Cerebral Decanting

Music Reviews every Wednesday .....

Art/Lit (& Politics) other days......

by Jason Gubbels

Radio Bohemia: Luc Sante On Patti Smith

1.   “Smith was the president of a fan club that had just one member but a hundred idols: Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Jackson Pollock, Isabelle Eberhardt, Brian Jones, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Burroughs, Renée Falconetti (Joan of Arc in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 movie), not to mention Johnny Carson. She evoked these personalities, and more, in her songs and poems and broadsides and chapbooks, in her stage patter, in interviews, and she was not at all coy about enumerating her specific debts to them. She made a point, that is, of publicly enacting a process that most artists keep to themselves. This was doubly brave of her, since as a woman at that time declaring herself to be something more than a singer and decorative stage presence she faced a certain amount of derision anyway. It was easy for lazy journalists to caricature her as a stringbean who looked like Keith Richards, emitted Dylanish word salads, and dropped names—a high-concept tribute act of some sort, very wet behind the ears. But then her first album, Horses, came out in November 1975, and silenced most of the scoffers.”

2.   It was Rimbaud who wrote, in his famous “letter of the seer” to Paul Demeny, May 15, 1871:

When the endless servitude of woman is finally shattered, when she comes to live by and for herself, man—up to then abominable—having released her, she too will be a poet! Woman will find a portion of the unknown! Will her world of ideas differ from ours? She will find strange, unfathomable, repulsive, delicious things.

In the “Notice” at the beginning of Wītt, Smith wrote: “These ravings, observations, etc. come from one who, beyond vows, is without mother, gender, or country who attempts to bleed from the word a system, a space base.”

3.   “By 1977 or so she had become a performer so electric and charismatic that critique simply withered in the heat she exuded onstage. Her band, charmingly erratic at first, perfected their chops with constant touring; her songs were more than the sum of their parts; she rode a crest of momentum for three more albums after Horses. Then, in 1980, she did the unthinkable: at or near the height of her powers she married Fred “Sonic” Smith, late of the MC5, and retired from recording and performance to move to a Detroit suburb and become a housewife and mother [….] Although she made one record with her husband in 1988, she didn’t fully emerge from her seclusion until the mid-1990s. By that time he was dead, and so were her brother; her keyboard player, Richard Sohl; and her best friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. An air of mourning unavoidably colored her writing and performance and contributed to a truly formidable gravitas—she became at once rock’s Mater Dolorosa and its Mother Courage.”

4.   By now she is an institution, and it is hard to remember the air of goofy, inspired amateurism she wore for much of her first decade in the public eye—the notion that she was just like anyone else in the audience, but daring enough to mount the stage, was her crucial contribution to the punk ethos. She remains a galvanizing performer whose passion and commitment and utter lack of showbiz cynicism allow her to play every show as if it were her last. By now almost everything in her repertoire sounds like either an anthem or a hymn, and while catharsis may come cheap in rock and roll, the effect she has on her audience gives every impression of having been earned.”

Luc Sante, The Mother Courage Of Rock, The New York Review Of Books, February 9, 2012


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