Patti Smith

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TONY HISS and DAVID McCLELLAND

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537

Patti's music [is] a unique combination of fairy tales, gleeful excitement, melodic singing, spitting, unshed tears of childhood, hypnotic reiteration, teasing, dancing, masturbatory fantasies, sheet-metal schooldays and chunks of real 50's and 60's hard-rock songs…. (p. 24)

Patti Smith knows she's got it. On stage, she burns like a white filament dressed in black, spitting, crooning, screaming a volcano of lyrics about sex, U.F.O.'s, horses, internal voyages, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, loneliness, adolescence, beaches, possibilities, Arthur Rimbaud. You have to listen hard to Patti Smith, and that's part of her appeal. She's the first legit, published … poet to move her poetry completely into rock 'n' roll, and because rock is now 20 years old, she can play on a wealth of associations that any audience will be bringing to her performances. So she splices phrases like "Do the Watusi!" and "She's so fine" into her intricate and often highly intellectual songs. (p. 26)

Patti's a smart performer. Using techniques similar to those recommended by Antonin Artaud, who created the "Theater of Cruelty," she sets up a powerful dramatic tension by alternately scaring and eliciting protective feelings from an audience. She aims for the groin and the spine, and as soon as people realize she wants them to like her, they usually do, and things start to cook. Energy flows up the spine. The words, Patti's own, are generally very important and occasionally just there to set up a texture of good old straight id material. Patti explains that she tries to work herself into a certain state where she won't know what she's going to say next, but can speak directly from a certain myth-generating part of her mind. She is really an expert at that and can obviously do it under any circumstances….

It's certainly the most literate magic in rock 'n' roll. "Birdland," the song set at Wilhelm Reich's funeral, was written after Patti read Peter Reich's "A Book of Dreams." It is her visionary interpretation of young Reich's experience as a little boy, his experience imagining his father returning for him in a fleet of black flying saucers that looked somewhat like the black limousines in the cortege. Patti's "Birdland" lyrics phosphoresce with a dark glow never before found in any kind of rock….

Patti, who is writing rock songs about saucers and death and sex and gritty street violence, can look at all these potentially scary subjects with a sense of humor and thereby demonstrate that they do not have real power over her. Patti's songs, in a sense, are counterspells, attempts to release herself and the audience from all the dark forces of late 20th-century delusions. To accomplish this feat, she will sometimes play off deeply disturbing lyrics against comfortable, upbeat, finger-poppin' rock tunes. "Redondo Beach" is a stark lyric about a girl friend's suicide at a Lesbian beach….

Patti makes the song bearable by throwing it away as a light Jamaican reggae tune and singing it almost as a parody with stylized 50's tear-drying mime. (p. 29)

Tony Hiss and David McClelland, "'Gonna Be So Big, Gonna Be a Star, Watch Me Now!'" in The New York Times Magazine (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 21, 1975, pp. 24-31.

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