Friday, December 12, 2014

Patti Smith

To me, punk rock is the freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are. It's freedom.

I despair of contemporary popular music.  I find it grossly artificial.  If I were of a harsher nature I would also note that it is prosaic, witless, phony, over-produced, derivative, and ugly. Fortunately, I'm not of a harsher nature.

Because I make guitars and basses, I find myself often in the company of young musicians.  These men and women are of no interest to music producers or recording companies as they often aren't all that telegenic or vapid looking.  They just happen to be spectacular musicians and composers with stellar stage presence.  In other words, ehh. 

Which is why I love live music in small clubs; the places that used be so smoky [before the hideous busy-body blue noses in government decided we were too dim to make decisions for ourselves] that, in my playing days, green stripes would be left along my fingertips from the accumulated cigarette residue clinging to the metal strings of my bass.  Those were the places where real music was viscerally rendered and immediate with the musicians and the crowd reaching a gestalt of emotion, encouraging one another to heights of lyricism...yeah, that's how it works.  In those quiet moments between sets or after a gig, by way of encouragement, I like to tell the younger musicians what it was like in the 1970's in Cleveland and New York, when the unlikeliest rock star ever was the toast of the New Wave scene.

I imagine anyone who has ever lived in New York City has felt that their era in the city was one of unmatched creativity in the music and arts communities. In my day, New Wave music was claiming the stages in the nightclubs, including groups such as The Ramones, Blondie, The B-52's, and The Smiths [not to mention the groups for which I played: The Zen Maniacs, The 98 Decibel Freaks, and Head Full of Zombie], who would influence music in the decades to follow.

In the verbal arts, "performance poetry" came to the fore.  A clear descendant of the Beat Poetry of the 1950's that was performed in nightclubs while backed by a jazz combo, the 1970's and 80's version found its home on the same stages as the New Wave groups, often opening for the musical acts.  It was inevitable that New Wave music and performance poetry would collide into one, glorious presentation. When that happened, it was spectacularly rendered in the person of Patti Smith.

Smith was an unlikely artist to be on any recording company's A & R roster, even in those days.  She was not conventionally attractive, her demeanor was sullen, her style extremely "artsy", her stage costume a man's white t-shirt or dress shirt matched with over-sized tuxedo pants, and her lyrics angry and obtuse.  She was, in a word, great.

Patti Smith was born in Chicago in 1947 and moved to Philadelphia and then north New Jersey.  Upon graduation from high school, she worked for a time in a factory, birthed an out-of-wedlock child whom she surrendered for adoption, and eventually moved to New York City to work in a bookstore.  It was there that she met and began a relationship with the provocative photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. As one would expect of two intense artists living in squalor at the Chelsea Hotel, their relationship was tumultuous; just as naturally, it produced tremendous creativity from the two of them.

Smith was, without question, the most interdisciplinary of the artists produced by this age.  She wrote articles for the venerable music magazine, Creem, acted in and co-wrote plays with the playwright/actor Sam Shepherd, performed with a guitar on the streets and in the subways, and was a member of the St. Mark's Poetry Project.  It was with that latter organization that she crystallized her reputation as the "Godmother of Punk".

While not its originator, Smith became the most evocative character in the movement, mainly as she had a stage presence that captured the post-Vietnam period's spiritual ennui and confusion [what then-President Jimmy Carter would call "malaise"].  As I have heard said of certain stage and movie stars, one could not take eyes off of her.  Even with a personality and appearance that repelled many of the recording execs [I'm trying to imagine how she would be regarded in the current, Taylor Swift-ed music world], Clive Davis of Arista Records gave her a contract.  The resulting album, Horses, with its cover photo by Mapplethorpe, would take the indie rock world by storm.

With it's blending of original verse with rock standards or free-style jamming [something hip-hop composers would copy in subsequent decades] Horses would rise to #47 on the Billboard charts and, eventually, be ranked #44 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  Subsequent albums would follow and from that point forward Smith would be a sought-after performer/composer as the New York sound was refined.  She would co-write "Because the Night" with Bruce Springsteen and be offered, and refuse, the position of lead singer with Blue Oyster Cult.

Other albums would follow; Smith would marry and have children.  She would suffer loss as close friends would die; she would be severely injured in a fall from a stage.  She would withdraw from public life and then, at the urging of her friend, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, make a triumphant return.  Even now, as Punk and New Wave are mostly subjects in musicology classes, at the age of 67 she is still in demand as a poet and performer.

In 2005, Smith was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.  At the award ceremony she delivered an impromptu lecture on the influence of Rimbaud on her poetry that was so well-received that her award was upgraded on the spot.  The next year, she was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [in Cleveland!] and, the year after that, was the final performer at the venerable East Village club CBGB on the occasion of its closing.  Her 3 and 1/2 hour concert covered most of her greatest hits interspersed with her poetry.  At 1 a.m., she sang her song "Elegie", read a list of the deceased among the Punk/New Wave world, and brought a portion of musical history to a literal close.

All of her music is still available in a variety of formats; her poetry still in print.  Most prominent among her written work is her memoir Just Kids, which won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2010.

At Christmas, she will be performing in Rome at the special request of her most prominent fan, Pope Francis.