapped it around her head, jabbed the cold night air with the neck of her Fender Strat, and screamed to 4,000 people, most of them Texans (a state where it's legal to carry concealed firearms), "You want a gun? HERE'S YOUR FUCKING GUN RIGHT HERE!" Then she slowly snapped all six strings.
Rock & roll as a dangerous, populist weapon? It could happen again, if only we let it. People have the power!
Patti Smith at the Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. Wed., 8 p.m. $30.