all fluxed up

[from The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock 'n' Roll, by Simon Reynolds and Joy Press, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA:1995]

Traditional treatments of 'women in rock' have tended to look for strong role models, applauding those who've succeeded against the odds in a male-dominated indurstry. Forthright statements are valued over the 'weakness' of contradiction and ambivalence. The accent has been on empowerment and improvement (self and social).

Yet some of the most powerful music by women originates in confusion rather than certainty. These artists have worked from within the problematic of (female) identity. Their aesthetic has been based not in subjectivity, but in what Julia Kristeva calls a subject-in-process. Identity is seen as open space rather than structure, full of the clamor and turmoil of divided impulses and contradictory desires. So this torn subjectivity is expressed through language that's fractured and frayed, that oscillates between incoherence and visionary lucidity.

Flux can be liberating, a welcome release from the rigidity of identity. But the experience of being decentered can also be terrifying and incapacitating. There's a fuzzy line between being fluxed up and fucked up, between the subject-in-process and the schizophrenic. Some psychoanalytic theorists regard schizophrenia as a language problem. Learning language is how the infant becomes an 'I'; as it relinquishes its symbiotic relationship with the mother, the child acquires the ability to speak and express its desires, to function in society. Detachment from the maternal is the foundation of language, which is perhaps why, for some women, language -- particularly in its most rigorous, logical and judicial sense -- feels alien and alienating. Fluxed-up singers from Patti Smith to Mary Margaret O'Hara have rejected this 'man-made language,' and tried to create a more musical form of poetic utterance.

Poetic language subverts common sense language by putting in jeopardy the subject/verb/object structure that constitutes the individual as 'I'. But opening the 'I' to a mob of unruly desires and dreads is risky. The poet flirts with ego-loss and derangement, walks a tight rope over the abyss of unreason. For those whose sense of identity is shaky at best, the experience of being a multitude rather than a single, solid self can be shattering. Often, the choice for female artists is between presenting a strong, unified front (suppressing confusion and doubt in order to cut an impressive figure in the male-dominated power structure), or exploring their inner turmoil in their work (running the risk of being dismissed as inarticulate or hysterical or mad). Nonetheless, this second approach makes for some of the most powerful and radical art, for those who look to be challenged rather than comforted.

'Rimbaud writes this letter and he says . . . in the future when women get away from their long servitude to men . . . they're going to have new music, new sensations, new horrors, new spurts . . '
        --Patti Smith

In some ways, Patti Smith is the ultimate female rock rebel. All the contradictions of 'women in rock' percolate inside her work. She started as a tomboy/female beatnik who totally identified with the male Romantic tradition; at the pinnacle of her creativity, she was engaged in a radical feminization of rock form, and imagined herself as a kind of female Messiah; after all this, she abandoned rock 'n' roll for the most standard-issue female existence, being a mother and home-maker.

Patti Smith's first rock 'n' roll efforts involved taking classics of rebel masculinity and giving them a female twist: her first single was a cover of 'Hey Joe' (replacing the wife- murderer of the original with a female terrorist, Patty Hearst), while her debut album Horses (1975) kicked off with a cover of Them's 'Gloria.' This proto-punk classic of male lust, covered by a legion of garage bands in the '60s, becomes in Smith's treatment an anthem of lesbian desire.

Merely emulating the toughness and swaggering insolence of male rebellion wasn't enough for Smith, though. Instead, she tried to image a female Dionysian spirit, a wildness that was equal but different to male presentations of freedom. Although her band was all male, and steeped in rock tradition, she saw their music as radically feminine. In a 1978 interview, she declared: 'We don't have a fixed set or formula. We're not like a male band either, in that the male process of ecstasy in performance is starting here' -- Smith mimed jerking at the base of an imaginary giant phallus -- 'and building and building until the big spurt at the end. We're a feminine band, we'll go so far and peak and then we'll start again and peak, over and over. It's like ocean.'

The contradiction -- being overwhelmingly inspired by male artists and rock 'n' rollers, yet aspiring to create a 'feminine' music -- was not as insuperable as it might initially appear. The Romantic tradition that Smith looked to consisted of male artists who believed they were in touch with the feminine within. From Rimbaud to Jim Morrison, these artists had set a premium on flow, flux, the chaos of the unconscious. By identifying with these male avant-gardists and Romantics, Smith found a way to reclaim women's own wildness.

Patti Smith's most successful attempts to create a nonphallic rock, organized around endless crescendos rather than the tension/explosion structure of male rock, took the form of long pieces like 'Land' and 'Radio Ethiopia.' Like 'The End' on the Doors' debut, 'Land' is the climax and centerpiece of Horses. It's a classic example of the Velvet Underground's minimal-is-maximal approach -- simplistic rock 'n' roll repetition accumulating into an overwhelming gush and rush of sound. The piece is truly 'like ocean,' wave after wave of noise crashing like breakers, then remounting their assault. Smith is carried along on their crest like a surfer, her delivery veering from classic rock 'n' roll urgency ('Go Johnny go') to a giddy stream of mythological imagery.

Lyrically, 'Land' is awesomely ambitious, attempting both to return to the primordial source of rock 'n' roll and to push forward to a new spiritual realm. This tension is inscribed in the sound, which is simultaneously garage rock 'n' roll primitivism at its most basic (the riff and beat are so simply they're almost inane), and a reaching out towards abstract expressionist blur. Namechecking the dance crazes of the '50s and early '60s -- the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, the Alligator -- Smith harks back to the primal dervish-whirling delirium of rock 'n' roll. In Shadow Dancing in the USA, Michael Ventura sees rock 'n' roll as a radical invasion of sexuality and the body into Christian culture, 'a gash in the nature of Western things.' Because of Elvis Presley, 'the voodoo rite of possession . . . became the standard of American performance in rock 'n' roll.' Smith returns to the non-sense and glossolalia of Little Richard's awopbopaloobop, and gives it a Joycean spin: her singing is pure rock 'n' roll holler and the invocatory babble of a prophetess.

Ironically, although Smith is the visionary, the principal protagonist of her vision in the song 'Land' is 'Johnny.' He is the archetypal rock 'n' roll bad boy, clad in leather and carrying a switchblade. But the real subject of the song is not 'The Wild One' (the Brando/Dean rebel) but a nameless wildness, imagined as a stampede of horses. Horses have long figured for adolescent girls as a symbol of potency and independence. In Smith's vision, horses become the image of elemental power, natural grace, and unbridled freedom -- a tempest she can ride. The horses have the same function for her that surfing has for some male rock adventurers -- indeed when she stares at the waves they seem to her like a horde of Arabian stallions.

In 'Land,' Smith vacillates between taking control and losing control, identifying with the rebel male prototype and imagining his blissful dissipation into a grander wildness. Johnny becomes a rock 'n' roll suicide: he uses the knife not as a phallic weapon, but to open his throat, slashing through his vocal chords. Bleeding, he merges with the raging sea. The heart of the song comes when Smith looks into Johnny's hair as it becomes a stairway to heaven, envisioned as 'the sea of possibilities.' The figure of the rebel, in all his solipsistic grandeur, dissolves -- sundered by desires that exceed the human frame. Similarly the rock 'n' roll form of 'Land' hemorrhages into a freeform flux; the pell-mell stampede ebbs into lagoons of eerie sound fringed with murmured Smith vocals.

If 'Land' has both the rock hero and rock form surrendering to an inundation of chaos, 'Radio Ethiopia' (the title track of the 1976 follow-up) is a total insurrection against structure. There's only the loosest of rhythmic vertebrae, and even that departs halfway through, leaving unmoored percussion and clustered clouds of cymbal-spray. The guitars quickly abandon the semblance of riffs, dissolve into gouts of freeform noise and graffiti-like scrawls of endless soloing. Patti Smith goes beyond emulating a rock 'n' roll shaman like Jim Morrison, with his clear diction and bombastic gravity; she sounds like the genuine article, a shaman from the Amazon, tripping madly on hallucinogenic tree-bark. She gnashes and drools, chokes and gasps strangulated incantations. The closest to this voodoo delirium that any male singer has gotten is Iggy Pop's howls at the climax of 'TV Eye' and Tim Buckley's Starsailor.

Patti Smith had a name for the gushing gibberish she unleashed in songs like 'Land' and 'Radio Ethiopia': Babelogue. The Babelogue is the opposite of a monologue or soliloquy, forms that are certain and self-aggrandizing (despite the doubt and anguish that often inspires them). In her babble-ogues, Smith was attempting to recover the primal speech that existed before our fall into language (the Biblical collapse of the Tower of Babel). Clearly articulated language seems too inadequate for the expression of emotion, too stiff to suit the speed and complexity of feeling. Rock 'n' roll and soul have always flirted with incoherence, subjecting words to the stress of passion, encouraging language to approach the condition of music, and at the furthest instance leaping outside meaning into the pure emotion of falsetto, growl or roar. In 'Radio Ethiopia,' Smith makes this momentary breakdown of meaning into the entire body of the song.

On 'Land,' 'Radio Ethiopia,' and other songs, Smith is in revolt against syntax and diction. In a 1976 interview with Melody Maker, Smith attempted to explain her and the band's hostility to structure, which had led to criticism of technical incompetence: 'I, unfortunately, was very rebellious at school. I wouldn't learn my grammar . . . No one explained to me that I could transfer it into something celestial. . . Some people are rebels and wear leather jackets and slice up people. We are different rebels. We wouldn't learn our grammar and we wouldn't learn our chord structures. We just wanted to be free.'

In the sleevenotes to Radio Ethiopia, Smith invokes the freedom 'to defy the social order and break the slow kill of monotony. . . . The anarchy that exudes from the pores of her guitar are the cries of the people wailing in the rushes.' Smith envisions herself as both the music's charismatic center, as the ringleader of chaos, and as a figure who vaporizes in the topsy-turvy tumult she's instigated, because she is the conduit of other's desires. Smith managed to reconcile this tension -- between being the focus of attention and dissolving in flux -- with her fantasy of being a self-sacrificing star. On the title track of her third album Easter (1978) she imagines herself as a female Messiah resurrecting the spirit: her music's fluidity irrigates the arid and sterile Wasteland that rock culture has become. One character in her play Cowboy Mouth (written with Sam Shepard) declared: 'The rock 'n' roll star in his highest state of grace will be the new savior.' Patti Smith tried to be the first female savior-shaman in rock history.

Still, Smith remained torn between her allegiance to the heroic figures of the male rebel tradition and her desire to unleash a female wildness that obliterates figuration altogether. Nowhere is this more apparent than on 'Rock 'n' Roll Nigger' (Easter). The nigger here is a woman (the title obviously inspired by Yoko Ono's 'Woman is the Nigger of the World'). 'Rock 'n' Roll Nigger' is Smith announcing that female rebellion is the new frontier. In some latent fashion, the song is saying: if hipsters have always wanted to be White Negroes, and woman is the nigger of the world, then why can't female rebellion be the model for all future rebels?

But in a rambling rant halfway through the song, Smith namechecks male innovators (Hendrix, Jesus, Jackson Pollock) as 'niggers,' as though she's casted around for female archetypes of rebellion and come up empty-handed. The sleevenotes declare that 'any man who extends beyond the classic form is a nigger.' This resembles the arguments of theorists like Hélène Cixous, who claim that male avant-gardists like Joyce and Mallarmé were somehow engaged in écriture féminine; they were able to rupture the strictures of patriarchal thought and syntax because they had special access to the 'dark continent' of femininity. Certainly, these poètes maudit and their rock 'n' roll descendants (Morrison, Iggy, Tom Verlaine) were Smith's models. Apart from the black sheep that is 'Rock 'n' Roll Nigger''s original focus (Smith herself), Woman appears in this song only in the form of the 'the infinite sea.'

The female archetypes that she sometimes invokes -- in 'Poppies,' she names Sheba, Salome, and Venus -- are as much impediments as empowering. They are double- edged visions of femininity often used against women. Venus, she yells, is 'eclipsing my way.' Smith gets inside the 'feminine' words, stretching their meanings even as she confronts them: 'Every woman is a vessel, is evasive, is aquatic.' But even as she acknowledges and embraces her 'feminine' heritage, she can't help but be swayed by the impressive male rebels who have helped create images of women which make them niggers of the world. She quotes André Breton's Nadja on the cover of Radio Ethiopia: 'beauty will be convulsive or not at all.' Yet the Surrealists perpetrated much misogyny -- Breton himself described the drive for women's independence after World War One as 'bourgeois' -- and female Surrealists were largely marginalized within the movement. One of the best, Leonora Carrington, suffered the indignity of having her canvases used as grounds by her lover Max Ernst: he literally painted her out of the picture.

Patti Smith has talked about how the few women she saw in art were artists' models, so it's no wonder she preferred the male archetype. At the same time, she had no doubt that her creativity came from being in touch with the same realm of 'feminine' flux (the unconscious) from which the Surrealists and earlier Romantic artists had siphoned. She gestured at this space of flux and mutability in her sleevenotes for Easter: 'layer after layer. wall after wall. there is always more. there is always more after.' Smith's womblike imagery -- 'a space warm and glowing, infinite yet dense' -- corresponds to what Kristeva calls the chora, a kind of internal memory of the lost bliss of infancy that each individual carried around within.

Artists and poets draw on the chora's flux in order to loosen up the desiccated nature of commonsensical communication, and to dissolve the rigor of conceptual thought. Patti Smith's double bind was that she admired the psychic surfers (the male rebels who could 'play with madness,' skimming its turbulent surface without drowning in it); at the same time, she worshipped 'the infinite sea.' And because she lacked a prototype for a female Dionysian spirit, she was out there on her own.

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