Sunday, March 11, 2007

Outside in society

I recently started listening to Patti Smith again and it soon spiraled out of control. I began, of course, with tracks from Horses, but thanks to ITunes I soon had most of her recent work. It’s amazing stuff, but more about that later.

I discovered Horses when I was sixteen. I think it’s common for those of us who leave home to look back and try to peg all the little incidents that helped us get out of our own personal hellhole. I used to hang out at the trailer of my best friend’s older brother Ron. He was one of the smartest people in town and one of the coolest as well, a hard feat to pull off since it’s generally not cool to be smart in hell. We’d smoke dope, play chess, and listen to music. He had a great stereo system, a Yamaha amp with those big old wooden Advent speakers. We were a Ted Nugent, Bob Seeger, REO Speedwagon kinda town and he was listening to Patti Smith. Horses was a revelation for a young troublemaker like myself. Yea, Jesus died for someone else’s sins, and that was the hook, but it was the raw sexuality and ecstatic poetry that conjured visions of previously unimagined possibilities. I wanted to get me some of that life.

I saw the Eastertour in Santa Monica. The only details I remember are of Smith playing an interminable guitar “solo” in which she picked one note over and over again long past the point where it was still interesting and then of her singing an astoundingly beautiful version of You Light up my Life, the Debbie Boone song that was the most reviled radio hit of the day.

But after Easter I pretty much forgot about Patti Smith. I was too deep into the harder side of punk in 1979 to like Wave, then ten years later found Dream of Life unlistenable. Outside of society, that's where I wanted to be. I don’t know what Patti Smith was feeling back then, whether or not she still wanted to be outside of society. Superficially, the choices she made suggest otherwise. She married, dropped out of the New York scene, moved to a Detroit suburb and raised two children. But perhaps for her that was being outside of society?

I saw her again at the annual Tibet House benefit at Carnegie Hall several years ago. In a truly transcendental performance, she read/chanted Allen Ginsberg’s poem On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa backed by Phillip Glass on grand piano. From a review of the same performance at a different venue:

The program reached a kind of crescendo when Ms. Smith chanted Ginsberg's poem “On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara.” Mr. Glass accompanied her on the piano, playing the music he had written for the poem in a minor key.

“I noticed the Guru was dead,” Ms. Smith chanted. “I noticed his teacher bare-breasted watching the corpse burn in the stupa, noticed mourning students sat crosslegged before their books, chanting devotional mantras.” Ms. Smith's face reddened, tears streamed down her face. “I noticed the sea, I noticed the music. I wanted to dance.”

I’ve noticed that she often plays at various venues around New York, but never got out to see her.

That’s pretty much the recap of my life with Patti Smith up until last week when I downloaded a few songs off of Horses. I was surprised to find that there were two versions of each song, the original and one from a live set. The live versions are fantastic, pretty much note for note with the original but possessing an exceptionally full and well-defined sound and an added urgency. Unfortunately, you can’t just download the live album, the two together are expensive, and the live version of Land is only available if you buy the whole thing. I’ll just have to wait till I find it at a stoop sale someday.

But rediscovering Horses got me curious about Smith’s recent work. I did the 30 second preview thing on most the songs on Trampin’, her most recent release, and bought the songs Gandhi and My Blakean Year. The problem with buying singles from ITunes is that it’s then hard to buy the album. So unfortunately, Trampin’ is another disc that will have to be found at a stoop sale.

My Blakean Year starts out sounding like the Velvets, with a kind of Venus in Furs vibe. It’s based on the work of William Blake.

In my Blakean year
I was so disposed
Toward a mission yet unclear
Advancing pole by pole
Fortune breathed into my ear
Mouthed a simple ode
One road is paved in gold
One road is just a road

In my Blakean year
Such a woeful schism
The pain of our existence
Was not as I envisioned
Boots that trudged from track to track
Worn down to the sole
One road is paved in gold
One road is just a road

Brace yourself for bitter flack
For a life sublime
A labyrinth of riches
Never shall unwind
The threads that bind the pilgrim's sack
Are stitched into the Blakean back
So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy will conquer all despair
In my Blakean year

She ends the song chanting verses from Blake’s poem “The Divine Image:”
For Mercy has a human heart;
Pity, a human face;
And Love, the human form divine:
And Peace the human dress.

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
All pray in their distress,

Then ends it repeating Mercy shall embrace.

With no deep knowledge of Blake’s work, I’m not exactly sure what a Blakean year is supposed to represent, but those are some fine lyrics that stand up just fine with the classic poetry.

And the two roads dichotomy is interesting. One is paved with gold, the other just a road. Bitter flack is juxtaposed with a life sublime. She speaks of mercy, love, pity, and peace, but in this song those things are not weak-assed new-agey shit. I have yet to go back and listen to Wave and Dream of Life, but my memory of those works is that the peace, love, etc. that they depicted were not consistent with the wild, powerful stuff in Horses and Easter. In Smith’s Blakean Year, and her recent body of work as a whole, the songs about mercy, love, pity and peace transcend any kind of happy hokeyness. They radiate strength, not weakness. , They were clearly born of violence, pain and sorrow. They are things that were earned, not given.

My other problem with her post- Easter work was the politics. It’s not that I disagree with her politics, I don’t. It’s just that songs like the straightforward political screed like People Have the Power bore me half to death. They are not what I call art. Or even Rock & Roll.

So I wasn’t predisposed to buy a track titled “Gandhi,” but I liked the music in the 30 second clip and although I’m primarily a lyrics-appreciating-type-guy, I’ll forgive a lot for a good sound. Gandhi is classic Patti Smith – the slow, seventies rock guitars and her low voice building incrementally to an emotional crescendo, or two. And, as I’ve found with most, if not all, of her recent work, the art has transcended the politics. Or maybe it’s better to say that the art and the politics work together. In Gandhi, she makes pretty much the same political argument as People Have the Power but does it with greater artistry:
I had a dream Mr. King If you'll beg my pardon
I was trespassing The sacred garden
And the blossoms fell
Well, they dropped like candy
And nature cried
Gandhi Gandhi

The flowing hair And the golden flowers
Of the young girls
Well they dropped all around
They dropped like candy
And people cried
Gandhi Gandhi
Awake little man
Awake from your slumber And get 'em with the numbers
Get 'em with the numbers

After listening to these new songs, I was so happy. Patti Smith was back after all these years.

Of course she had been back for awhile and it was really I coming back to her. But she really had been gone for long stretches. Wave was released in 1979 followed nine years later by Dream of Life. Then it was another eight years until 1996’s Gone Again, so she was almost 20 years out of the limelight.

Chuckling, as you may know, is very shallow when it comes to art reviews. I do not like to speculate about a work’s meaning. I do not like to talk about the artist’s biography and I particularly dislike tying biography to any meaning that a work may or may not contain. Even in cases in which an artist explains his or her art and how it sprang from a particular experience, I don’t want to consider any of that when judging the work. I don’t even want to know about it. If I know I’m going to experience a work of art, I make every effort to avoid all knowledge about how or why it was created. For the most part, I succeeded in approaching Smith’s recent work from that shallow perspective. Although you probably don’t feel the same way, I will try not to give much of anything away. Getting the big picture overview of how Smith spent those years is just a quick Google away. Still, I can’t help mentioning a few details.

After listening to all of the new work, I learned that she had gone to the Detroit suburb to be a housewife. That kind of seemingly reactionary life change was something I was ill-equipped to understand back in the Horses and Easter days. But her recent work shows that she was clearly much more than a housewife. Or perhaps her life demonstrates (yet again) that being a housewife and having a great and productive life as an artist are not mutually exclusive. And Smith’s period of domesticity was not without incident or interest. Nor is her present situation.

After listening to my singles purchases for a couple weeks, I dove in all the way, purchasing Gung Ho, Gone Again, and Peace and Noise, in that order. Gone Again was the first release after her return, followed by Peace and Noise and then Gone Again. Trampin’ followed those and she has a new disc coming out in April.

The new songs may lack the hard guitars and punk sensitivities of her earlier works, but they are on the same level artistically. Her band is a tight group of professionals. They handle the slow parts and the fast parts; they can be a grungy or clean.

Glitter in their Eyes off of Gung Ho is a good example of their professionalism. It is a catchy pop song with clean guitar hooks. But the song is not what you would expect from the title. Glitter in the eyes in this case doesn’t refer to being blinded by the glitter of Hollywood, New York, or Paris. It refers to the glitter of evil, the sick enjoyment of the kill or swindle. It’s about people in power taking from those who either have none or choose not to use it. The song, with its pop hooks, driving guitars, and soaring chorus, is deceptive, not at all what it seems. It is an example of Smith’s ability to package her political sensitivity as art as well.

Other good pop songs include Gone Again and Summer Cannibals and there are quite a few mid-tempo numbers. all very well done. Don’t Say Nothing and Lo and Beholden are good examples.

Of course this is Patti Smith we’re talking about. How many “good pop songs” have lyrics like this, from Gone Again:
Hey now man's own kin
we commend into the wind
grateful arms grateful limbs
grateful soul he's Gone Again

I have a winter's tale
how vagrant hearts relent prevail
sow their seed into the wind
seize the sky and they're Gone Again

fame is fleeting God is nigh
we raise our arms to him on night
we shoot our flint into the sun
we bless our spoils and we're gone we're gone

As well as being a good pop song, Gone Again is representative of quite a number of her recent songs in that they appear to be about death. Some are angry, others contemplative, still others transcendental.

The grimmest songs are on Peace and Noise. Waiting Underground is one of the more explicitly morbid songs you will ever hear:
if you believe all your hope is gone
down the drain of your humankind
the time has arrived
you'll be waiting here as I was
in a snow-white shroud
waiting underground

As Smith sings those lyrics, you can picture her on a stage, fist raised and screaming like some angry Valkyrie. Other titles include Death Singing, Last Call, Dead to the World, Ravens, Farewell Reel, and Dead City. Consider those titles and you may be able to identify a consistent theme.

The transcendental aspect of Smith’s work is more often represented through bird imagery. It has always been a staple of Smith’s writing, going back to BirdLand on Horses. Wing and China Bird, among others, continue that tradition with added depth. From Wing:
I was a vision
in another eye
and they saw nothing
no future at all
yet I was free
I needed nobody
it was beautiful
it was beautiful

and if there's one thing
could do for you
you'd be a wing
in heaven blue

Or China Bird:
If they say it's not that way
Hold your view
[Fly above and with my love]
A light anew
Oh spread your wings
The open sky
Is calling to you china bird
My heart is yearning for you

To complete the upward thematic spiral apparent in Smith’s work from Horses to present, we have to consider the “boy” theme along with politics, death, and birds.

About a Boy from Gung Ho is reminiscent of the Horses spoken-word poetry style.
whirling, whirling,
The boy, now that I... have you in my face,
I.... embrace you, I... I... ...welcome you...
I stood among them... I stood alone.

Memento Mori from Peace and Noise is another example:
oh Johnny! some day they'll make a movie about you
and in the making of that movie
some mad apocalypse
it will become even stranger than the simple act
just a boy going up up up
just a boy going up

With the benefit of hindsight we can see the new work bringing Smith full circle. We can see how Horses was eerily prescient of the arc of Smith’s art and life. Boys, funerals, birds, Blake, transcendence: it was all there from the start.

From Land:
And he saw the lights of traffic beckoning like the hands of Blake
Grabbing at his cheeks, taking out his neck,
All his limbs, everything was twisted and he said,
“I won't give up, won't give up, don't let me give up,,,

And he put up his hands and he said, “It's me, it's me,
I'll give you my eyes, take me up, oh now please take me up...

And he saw raven comin' in
And he crawled on his back and he went up
Up up up up up up.

Note the boy going up up up from songs more than twenty years apart? It’s like she saw the outlines of her future, artistic and otherwise, in the ecstatic throes that must have been Horses.

I’ll wrap this up on a somewhat different note. Patti Smith once wrote of Dylan that the intensity of his political perspective had only been successfully revealed through abstract expressionism in rock'n'roll. “I look at him and I don't see a guy giving out leaflets, holding a banner. I see a machine gun.” I think that is also an apt description of Smith herself.

Although I haven’t discussed it to this point, the themes of anger and alienation are integral to much of Smith’s early work and they have pretty much been left behind in her new songs. Rock and Roll Nigger off of Easter is an all-time classic of anger and alienation and is part of the sound track of my own angry youth.
Oh, look around you, all around you,
riding on a copper Wave.
Do you like the world around you?
Are you ready to behave?

Outside of society, they're waitin' for me.
Outside of society, that's where I want to be.

For many years I was unsure of that lyric. I didn’t know if she was saying ”outside of society“ or ”outside in society,“ or alternating between the two. If she was saying ”outside in society“ I understood that as her wanting to be an outsider who goes into society to shake things up, to initiate change.

If we look at the arc of her life as it relates to society we can see that she has managed to do both at the same time: to be simultaneiously outside of and outside in society. She has stayed outside of society in that she has kept her personal and artistic integrity through 30 + years in the music industry, which is no mean feat. And she has managed to be an outsider in society to such an enviable extent that you just know she is at least as special as a person as she is an artist. In addition to going outside in society to communicate her art and political messages, she is an integral part of a society of incredibly accomplished outsiders: Allen Ginsburg, Phillip Glass, Jim Carrol, Lenny Kaye and the rest of her band, Lou Reed, Fred Smith, John Cale, and I don’t know how many others.

I mention all that with great hesitation. As noted above, to appreciate an artist’s work, I don’t give a flying fuck about their personal history, much less who they hang out with. But as a human, not a critic, I admire her for how she’s handled all that she’s been through and I’m happy for her that she belongs in such a wonderful society.

Rock and roll doesn’t have to be all love, sex, and noise. At it’s best it can be art and humanity in the highest sense of those words. Patti Smith’s work is worthy of consideration on those levels.