John Rockwell

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 802

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….

For Smith, the words generate everything else. Her...

(The entire section contains 802 words.)

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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….

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 importance of words in her work. (p. 85)

The range of concerns in Horses is huge, far beyond what most rock records even dream of….

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 illuminates 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. (pp. 85-6)

All eight songs [on Horses] 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….

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 her past. (p. 86)

John Rockwell, "Patti Smith: Shaman in the Land of a Thousand Dances," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1976; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 206, February 12, 1976, pp. 85-6.

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