fiercely vectored rhythms (?)

[from "Patti Smith and Richard Hell: two punks don't make a summer," by Jenny Turner, New Statesman, July 5,1996]

"I keep trying to figure out what it means/to be american," writes Patti Smith in the poem "notebook." "When I look in myself/ I see arabia, venus, nineteenth century/french but I can't recognise what/makes me american."

Eventually she decides being American is "nothing material. Maybe it's just being free."

John Lydon, the former Johnny Rotten, could tell Patti Smith exactly what it means. Being American means being "a prattish pretend poet", as he put it in a television documentary about the origins of punk last year. Lydon was responding to the thesis that the invention of torn-up clothing and spiked hair was not, in fact, his and his alone. The style originated with Richard Hell, bad poet turned rock musician, and Patti Smith, banal poet turned stunning performer, on the punk scene of seventies New York.

Neither Hell nor Smith miss a chance to tell the world about where they got the idea. "Rimbaud looked like that," said Hell, "Artaud looked like that."

Patti Smith said, "I liked to dress like Baudelaire," explaining why she chose a man's shirt and necktie for Robert Mapplethorpe's classic shot for the cover of her album Horses. It's interesting to notice how everything these New Yorkers did to identify with 19th-century France serves only to make them more transparently American. It's also funny to think that, just as Smith and Hell were dressing up as Frenchies, a generation of Britons was desperate to come from New York. For bohemians of a certain immaturity, it seems, "freedom" is always elsewhere.

But what on earth was it that the New York punk poets were trying to get hold of as they innocently dropped the names of their idols? The romantic desire for quick transcendence? Or the more prosaic business of acquiring attitude. Attitude is about the only thing that could justify the ludicrous association of "arabia, venus" with "just being free". This is the classic rock'n'roll trope, the sort of thing Oasis are forever doing in their widely ridiculed lyrics. Take: "Someday you will find me/ caught beneath the landslide/ in a champagne supernova in the sky." It's a dreadful mixed metaphor but it does carry the illusion of some sort of meaning.

After 15 years of semi-retirement, Patti Smith is on the scene again, with a nice new album and a terrible book. In the last few years she has lost her brother, her best friend Mapplethorpe and her husband Fred "Sonic" Smith. Everyone must mourn in a way that best suits them, and public performance is obviously Smith's way.

The new album she's touring is country-folky, grungey-rocky and vaguely Native American. Smith's voice and presence are thrilling, although her words, as ever, are better in the ear than on the page. "You ate the summer cannibals," goes the forthcoming single "Ate. Eat. Eat". It doesn't make a lot of sense, but the fiercely vectored rhythms and passion are great when you hear them. The album as a whole is dignified and moving, free of the rock'n'roll-nigger-type cock-rock strutting that was always the worst aspect of her earlier work.

The Coral Sea is a tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe, a set of prose poems about a sea voyage that's clearly metaphorical. The sea of the title is at one point "dense as a Rothko, prosaic, unbroken". At another point "the spiritual sea was the sea of Turner." The sea can swap painters, apparently, because Mapplethorpe's photos have such a changing resonance. The other reason is that writing, for Smith, is seldom more than darting from name to name in the first place.

[the rest is 4 unflattering paragraphs about Hell and his new book]

Copyright © Jenny Turner 1996

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