Robert Christgau

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2342

Patti Smith is in trouble. She's caught in a classic double bind—accused of selling out by her former allies and of not selling by ner new ones. Maybe she's just too famous for her own good. Habitues of the poetry vanguard that provided her initial panache, many of whom mistake...

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Patti Smith is in trouble. She's caught in a classic double bind—accused of selling out by her former allies and of not selling by ner new ones. Maybe she's just too famous for her own good. Habitues of the poetry vanguard that provided her initial panache, many of whom mistake her proud press and modest sales for genuine stardom, are sometimes envious and often disdainful of her renown as a poet, since she is not devoted to the craft of poetry and they are. Music-biz pros both in and out of her record company, aware that her second album, Radio Ethiopia, is already bulleting down the charts, are reminded once again that print exposure is the least reliable of promotional tools in an aural medium, not least because the press can be fickle. Somewhere in between are the journalists and critics, who count as former allies and new allies simultaneously, and who can now be heard making either charge, or both….

Although Patti was personally acquainted with more than a few critics, the nationwide journalistic excitement she initially aroused went far beyond cliquishness. Like Bruce Springsteen, she answered a felt need…. She recalled a time when rock and roll was so conducive to mythic fantasies that pretentiousness constituted a threat. Patti had her pretentious side, everybody knew that, but in her it seemed an endearing promise that she would actually attempt something new. Moreover, she had earned her pretensions: what other rock and roller had ever published even one book of poetry without benefit of best-selling LP? Nor was it only critics who felt this way. A rock audience that includes six million purchasers of Frampton Comes Alive! spins off dissidents by the hundreds of thousands, many of whom are known to read. People were turned on by Patti Smith before they'd seen or heard her. Even in New York, the faithful who had packed into CBGB's for her shows were only a small fraction of her would-be fans, and elsewhere she was the stuff of dreams.

The problem with this kind of support is that it is soft—it's not enthusiasm, merely a suspension of the disbelief with which any savvy rock fan must regard the unknown artist. In Patti's case this openness lasted even after her first album, Horses, came out in October 1975. Patti has always attracted a smattering of sensitive types who are so intrigued by the word "poet" that they pay no heed to its customary modifier, "street"; these poor souls will attend one show and leave early, wincing at the noise. But they don't count—it's the informed fence sitters Patti could use. There's no way to know how many of the almost 200,000 adventurous rock fans who purchased Horses feel equivocal about it, but I wouldn't be surprised if half of them balanced the unusual lyrics, audacious segues, and simple yet effective vocals and melodies against what is admittedly some very crude-sounding musicianship. These were people who wouldn't rule out the next LP—a genuine rock poet deserves patience, after all—but wouldn't rush out for it, either. For although Patti is a genuine rock poet, what she does—her art, let's call it—is not calculated to appeal to those attracted by such a notion. (p. 14)

[The music of avante-garde band The Velvet Underground] inspired a whole style of minimal American rock, a style that rejects sentimentality while embracing a rather thrilling visceral excitement. Patti Smith … performs directly and consciously in this tradition….

[Though] the melodies be spare, the rhythms metronomic, the chords repetitive, at its most severe this is still rock and roll…. One reason Horses … was so well received critically—and sold so much better than critics' albums like the first [New York Dolls] or Ramones LPs—was that it managed to meld the pop notes with both basic instrumentation (the back-up singing on "Redondo Beach") and poetic fancies (the revelatory transition from Johnny's horses to "Land of a Thousand Dances," or from the sweet young thing humping the parking meter to "Gloria"). But Patti's and Lenny Kaye's public pronouncements on rock and roll have always indicated that something rather different was also to be expected.

Sure Patti and Lenny love mid-'60s pop-rock. Patti's fondness for both Smokey Robinson and Keith Richard is well documented; Lenny's credits as a record producer include Boston's poppish Sidewinders and Nuggets, the recently reissued (on Sire) singles compendium that defines the original punk rock of a decade ago at its most anonymous and unabashed. But Lenny also christened heavy-metal music and has been known to say kind things about abstract shit all the way from Led Zeppelin to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, while Patti's rock writin' included paeans to Edgar Winter as well as the Stones. Moreover, both have always been enamored of unpunkishly hippie-sounding notions about rock culture and the rock hero. Patti sometimes seems to prefer Jim Morrison to Bob Dylan and obviously relates to Keith Richard more as someone to look at than someone to listen for—as does Lenny, which is doubly dangerous. It is out of all these buts that Radio Ethiopia—which by comparison to Horses is ponderous, postliterate, anarchically communal—proceeds.

Unlike almost all of my colleagues,… I am an active fan of Patti's second album. It's unfortunate that its one bad cut is its title cut and lasts 11 minutes, but I wouldn't be surprised if I reached a place where I even liked that one. I've already gotten there with "Poppies" and "Pissing in a River," two cuts I originally considered dubious, as I did long ago with some of the more pretentious stuff on Horses….

When it works, Radio Ethiopia delivers the charge of heavy metal without the depressing predictability; its riff power—based on great ready-made riffs, too—has the human frailty of a band that is still learning to play….

I'm a sucker for the idea I perceive in "Radio Ethiopia," a rock version of the communal amateur avant-gardism encouraged by the likes of jazzman Marion Brown. And it works acceptably on stage, where Lenny's sheer delight in his own presence gets him and the band through a lot of questionable music. But I've never found Marion Brown at all listenable, and I guess I'd rather see the "Radio Ethiopia" idea than play it on my stereo. The same does not go, however, for the other dubious artistic freedom on the LP, the swear words. (p. 15)

[Patti] is a utopian romantic whose socioeconomic understanding is so simplistic that she can tell a Hungerthon that rock-and-roll power will feed Ethiopia …; she is an autonomous woman with such shameless male identifications that she can cast herself cheerfully as a rapist in one poem and begin another: "female, feel male. Ever since I felt the need to / choose I'd choose male." Clearly, her line is not calculated to appeal to the politicos and radical feminists who actually live up to her challenge; it can also be counted on to turn off most intelligent, settled adults, by which I mean people pushing Patti's age—30. But Patti won't miss those uptights—she wants kids. Her sense of humanity's potential is expressed most often in the dreamscape images of heavy rock: sex-and-violence, drugs, apocalypse, space travel. She theorizes that rock and roll is "the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel)." She believes that the "neo-artist" is "the nigger of the universe." In short, she would appear to be full of shit.

Well, so did Rimbaud, who, while no longer dominating Patti's cosmology, continues to exemplify her artist hero, theoretical inadequacies and all. I say artist hero, not artist, to avoid the absurdity of comparing poetry, but Patti's poetry itself is a place to begin. Both rock critics and poets have been known to put it down. Observers of the world of poetry inform me that some of this censure can be attributed to envy, and I suspect the same of the rock critics. In any case, as a reader who reveres Whitman, Yeats, and Williams and whose tastes in contemporary poetry—at those rare times when he has wanted to read it—have run to Creeley, Wieners, Padgett, Denby, I've found most of Patti's published work likable and some of it remarkable; one poem—"judith," in Seventh Heaven—strikes me as, well, a great poem, and one great poem is a lot. Still, I'll go along with the poet who told me he liked her wit and quickness but found her work unfinished. Patti reports that she works hard, tediously hard, on most of what she writes. But if it didn't seem unfinished at the end, like her rock and roll, then it wouldn't do what she clearly wants it to do.

In her search for a "universal form of expression," Patti rejects the whole idea of the avant-garde. She will talk about the way Bobby Neuwirth and Eric Andersen encouraged her to write but never mention Frank O'Hara, who others cite as a major influence on her. Obviously, she doesn't want to be associated with the avant garde's limitations. But this in itself is a kind of vanguard position that places her firmly where she belongs—in the camp of anarchists like Jarry or Tzara, as opposed to the unofficial academy of formalists like Gide or Mondrian. Avant-garde anarchists have always been especially fascinated by popular imagery and energy, which they have attempted to harness to both satirical and insurrectionary ends. Patti simply runs as far as she can with the insurrectionary possibility: Her attempt to utilize the popular form authentically is her version of the formal adventurousness which animates all artistic change.

Can I possibly believe that this deliberately barbaric sometime poet and her glorified garage band are worthy of comparison with Rimbaud, Jarry, Tzara, Gide, Mondrian? The short version of my answer is yes. The long version must begin with a reminder that Jarry and Tzara are obviously more relevant than Gide and Mondrian before returning inexorably to Rimbaud. One poet I spoke to posited rather icily that Patti reads Rimbaud in translation. This is more or less the case—but it is also one appropriate way to get to the whole of what Rimbaud created, whether monists of the work of art like it or not. For although her verse may strive (with fair success) for a certain unrefined alchimie du verbe, it is Rimbaud the historical celebrity Patti Smith emulates—the hooligan voyant, the artist as troublemaker. Even the formal similarities—such as Patti's exploitation of the cruder usages of rock and roll, which disturb elitists much as Rimbaud's youthful vulgarisms did—are in this mold. For if Patti is clearly not the artist Rimbaud was, she can compete with him as an art hero, at least in contemporary terms. Rimbaud, after all, would appear to have quit poetry not to make up for his season in hell but simply because he couldn't find an audience in his own time. So far, that has not been a problem for Patti.

Of course, one understands that even the most attractive art-hero/celebrity must actually produce some art, lest she be mistaken for Zsa Zsa Gabor, and that it is appropriate to scrutinize this art critically. Well, here is one critic who values it highly. Settled, analytic adult that I am, I don't have much use for its ideational "message," for the specific shamanisms it espouses—astral projection, Rastafarianism, whatever. But I'm not so settled that I altogether disbelieve in magic—the magic power of words or the mysterious authority of an assembly of nominally unconnected human beings—and I find that at pivotal moments Patti quickens such magic for me.

The secret of her method is her unpredictability. To a degree this is assured by the very ordinary technical accomplishments of her musicians, but even her intermittent reliance on shtick and intermittently disastrous tendency to dip into onstage fallow periods help it along by rendering those moments of uncanny inspiration all the more vivid and unmistakable. Actually, her comedic gift is so metaphysical, so protean, that sometimes her musings and one-liners, or even her physical attitudes as she sings, will end up meaning more than whatever big-beat epiphanies she achieves. But when she's at her best, the jokes become part of the mix, adding an essential note of real-world irony to the otherworldly possibility. "In addition to all the astral stuff," she boasts, "I'd do anything for a laugh." Thus she is forever set apart from the foolish run of rock shaman-politicians, especially Jim Morrison.

Discount Morrison, assign Jimi Hendrix's musical magic to another category, and declare Patti Smith the first credible rock shaman, the one intelligent holdout/throwback in a music whose mystics all pretend to have IQs around 90. Because spontaneity is part of the way she conjures, she is essentially a live artist, but through the miracle of phonographic recording conveys a worthy facsimile of what she does in permanent, easy-to-distribute form. I don't equate these records with Rimbaud's poetry or Gide's fiction or Mondrian's paintings, although without benefit of historical perspective I certainly do value them as much as I do the works of Jarry or Tzara, both of whom survive more as outrageous artistic personages, historical celebrities, than as creators of works of art. Since popular outreach is Patti's formal adventure, I might value what she does even more if I thought she could be more than a cult figure—and retain her authenticity, which is of course a much more difficult problem. But in a world where cult members can number half a million and mass alliances must be five or 10 times that big. I don't. If you like, you can believe that her formal failure reflects her incompetence. I think it reflects her ambition, the hard-to-digest ugliness and self-contradition of what she tries to do. (p. 16)

Robert Christgau, "Save This Rock & Roll Hero," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), January 17, 1977, pp. 14-16.

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