Patti Smith is the hottest rock poet to emerge from the fecund wastes of New Jersey since Bruce Springsteen. But Smith is not like Springsteen or anybody else at all.
Springsteen is a rocker; Smith is a chanting rock & roll poet. Springsteen’s followers thought he was a poet too, at first, because of the apparent primacy of his speedy strings of street-life images. But Springsteen himself quickly set matters right by building up his band and revealing his words to have been what words have been for most music all along — conceptual frames on which composers hang their art.
For Smith, the words generate everything else. Her “singing” voice has an eerie allure and her “tunes” conform dimly to the primitive patterns of Fifties rock. But her music would be unthinkable without her words and her way of articulating them — and that remains true even if they are occasionally submerged in sound. Patti Smith is a rock & roll shaman and she needs music as shamans have always needed the cadence of their chanting.
Her first record, Horses, is wonderful in large measure because it recognizes the overwhelming important of words in her work. The words are nearly always audible, as they sometimes aren’t onstage. There are occasional touches that betray the studio: an overall instrumental tightness, subtle twists and overdubs (in “Redondo Beach” for instance) that transcend the three-chord, four-man rock & roll basics that prevail elsewhere on the album. But even in the dizzying mix of two and three vocal tracks in “Land,” the climactic song of the album, the raw primordial feeling of a Patti Smith club date — minus only the between-songs patter and all the quirky humor that involves — is right here. John Cale, the producer, has demonstrated the perfect empathy he might have been expected to have for Smith, and he has done so mostly by not distorting her in any way.
The range of concerns in Horses is huge, far beyond what most rock records even dream of. “Gloria” is about sex (with Patti defiantly thrusting herself into the male of the first song), pop glory and redemption. “Redondo Beach” is about a lesbian suicide. “Birdland” is about the death of a boy’s father and the boy’s vision of being taken up into the “belly of a ship” and rejoining his father as an extraterrestrial. “Free Money” is cosmic anarchism. “Kimberly” is about her younger sister and the sky splitting and the planets hitting. “Break It Up” is about God knows what (no doubt he/she’s told Patti) — for me, it’s about schizophrenic shattering of the identity as a prelude to passing over to a higher reality. “Land,” the most complex of a complex lot, is about a teenaged locker-room attack that turns into a murder and homosexual rape that runs into horses breathing flames and an ominous, ritualistically intoned version of “Land of a Thousand Dances” (“Do you know how to Pony?”). And, finally, “Elegie” is about Jimi Hendrix’s death.
To say that any of these songs is “about” anything in particular is silly — it limits them in a way that hopelessly confines their evocativeness. Like all real poets, Smith offers visions that embrace a multiplicity of meanings, all of them valid if they touch an emotional chord. Her poems are full of UFOs and shining light that illuminated parallel worlds, mirrors you step through and cracks in our common realities. She leaps between meanings of words like an elf across dimensions, deliberately dizzying you with crisscrossings between comfortable perceptions: you see, the see becomes a sea, the sea a sea of possibilities.
But with all her Martian weirdness, Patti Smith doesn’t drift hopelessly beyond comprehension, and her music isn’t synthesized neo-British progressivism. Her visions repay consideration but don’t lose their immediate impact. Partly that’s because she couches them in the common words and experiences of everyday life. And partly it’s because she anchors her imagination with the sturdy ballast of rock & roll.
Smith’s singing voice is more Neil Young than Linda Ronstadt. By that I mean that it doesn’t have much range or natural amplitude or conventionally beautiful tone color. But it is full of individuality and entirely sufficient to support the intuitively apt phrasing to which it is bent.
The underlying instrumental music is the kind of artful rock & roll primitivism that has long characterized the New York underground. She has four men in her band but the leader is clearly Lenny Kaye, who has been with her since her first musically accompanied poetry reading five years ago. Kaye is a rock critic and oldies expert. The songs on Horses are co-written by Smith and either Kaye, Richard Sohl and Ivan Kral of the band, Tom Verlaine of Television (a striking, as yet unrecorded New York avant-garde quartet) or Allen Lanier of Blue Oyster Cult. All eight songs betray a loving fascination with the oldies of rock. The hommage is always implicit — the music just sounds like something you might have heard before, at least in part — and sometimes explicit.
It is Smith’s elaborations of rock standards that provide the most striking songs in her repertory. On her limited-edition, long out-of-print, privately released single of Hendrix’s version of “Hey, Joe,” she spun a Patty Hearst fantasy full of sex and revolutionary apocalypse. On Horses she subjects “Gloria” and “Land of a Thousand Dances” to a similar treatment. Each becomes something far more expansive than their original creators could have dreamed. And with all due respect to Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and all those who recorded “Land of a Thousand Dances,” Patti’s versions are better. The other songs on Horses aren’t so overt in their appropriations of the past, although, as in “Elegie,” with its return to Hendrix and a direct quotation from him, they are permeated with a feeling for rock historicism.
Smith is a genuine original, as original an original as they come. But all these debts to rock’s past may make some in the rock audience wonder about that originality. And indeed, if one looks beyond rock, there are all sorts of other antecedents for her, too, and the question is whether a perception of those antecedents undermines her newness or merely places it in its proper context. The Beat poets are the easiest to spot, and particularly the Romantic/surrealist, Blake/Rimbaud sort of visionary mysticism that has always lurked behind the Beats. Such cosmic quests have rarely been prized by the establishment rationalists, leftist revolutionaries and rock & roll populists among us, but that hasn’t fazed the poets much. One reason is that the whole lower Manhattan avant-garde community has for at least 20 years acted as a self-contained world, incubating art on its own. The art toddles blithely across traditional borders: poets sing, composers dance, dancers orate, painters act, rockers make art. These artists owe everything to one another and far less to the outside, even the outside practitioners within any given medium. Patti Smith cares a lot more about Lou Reed than Robert Lowell.
If hardly took Soho to think up the notion of combining words and music — that goes back far beyond Greek tragedy. But there are more immediate musical poetic antecedents. Allen Ginsberg and the Beats couldn’t keep their hands off music. They read to jazz and chanted mantra fashion for hours on end. Their chanting has flowered into a whole movement among Soho artist today. La Monte Young has spawned a school of wordless chanters who move slowly and precisely up and down the overtone series of a give drone in “eternal,” evening-long performances. Meredith Monk, the dancer, has put out two privately issued records and given concerts of her music, which alternates between Satie-esque little piano and organ pieces full of childlike repetition, and quite amazing chants in which her voice (a voice rather like Smith’s) passes through a rainbow of aural colors in witch-doctor incantations.
Most of these efforts arise out of widespread fascination with cultures and modes of perception foreign to a Western sensibility. Young studies Indian singing; Monk’s debts to primitive shamans are overt. But there is another, related kind of music involvement that embraces the West with a violent vengeance. This is the sexually ambiguous, pornographic-pop sensibility that produced Andy Warhol, pop art, instant celebrities and the Velvet Underground.
Cale is the transitional figure here. Born in Wales and trained in classical music, Cale arrived in America from London in the early Sixties, studies with Iannis Xenakis in Tanglewood, and eventually gravitated to lower Manhattan and Young’s circle, where he spent a couple of years doing Young’s kind of quiescent, Orientalized avant-gardism. But by the mid-Sixties his own, rather more pop self began to emerge, and along with Lou Reed he founded the Velvet Underground, the most influential of all the underground New York rock bands.
Why were artists — Walter De Maria played drums occasionally with members of the Velvet Underground in its formative days — attracted to rock & roll? Well, first of all, by the Sixties it was as integral a part of the American consciousness as soup cans and a lot more powerful than they were. It epitomized rebellious violence that mirrored the meditative quiescence that other avant-gardists were sinking into, and it did so with flash and perverse style. Equally important, its simplicity of structure evoked a response in artists caught up in an aesthetic of minimalism and structural process. The other kind of intellectually respectable popular music, jazz, had drifted off into an anarchistically free chromaticism that was tied up too tightly with black rage.
But all of this, one might argue, happened in the Fifties and the Sixties. Aren’t the Sixties dead? Visual artists provided the impetus behind the Manhattan avant-gardism of the Sixties, and perhaps they have settled down a bit now. But the kinds of activities I’ve been talking about here are just getting into gear, and if New York is still the center of it, the activity is really worldwide, from the English and German progressive rocker to Stockhausen’s chant and ritual pieces to Xenakis in Paris to Terry Riley in Oakland. Even now, in New York, the post-Velvet Underground rock scene is in the midst of a fresh eruption of energy, with bands like the Ramones, Television and Talking Heads about to afflict themselves on the national consciousness.
Originality is always something tricky to prove. An artist’s detractors rush to dredge up antecedents in order to deny the claimant’s newness: the artist’s fans stress what is unprecedented about their idol. In Smith’s case, most of the response so far has focused on her debts to the Velvet Underground, the Stones, Jim Morrison and even Iggy Pop, while ignoring her nonrock roots. Horses is a great record not only because Patti Smith stands alone, but because her uniqueness is lent resonance by the past.
Copyright © John Rockwell 1976