rock 'n' roll saint, asexual hero, or feminist sell-out?

[from She Bop, by Lucy O'Brien, 1995 Penguin Books: pp. 111-117]

"Rock 'n' Roll is hard work, it's harder than being in the army. And your guitar is your machine gun; tour instruments are your implements of battle... you've gotta know your instruments"
     --Patti Smith, quoted in NME by Tony Parsons, 1977

"She stands there, machine gunning out her lines, singing a bit and talking a bit, in total control, riding it and steering it with a twist of a shoulder here, a flick of the wrist there -- scaled down bird-like movements that carry an almost unbelievable degree of power"
     --Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 1975

"There's not anyone in this band that doesn't accept...the bend of the knee, the humility that comes with working with her, because she is the best. We feel very honoured to work with her"
   --Lenny Kaye, guitarist of the Patti Smith Group, quoted in NME by Paul Morley, 1978

In 1964 Patti Smith graduated from high school to do piece-work in the basement of a non-union New Jersey factory. Miserable and alienated, Smith didn't get along with her co-workers, and took refuge in a book of poetry, Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud. She was inspired not only by the words of the nineteenth-century romantic poet ("Woman will discover the unknown, will her word be different from ours? She will discover things that will be strange and unfathomable, repulsive, and delicate"), but his face, "defiant and restless", which she taped to a pipe -- "Me and Rimbaud together in the bowels of the piss factory." [1]

To Smith, Rimbaud expressed "all the noble egoism of adolescence". He was the keystone in her mental pyramid of heroes, a roster of men that included Dylan, Camus, Genet, John Lennon, Hank Williams and John Coltrane. Her only real female hero, Joan of Arc, was de-sexed as if Smith felt that true revolution rested on being male, or at least asexual. She understood the power of adolescence, its pure, fearless pursuit of an ideal, its yearning, its straining to be. It was this potent sense of isolation and ambition that she harnessed to rock 'n' roll, using the medium to plug directly into the heart of her audience.

"All through childhood I resisted the role of a confused skirt tagging the hero," she once wrote. "Instead I was searching for someone crossing the gender boundaries, someone both to be and to be with. I never wanted to be Wendy -- I was more like Peter Pan. This was confusing stuff." [2] Born in Chicago and brought up in a blue-collar family in Pitman, southern New Jersey, Smith always had a strong sense of self. "When I was a kid, I had an absolute swagger about the future. I wasn't born to be a spectator."

A child of the '60s, Smith immersed herself in its growing pains: racial integration, the death of Kennedy, the acid revolution and Vietnam, to emerge in the New York-garage band scene of the early '70s with a keen sense of "new eyes on everything -- gender, race, God. Borders were crossed, blurred, obliterated." [3] With the fervour of a female Billy Graham, Smith became rock 'n' roll's preacher, its salvation. In identifying rock as a religious experience complete with a notion of ecstasy, working a crowd until they submit totally to the sensuality of just being, Smith articulated rock's power with greater eloquence and authority than any man before her. Maybe her vision had that sense of an unusual "Greatness" because of her very position as The Other, the continual disaffected female adolescent. With her drawn, emaciated look and casual rejection of the trappings of femininity (rock photographer Pennie Smith says that Smith was one of the few women she enjoyed photographing "because she never worried about looking pretty"), Smith still emanated a febrile, sexual tension through long hair, hacked raw like Keith Richards's, dark eyes and a sullen mouth.

Smith originally nursed thoughts of a literary career, giving poetry readings on the alternative Manhattan arts scene of the late '60s. It wasn't until she roped in guitarist/writer Lenny Kaye in 1971 to provide musical accompaniment to her musings that her idea for a combination of rock and poetry took shape. By 1974 Smith had released her first single, "Hey Joe"/"Piss Factory," with Television's Tom Verlaine on guitar, and assembled a fully fledged band -- Lenny Kaye, Richard Sohl on piano, bassist Ivan Kral and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. Every record label she approached turned her down, apart from Clive Davis's fledgling Arista, who decided to take a chance on her cutting, flexible vocals and the multi-rhythmic band. Produced by John Cale, her 1975 debut LP Horses included such classics as "Break It Up" and a thundering, caustic version of Van Morrison's "Gloria". The cover featured a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of Smith wearing a white shirt, loose tie and jeans, her unadorned stare focused right at the camera. Though now its sprawling rhythms and self-referential lyrics sound dated, then it was a stunning, confrontational debut.

For the follow-up, the lukewarm Radio Ethiopia, she momentarily lost her nerve, shaken, too, by a serious accident on tour in Florida when she fell from a stadium stage and broke her neck. The year 1978, though, saw her "resurrection" with the confident, glorious Easter album. The stand-out track "Because the Night", co-written with her blue-collar New Jersey peer Bruce Springsteen, became her first and only major international hit, covered since by other artists including top alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs fifteen years later.

By the time her fourth album Wave appeared in 1979 Smith said, "I don't feel like a gawky kid looking up at legends any more. I feel equal to anyone in rock 'n' roll." Confident that she had done all she set out to do, Smith married MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, and moved with him to the suburbs of Detroit to raise a family. She poked her head above the parapet again in 1988 with Dream of Life, an album which didn't have her former bite.

Since her monumental success in the '70s, opinion on Patti Smith has been revised several times. Was she a rock 'n' roll saint, an asexual hero, or a feminist sell-out? When in 1980 the "great and the good" females of British punk, including members of The Slits, The Raincoats, and The Au Pairs, assembled for an NME "Women in Rock" round-table discussion, they agreed that artists like Patti Smith and Joan Armatrading were more of a threat than women who openly sold their sexuality in rock. According to The Passions' Barbara Black,

"They've actually denied they're feminists. They've said, 'Oh yes, it's over there somewhere, but it's nothing to do with us. We're here because of our merits.' Fair enough, but you know it's not true. I know when Patti Smith came over here there were loads of women who went to see her because of the way she is, her way of performing, and to deny her association, to me, is cowardly. I think they're lying to themselves when they say the women's movement has nothing to do with them." [4]

Like self-styled asexual anti-heroine Polly Harvey (a rock artist often compared to Patti) fifteen years later, Smith was fighting labels, petrified of being cut down to size and exiled to what she felt was a gender ghetto. To her the route to rock freedom was male, but in twisting it to suit her vision, she created something peculiarly intense and female. Reassuringly feminist it was not, yet the risks she took with slogans, words, myth and music were exhilarating -- she was unafraid, and in her self-confessed heroic terms that in itself should have been a powerful role model.

It was her singularity and lack of public support for women that ultimately made her message less effective. An individual surrounded by a group of talented and influential men -- Robert Mapplethorpe, John Cale, Tom Verlaine, Lenny Kaye, Bruce Springsteen -- her position seemed unassailable and at the same time daunting. Many women at the time saw in Smith nothing they could usefully relate to. Others picked up on something untutored and elemental, something they didn't have words for, a desire. "She shocked me the first time I saw her. Real old fashioned shock...This 27-year-old skinny punk who hammered out dirty poetry and sang surreal folk songs. Who never smiled. Who was tough, sullen, bad, didn't give a damn... I felt both ravaged and exhilarated," wrote Mademoiselle's Amy Gross. [5]

To ex-punk singer/songwriter Adele Bertei, who in the '70s was singing blues in bars in Cleveland, Ohio, Smith was a brand-new role model.

"At the time music was about divas or rock goddesses. It was nothing to do with boyish little tykes like myself who could sing blues. I didn't think there'd ever be a place for me. Then Patti Smith came out with an album that rocked my universe. She was androgynous, outspoken, obviously well-educated and well-read. She became like a mentor to me. If she dropped references to Brancusi [the Romanian sculptor], I'd go out and find art books. If it was Rimbaud, I'd read him and learn about the French decadents. Because I didn't have much of an education, Smith in a sense was my first teacher." [6]

Now that her rock performance has become legend, a younger generation of female bands cite Smith as an influence without equivocation. Accompanying this, though, is a sense of disappointment about where she disappeared to. One of the greatest rock 'n' roll icons this century retiring? to the suburbs? to raise a family? She retained a dignity and mystery by ending Patti Smith, rock star, at her peak. But there is also the sense that, like countless women before her, she opted out to have children. Though a family is important, it disrupts the longevity that women need to prove they can stay the course. Maybe Smith's accident in Florida scared her more deeply than she thought -- literally lost and dizzy in her own music, she had careened out into mid-air and nearly killed herself. Weighing up the options, maybe a quiet life seemed preferable to the gaudy, transcendental craziness of rock. After the fall it seemed all her adolescent angst had been expressed and spent. When maturity beckoned, she lost her nerve. The warrior retreated.

"I no longer have the need for angels," she wrote in 1993. "They have all been internalized."

[1]   Smith, Patti, "We Can Be Heroes," Details, July 1993.
[2]   ibid.
[3]   ibid.
[4]   Pearson, Deanne, "Women in Rock," NME, 29 March 1980.
[5]   Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul (Macmillan, London, 1989), p.622.
[6]   Author interview, New York, 1993.

Copyright © Lucy O'Brien 1995

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