by Michael Hendrick
“A hipster goes into a diner.
‘What kind of pie do you have?’ he asks.
The waitress says, ‘The pie is gone.’
‘Cool,’ says the hipster. ‘In that case, I’ll have two slices.’”
– Patti Smith, Philadelphia, 2003.
We are a Generation of Beats. This Generation has more longevity than any other generation to date. I am 53 years old. I know Beats who are 20-something and the beginning of the movement was 60 years ago. We are an ageless generation. Our heroes are infinite. They are both dead and alive. They are gone but still they teach us. A succession of anti-authoritarian voices have been raised (for this, our generation) since the 1950s.
It is said that Patti Smith bristles at a sobriquet which labels her as an ancestor, or an elder, of punk rock, and rightly so. While she was performing her art in a form that would be incorporated into the punk scene, she predated the rest of the ‘movement’ by a couple of years.
More Beat than Hippie or Punk, movements she feels are linked together by a “common anti-establishment mentality,” her dark, soulful voice, frantic, guttural rocking and shimmering poetics ala guitar rage put her at the head of the vanguard before the movement made it to vinyl. If she is progeny of the Great Spirit, which prevails in the existential and individualist work of hipsters, punks and hippies, then she is a cosmic Big Sister – cajoling, smiling, inciting caring, minding us to wash our socks and drink lots of water. She is, at once, big buddy and spiritual advisor.
A Patti Smith Group show is very much akin to psychedelic experience. It cannot be accurately described in full without losing feeling; if you are aware and paying attention, you learn a lot; you feel a strange energy bubbling up from the pit of your gut and climaxing cerebrally; you do not look at things in the same way the next day and everything looks sorts of different. A typical show is a hallucinogen comprised of thoughts floating on musical notes and snatches of poetry, punctuated by a voice that comes from far away, from one lost in the wilderness, from one as close as a mother’s breath… and you can count on a couple of laughs thrown in for good measure.
Watch her smile. Feel the vibration of her voice course through your body and let the deep reediness consume you. Listen to her read from Ginsberg’s ‘Howl.’ Have a few laughs as she tells a joke or makes humorous observations. See her jump up and down in anger and frenzy while reading the Declaration of Independence. Dance to her voice as she struts Jagger-style from one side of the stage to the other. Cheer as she yells “Fuck You!” at an odd request from the audience. Sweat from the energy and dance, dance dance.
She deliberately keeps ticket prices low for her fans, so I imagine she may be one of the less expensive trips available these days.
The first time I saw Patti, I was hooked. It was just an album cover but the face, the figure (remember album art?) and the sound of her voice – deep, vibrant, rich, wild, unrestrained – were enough to put me on the path to songs that inebriated my sensibilities. ‘Horses’ (1975) was unlike anything before it or since. It has inspired countless young musicians to take the stage and opened pop music’s back door to sneak in poetry, literature and art. It is the same bottomless voice that belted out ‘You Light Up My Life’ on the kids TV show ‘Kids Are People, Too,’ in 1979. From the beginning, Patti was anything but definable.
With Patti, it seems to always be about “the people” – at least, when she is not holed up in a café writing in her journals or losing herself in the pages of the masters of art and literature. Her song, ‘People Have The Power,’ is an exaltation to all that we, all of us together, have the power to change life, ourselves and the world around us. We just have to know it. We need people like Patti to tell us.
The song was written when she was in the non-performance mode. In a recent Public TV interview, she recounts washing dishes in the kitchen when her husband, the late Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of the MC5 suggested the song to her. (Some older readers will remember the importance of the ‘Kicks Out the Jams (Motherfucker!)’ LP from the MC5 back in 1969. The MC5 were first to cross the hippie-punk border and put a hard edge on the flower-children.) Patti was leaning on the sink and Fred came into the kitchen, looked at her and said, “Patricia, People Have the Power…write it.” She did eventually write it and the message it carries is one of universal love, hope and encouragement. I post it on YouTube.com about once a month, just to feel like I am giving people some hope.
A few years after ‘Horses,’ the venerable Tom Snyder treated us to an interview with Patti, in 1978. It was an amazing show. In necktie and tweed, she was a gleaming presence as she praised Little Richard for his ability to “focus physical, anarchistic and spiritual energy into a form,” that form being rock and roll. She often sites Mick Jagger as her biggest rock idol, however, and in early videos you can see how much influence Jagger had on her moves, if nothing else.
Death, she told Snyder before losing husband, lover, brother and mother to it, is a really magical extension of being in love. Snyder asked about her feelings for the USA, perhaps hoping to catch a snippet of punk outrage but Patti remained ever-positive, noting that “we have a real wonderful country” but she did give a hint of her penchant for looking at the bigger picture:
I want to see us just care more. We have such a wonderful planet and (yet) we are so lackadaisical about it. I’m not against sin. I’m not against perversity… (we should) define our priorities.
In 2010, those priorities seem to have been defined by the hope for global survival but Patti was on the ball 30-odd years ago. I quote an old interview like this because it adds more gravity to her words and her prescience.
I do a lot of my work to inspire people… inspire them in all different ways – cerebrally, sexually, spiritually. I always hope people will have some kind of orgasms from my work, whether just a sense of relaxation, a sense of release…an illimunation! …and also a good laugh!
Isn’t this what the Beats were aspiring to since the beginning?
Burroughs pushed the envelope with Naked Lunch. It was the last book to be censored in the United States, following a 1966 Supreme Court ruling. Lenny Bruce pushed the language envelope, too, by exposing the treachery of racism in society by using the language of racism against itself.
‘Rock N Roll Nigger’ is a song that Patti usually saves for encores. A song that is shoulder-to-shoulder with all the best rock and roll songs, she often presents it after reading some poetry or giving the crowd a little advice. Her shouts of “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger NIGGER!!!” still shock and cause us to look around and see who is listening. Isn’t that what Lenny did? What Ginsberg did in ‘Howl’ and Burroughs in Naked Lunch? This is, in fact, the technique employed in ‘Howl’ – repetitive succession of chorus into orgasmic ecstasy. Ginsberg and Patti share an orgasmic vision as the goal of their art. The other multi-choruses of “…outside…” hung on the phrase “outside of society,” offer the most basic Beat tenet. (I digress, but it is hard not to give a tip of the beret to the Ramones for giving us the song Outsider, to add to the soundtrack of Beat lifestyle.)
The difference between Patti and, say, Mick Jagger is that Jagger does not read Ginsberg, Rimbaud, Tennyson to fans from the stage. He doesn’t sing about his “Blakean Year.” Patti does a service by teaching us, by giving us other voices to learn from. She reads Walt Whitman in honour of Ginsberg and takes the time to explain why Thomas Jefferson is important to us.
After reading a biography of Bob Dylan, I had no choice but to pick up the works of John Steinbeck and read every one. I read about Steinbeck and his love of the poetry of Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire and the prose of Rabelais. It seemed like pretty heavy stuff but when I saw Patti quoting Rimbaud and even dressing like him, I had no choice but to dive in. She is our teacher, our hallucinogenic big sister. She makes sure we don’t pay too much for tickets to see her. She wants us to be safe. She wants us to be smart. She wants us to have warm socks. She tells us in so many words. When seeing her deal with overly-rambunctious audience members, you remember she is mother to two boys (one of who is now a member of the group, Jackson Smith). She can put loudmouths back into their “terrible twos” with a few words and send them sulking… then tell a joke to diffuse any negativity.
As heavy as she may be, she delights in being the comedian. She was voted “Class Clown” in her final year of high school and her material does not depend on being literary. She will quote a popular television advert when things get quiet. She will be a holy goof when necessary.
During a recent live interview, she was asked a particularly deep question. Looking deadpan into the camera and audience, she quipped, “I guess none of us are gonna get home in time to see House tonight.”
Growing up in TV culture goes deep. When things get a bit dodgy onstage, as is apt to happen in any variety of live entertainment, she humbles herself and thinks, what would JC do? The JC she looks to is not the Holy Saviour of the Bleeding Heart… no, it’s good old Johnny Carson, former king of the tube. She ruminates that her failure to appear on Carson’s show is one of her great regrets. She tried very hard to get a booking and even promised to wear a dress. Her love of Johnny is no passing fancy. A long-time viewer, she would verbally spar with compatriots in the years when she was an opening act in order to prepare herself for the stage. She found that conducting herself in Carson’s unflappably affable manner always put her comfortably in charge of any onstage mishap… barring physical ones.
She broke her neck after a fall from stage onto a concrete floor in 1977 and between recuperating, enduring therapy and raising a family, she stayed offstage for 17 years. In 1994, her husband Fred died. Shortly after that, her brother, Todd, died. It could not have been an easy time for her. Friends came to her and pulled her up. Allen Ginsberg and Michael Stipe (of REM) urged her to get back onstage when Bob Dylan asked her to join him for the eight-city ‘Paradise Lost Tour’ in December of 1995. Her duet with Dylan on his song ‘Dark Eyes’ was a highlight of the tour and is still a YouTube favorite, fifteen years later..
I managed to catch the fourth show in the tour. Bob Dylan fans are not easy to find sometimes, so I ended up with an extra ticket and an empty seat next to me, which was used by Stipe during part of the concert to take photos for a book he was doing about Patti and the tour. I didn’t know any of the background until afterwards. I didn’t know that a Father of the Beats had sent this Heavenly Sister back to us with her message. Allen died less than two years later but we are grateful for his gift of bringing Patti back to us. May Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs and all the others keep on rocking today, through the voice of She, a Most Sacred Sister.
Patti keeps touring, currently booking a lot of shows in Spain and Italy. She travels Beat. She writes regular journals which are available to her fans on her website.
In the 1970s, she made reference to her Vision and how she would realize it. Her lyric indicates that she has long since found that Vision…
I was dreaming in my dreaming
of an aspect bright and fair
and my sleeping it was broken
but my dream it lingered near
in the form of shining valleys
where the pure air recognized
and my senses newly opened
I awakened to the cry
that the people / have the power
to redeem / the work of fools
upon the meek / the graces shower
it’s decreed / the people rule…
(Lyrics to ‘People Have The Power’ by Patti Smith/Fred ’Sonic’ Smith)
In February, Patti published Just Kids, an autobiographical work centering on her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Her other books include Witt, Babel, Woolgathering, The Coral Sea, and Auguries of Innocence.
In 2005 the French Ministry of Culture awarded Smith the prestigious title of Commandeur of Arts & Letters, the highest honor awarded to an artist by the French Republic. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.