Bryan: April 2008 Archives
If we were more conscientious about getting content up here on a regular basis, I'm sure there's much we
could have said about NYC poetry. Maybe once the semester's ended I'll get into a regular blogging routine here.
For now, I'll take another shortcut and provide a link to my Monday post elsewhere, which includes a brief contextualization of Hart Crane's "To Brooklyn Bridge," the introductory poem to his 1930 work The Bridge. Until this year we've included it on our Writing New York syllabus.
Were we right to cut it?
Smith's 1978 song is an extraordinarily complicated performance, and one that still makes people uncomfortable, 30 years later -- no mean feat, when much of 1970s punk rock is now widely available as background music for grocery shopping or on luxury cruise TV ads.
I do think that Smith's song (and her earlier controversial engagements with race) warrant something more than a knee-jerk decision about whether or not it's appropriate or offensive. I think the long context provided in NYC performance/literary history -- through Beat performance, through earlier rock and roll, through ragtime and jazz, through blackface minstrelsy -- is key to understanding Smith's attempt at cross-racial identification (or is it an attempt at separating racial performance or style from race itself?), whether or not one thinks she finally succeeds. Since I'll be writing more about this sometime in the next couple years, I welcome further comments, here, there, or in private.
One of the first articles I found, which I hadn't read before, is a 1978 Rolling Stone cover story by Charles Young, one of the key early chroniclers of the CBGB scene. Rather than simply quote bits I'm going to take advantage of the fact that someone at some point keyed the whole thing in. I'll leave it here until or unless someone gets antsy over copyright issues: I think it's a pretty amazing window onto its cultural moment.
VISIONS OF PATTI (Rolling Stone, 27 July 1978, cover photo by Annie Leibovitz)
by Charles M. Young
Mick Jagger Is A Credit To His Race
Fresh from opening for the Rolling Stones at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, Patti Smith rides in the back seat of a limo to a headlining gig at the Calderone on Long Island.
Smith, to her black driver: Hey, ya wanna come backstage and hang out?
Driver: My name is Gary.
Smith: Gary, ya wanna see the show? I mean it must get borin' waitin' in the car.
Driver: Yeah, I'd like to.
Smith: Maybe you can give me some tips, Gary. I want to play the Apollo. I mean, rock & roll is really segregated now, and it wasn't in the early Sixties, when it was so much cooler. So I'd like to charge two dollars a ticket and give the people of Harlem a chance to check us out. Maybe they wouldn't like us, but maybe they would. Ya think that's cool?
Driver: Well, it would be an experience. And it would probably be a first.
Smith: Don't you think Mick would love it? Ya know
what? Why don't the Rolling Stones play the Apollo? We
could play it together. I'll call him up. We're friends
now, ya know. He's a really great guy. I mean, he's really
a nigger. If anyone qualifies to be a nigger, it's Mick
Jagger. (Rolls up her pant leg) Look at this weird hair on
my legs. Why do you think we have hair on our bodies?
There must be a reason.
The Power Of Positive Thinking
To her admirers, Patti Smith has guts. Falling off a stage in Tampa, Florida, in January of 1977 at her first coliseum- size date, Smith broke her neck and spent the following year wearing a neck brace and doing excruciating physical therapy. Her second album, Radio Ethiopia, released several months before the accident, was a commercial and critical flop. Members of her band took odd jobs or went on unemployment. WNEW-FM, the only progressive rock station in New York, wouldn't play her records because she insisted on using "the people's slang" (fuck) during an interview on a Harry Chapin Hungerthon. Patti Smith was washed up.
So it seemed, anyway. She used her time off to write her third book of visionary poetry, Babel, published by Putnam's. Still wearing her neck brace, she performed "La Resurrection" concert at CBGB's the following Easter. Her band (the Patti Smith Group, consisting of guitarist Lenny Kaye, guitarist Ivan Kral, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and keyboardist Bruce Brody), oft dumped on for incompetence, finally had time to rehearse. They recorded Easter, by far Smith's most "communicative" (a word she prefers to "commercial") album, this past winter. It works for several reasons: Jimmy Iovine's tasteful production; the band's having done its homework; Bruce Springsteen's contribution of a partially completed killer single, "Because the Night," for which Smith wrote most of the words. But most of all, it is Smith's voice. This woman can sing rock & roll. Power, passion, sex appeal, unique style, enough control for professionalism, enough lack of control for suspense--it's all there. She is, at the age of thirty-one, a star.
Clearly, something put the spirit in her. Scarlet fever at the age of seven in Philadelphia? Her mother making her do exercises every day of her childhood for a wandering left eye? A proclivity for dreaming so much that her peers in Woodbury Gardens, New Jersey, all thought she was a weirdo? Having mystical experiences when the Rolling Stones came on Ed Sullivan? Fucking up in high school? In teachers' college? In a factory job? Having an illegitimate baby at nineteen, giving it up for adoption and moving to New York with "five dollars and a can of spray for my stitches"? Meeting, at last, kindred spirits among the artists and rock writers? Reading her own poetry with rock critic Lenny Kaye backing her on guitar in 1971? Signing with Arista and paying her dues on the road since 1975? Seeing the apocalyptic possibilities for serious poetry over the rhythmic grinding of the three-chord classics of the early Sixties on her first album, Horses?
Patti Smith has set about creating a movement to free
the world through rock & roll. Her personal charm, when she
wants it to be, is enormous. Her followers are increasing
every day, and they are among the most ardent anywhere. She
is probably the only performer who can generate Bay City
Rollers-foam-at-the-mouth adulation in an audience composed
mostly of young adults who are, demographically speaking,
too cool for that sort of behavior. Not only does WNEW-FM
play her records now, so does the Top Forty AM station,
WABC. She is a poet for the people.
The Impotence Of Positive Thinking
Patti Smith's detractors think Radio Ethiopia, a loosely defined organization of her supporters, amounts to a Kiss Army for intellectuals who like to be mystified by poetry without capital letters. They think she is a fool. Because she cultivates the look of a possessed poet, she can say things like "the word art must be redefined" and get away with it. Her fans, in fact, eat it off a stick. And she is happy to feed them, so long as they don't question the menu too closely.
With her goal of creating a Sixties-style social
movement out of the music, she is reminiscent of a
charismatic sect leader who has convinced her followers that
she alone has the secret of life. The secret is so heavy,
of course, that it can only be revealed through the leaders
interpretation of Das Kapital/visions of the Scripture/mumbo
jumbo about the creative process. And like the best of the
sect leaders, Smith believes her own line and has
constructed an imposing edifice of egomania to protect her
mediocre ideas from doubt. She has on occasion spat on,
screamed at and physically attacked critics who failed to
show proper obeisance for her work. She has difficulty
staying off the stage at other people's concerts.
Mick Jagger Is A Credit To His Species
Reporter: The other day you said that if anyone was qualified to be a nigger, it was Mick Jagger. How is Mick Jagger qualified to be a nigger?
Smith: On our liner notes I redefined the word nigger as being an artist-mutant that was going beyond gender.
Reporter: I didn't understand how Mick Jagger has suffered like anyone who grew up in Harlem.
Smith: Suffering don't make you a nigger. I mean, I grew up poor too. Stylistically, I believe he qualifies. I think Mick Jagger has suffered plenty. He also has a great heart, and I believe, ya know, even in his most cynical moments, a great love for his children. He's got a lot of soul. I mean, like, I don't understand the question. Ya think black people are better than white people or sumpthin'? I was raised with black people. It's like, I can walk down the street and say to a kid, "Hey nigger." I don't have any kind of super-respect or fear of that kind of stuff. When I say statements like that, they're not supposed to be analyzed, 'cause they're more like off-the- cuff humorous statements. I do have a sense of humor, ya know, which is sumpthin' that most people completely wash over when they deal with me. I never read anything where anybody talked about my sense of humor. It's like, a lot of the stuff I say is true, but it's supposed to be funny.
Reporter: I just think that people should be allowed to label themselves. If black people want to be called blacks, I call them blacks, just as I would not want to be called honkie.
Smith: What I would think is, a word can become
archaic because we progress into the future, so words can be
redefined. And I'm not, like, a slob with words, ya know.
I don't mean that, ya know, uh, I don't, I don't, wish to,
like, um, twist and rend words to my whim. But I do feel
words can outlive their usefulness, unless we redefine them.
And I've said that a lot, ya know, if you've been reading my
book or liner notes.
Modesty Remains One Of Her Greatest Virtues
Reporter: Do you feel strange with a single in the Top Twenty?
Smith: I feel fantastic. I don't know. Charts are
charts. The whole point of doing work is to communicate, ya
know, to communicate ecstasy or joy. The album's a hit too.
And the album includes on it fuck, piss, shit, seed, nigger --
it's got everything but shitlicker on it. Ya know, it's
much more daring, much more perverse, and, ah, much more
corrupt than Radio Ethiopia. We're communicating to a lot
of people. I believe that the people can trust us, ya know.
I don't believe, I know that...I mean, we're not flawless.
We're a very flawed band.
...But It's Only Nine On A Scale Of Ten...
Reporter: I mean, how do you consider the band flawed?
Smith: Well, I mean, flawed as much as the Rolling
Stones are flawed, ya know?
...And Her Guitar Playing Is An Eight
Smith: I couldn't get into chord changes, or the notes, any
more than I could with grammar.
Corruption Must Be Redefined
Smith: I think it's great that I have a hit single. Because what it means is that it's possible to have integrity and be successful again. I mean, I believe that in their hearts, all the great Sixties guys had great integrity and they all did great work. They all had a sort of political consciousness and some spiritual consciousness. And they were successful. The way I look at it, I haven't changed none. I haven't changed since I was seven years old. And I've gotten more corrupt in certain ways.
Reporter: How have you become more corrupt?
Reporter: How have you become more corrupt?
Smith: Well, morally.
Reporter: How do you define that? It's such a strange word to use, when you claim to have no guilt in your writings.
Smith: Well, it's not guilt. It's like, when I was a little girl, I had a certain ideal that I'd meet someone, and that would be the person, and it would be the first person, and I'd never be with anyone else.
Reporter: And now you're doing something else that's immoral?
Smith: I didn't say that it was immoral.
Reporter: Yeah, you did. You said you were more corrupt from a moral standpoint.
Smith: From my original idea of what life was about when I was seven. When I was seven years old, I also thought, ya know....
Reporter: There's a large part of your mind that's still seven years old. I mean, you just said you hadn't changed since you were seven.
Smith: Not too much. Except I've learned to...there
are certain things that I believed or like hoped for that
turned out different. I've learned to accept it or
reintegrate it. I mean, when I was a little girl -- I heard
Little Richard when I was about seven years old. And I
said, yeah, I, it was like, I was part of a truly new
generation, where everything had to be redefined: God, sex,
everything. It wasn't yet, but we were different.
Birth Control Without Harmful Chemicals
Reporter: You were quoted in [Rolling Stone's] "Random Notes" as saying you jerk off to your own photograph. How did you mean that?
Smith: I meant it just as I said it.
Reporter: I've never heard anyone say anything quite like that. I'm trying to figure out if you're actually that sexually attracted to yourself.
Smith: No, it was just one of those moments, ya know? It was the photo for the cover of Easter. I thought if I could do it as an experiment, then fifteen-year-old boys could do it, and that would make me very happy. Ya know, people say to me, "Aren't you afraid of becoming a sex object?" Especially a lot of writers are obsessed with making you feel guilty or upset because you might become a sex object. Well, I find that very exciting. I think sex is one of the five highest sensations one can experience. A very high orgasm is a way of communication with our Creator.
Reporter: You jerk off to the Bible too?
The Fall Into Grace
Flashback to the first meeting with Patti Smith at the Radio Ethiopia headquarters on the East Side of New York. She is a bit late from the dentist and in some pain because she refused any Novocain on the grounds that it is un-American because they didn't have it during the Civil War. Her jaw was also fractured in the accident last year, and two of her teeth have fallen out. She is having them replaced with gold, and will have a cross engraved on one of the front teeth.
Smith is distressed to find the reporter is equipped only with a notebook and not a tape recorder. She will not talk until her assistant furnishes a cassette machine because she speaks fast and sometimes breaks into "spontaneous poetry," which is important to get down verbatim.
Dressed in a baggy conglomeration of clothes best described as pre-Annie Hall mess, she is a striking figure. Like Johnny Rotten, she is not healthy looking, but gives the impression of great energy because of her enchanting eyes. Her coiffure is pure flyaway and, rarely brushed, has hairballs like a dog's. There's no furniture in the office, so the interview is conducted on the floor under a huge poster of herself announcing a performance at the Pavillon de Paris. Heavily laden with South Jersey, her speech is nevertheless euphonious. The conversation periodically is punctuated by loud snaps from her neck when she moves her head in a particular way.
Smith: When I perform, I always opt for communication with God, and in pursuit of communicating with God, you can enter some very dangerous territory. I also have come to realize that total communication with God is physical death. The part of the song that I fell in was on "Ain't It Strange": "Go, go on, go like a dervish/Come on, God, make me move." I was opting for communication with my Creator, and it led me down the most nondisciplined path I've ever taken. Disintegrating and going into a black tube, that's what I felt like. I was losing consciousness, and then I was in a tunnel of light, a classic Jungian dreamspace. I felt like I was being pulled and it was not at all unpleasurable.
But it was a leap out of this state of being, which I happen to be very fond of, so I made a conscious decision not to pursue that kind of communication while in performance. There's a lot of kids who believe in what we're doing or look to us for guidance or just for a good time. I want people to feel they can trust me and I won't let them down, so I now take care of myself physically.
I think that in terms of who I am now, probably it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was in a period of constant motion and it forced me to stop. I was just moving, ya know, just going. I had no direction.
My period of immobility gave me the time to reassess myself. I've reaccepted certain responsibilities. We really care about kids, we care about rock & roll, we care about the future and we work as hard as we can. We aren't always great, but our motivations are clear, and they've never altered.
Solidarity is not a myth, not some pathetic dream. We
had a false start in a way, what people called punk rock was
like Kohoutek, that comet that didn't happen. But a lot of
good came out of it....We were an inspiration to kids all
over the world. I know that 'cause I toured Europe more
than America. Those kids that bought Horses or "Piss
Factory" or heard about CBGB's became the Clash, became the
Sex Pistols, became a million other bands--some that will
make it and some that won't. But the important thing is
that they became. Wake up kids and inspire them to action.
Our victory is their victory, and I give it back to them.
God Must Be Redefined
With a master's degree in American Studies from Rutgers, Lenny Kaye is the theoretician of the Patti Smith Group. A compiler of Nuggets, a wonderful two-disc album of prepunk psychedelia from the mid-Sixties, Kaye knows his rock & roll history. Like Smith, he feels he talks fast and wants a tape recorder on during the interview.
Lenny Kaye, backstage at the Calderone: We try to have, like, levels and depths, so that someone who wants to plunge into us can plunge to whatever level they want and find something to take out with them and, hopefully, it will lead them to the next level, which is "Radio Ethiopia."
Reporter: Uh, how do you define "Radio Ethiopia"? I mean, if somebody was looking for it, what would you tell them to look for?
Kaye: The mental telepathy that we attempt to construct onstage, and the musical result of that.
Reporter: Patti said one of her artistic goals was communication with God. Do you share that goal?
Kaye: Well, you know, it depends on how you define the term. I mean, that's her concept. What is God, you know? Sometimes for Patti God is a man. God is the noonday. God is life. Someone who blesses with the divine spark of creativity. Of course, if you are going to start defining something down, you are going to limit your own sense of how you view it. Which is probably why there are contradictions. But we tend to have pretty loose definitions.
Reporter: Words can mean what you want them to mean?
Kaye: Yeah, but no, not that words can mean what you
want them to mean, but that definitions are broad enough
within themselves to encompass just about anything. If LSD
taught people anything, it was that boundaries that are set
up in the world are only set up within the context of man's
mind. You can make anything mean anything. Because you
look at it totally subjectively.
The Ecstasy And The Agony
Declaring Smith's musicianship "great intuitive rock & roll guitar," and her obvious on-the-job training "drama," Kaye heads upstairs for the performance. The crowd is adulatory, staying on its feet throughout the entire show. Mostly, this is because of the excitement, but it's also because the ushers do not clear the aisles and you can't see if you sit down. Screams of ecstasy directed at Smith are occasionally interrupted by screams of "Siddown!"
The Patti Smith Group opens with "Land," which shows off Smith at her best. The chanted intro about a kid getting "anally assaulted by an alien force" in front of his high-school locker is mesmerizing; the version of "Land of a Thousand Dances" exhilarating. "Redondo Beach" and "Kimberly," original songs from the first album, are less joyfully received by the audience. Smith dances around with great exuberance, giving no indication of stiffness from her injury. To her true believers, this exuberance is contagious. To one skeptical but willing to make the leap of faith if called, Smith's exuberance is soured by stage patter building herself into a hero: she compares her band favorably to the Rolling Stones and boasts of forcing a Central Park summer-concert booking.
The band, described by drummer Jay Dee Daugherty as "the most exclusive Patti Smith fan club in the world," is okay but still closer to a garage band than to the Rolling Stones at their best. Daugherty is the instrumental foundation with his Charlie Watts thump-crash style. Ivan Kral, a Czechoslovakian who fled that country in 1968, is a fine guitarist with a solid sense of riff. He alternates on bass with Lenny Kaye, who is only adequate on guitar. The newest member of the band, keyboardist Bruce Brody, does what he's supposed to, but occasionally seems lost.
The newer material -- "Because the Night," "Till Victory" and "Rock n Roll Nigger" (despite silly words) -- sounds great. Smith's hottest moment, oddly, comes on "Be My Baby," the old Ronettes song, on which she almost rivals Ronnie Spector herself. Even a doubter must admit it is astonishingly good.
Everyone's worst moment is "Radio Ethiopia," an
interminable Sixties freak-out in which Smith performs a
guitar solo consisting of her playing one note very fast and
acting like Jimi Hendrix. That the band members consider
this grotesque self-indulgence their highest moment
indicates how little they have in common with the punk
bands, whom they see as their offspring. The punks present
their instrumental incompetence in the spirit of farce and
satire. The Patti Smith Group presents it as a holy
The Triumph Of The Black-Sheep Squadron
Smith: People say to me, "Do you think you sold out?" To me, they should be saying, "Oh wow, you're on AM radio." Kids come up to me on the street and say, "Patti, we're on ABC." Because they fought with me, they know that the past four years it's been a tough struggle. They can see I was the black sheep. I'll probably always be a black sheep, maybe a richer one instead of a poorer one, but they see someone who felt alienated, who didn't belong anywhere. I stuck it out. And I'm determined to make us kids, us fuckups, us ones who could never get a degree in college, whatever, have a family, or do regular stuff, social stuff, prove that there's a place for us. So I think it's great that I have a hit single. To me, the place for us would be right out on the front line.