Patti Smith Robert Christgau

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Robert Christgau

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2,342 words.)