accused of incompetence

[from "The Big Match," by Steve Lake, Melody Maker, May 22, 1976]

"I like criticism -- but funny criticism."
—Patti Smith

Patti Smith flashes a big toothsome grin as Ivan Kral and Jay Dee Daugherty, her second guitarist and drummer respectively, file into this fourth floor reception room in London's artsy Portobello hotel.

"Hey, you guys, I want you to meet . . . uh, what was your name again? Charlie? Oh, yeah, Steve. This is Steve from the Melody Maker, guys. He thinks we stink. He's on some kinda crusade to have us stamped out. Why doncha tell 'em about it, Steve?"

"Well," I say, swallowing hard, and trying to muster up some belligerent pomposity. "I'm taking a stand against the celebration of the cult of incompetence in rock music."

"Huh?" says Jay Dee Daugherty.

"He thinks we're incompetent," says Patti. Jay Dee still looks blank. Patti tries again. "He thinks we can't play."

Jay's face lights up in surprise. "Is that what you think?" he says, voice querulous, like he can't believe what he's hearing.

"Yes, that's what I think."


Lenny Kaye, Patti's lead guitarist, if I may use that term loosely, pipes up: "Okay, Lake, you dealt with the intellect already. Now you're gonna have to deal with the muscle. You'll make a big splash down on Portobello Road . ."

I decide to make my excuses and split fast. It has been a taxing interview . . .

It was not without some apprehension, I must admit, that I anticipated the encounter, but increasingly it seemed like a good idea to challenge the jokers to defend their music. If indeed they could.

With luck, I thought, I might have the element of surprise on my side. Maybe the protective press officers of Arista Records had shielded Patti Smith from the slashing, merciless hatchet job I'd done on her album and her Stateside gigs. Maybe . . .

But no chance. I was halfway through my first question when I saw it. Pinned up on the wall. Page 52 of the December 13, 1975, issue of Melody Maker. That headline: "Poet and a No-man band" fairly screaming out. The picture caption below Patti's photo . . . "her head must roll".

Patti smirked, and leaned forward in her seat. Lenny Kaye, looking less like a bespectacled John Cipollina now that he's had his coiffure re-arranged, kept rapping a pencil across his knuckles. It was oddly disturbing.

The Patti Smith Band's particularly loathsome interpretation of "My Generation", the B side of their equally unpleasant interpretation of "Gloria," seemed as good a place to start as any.

"Listen," I said. "Pete Townshend was 19 when he recorded that song. You're 30 this year. What's so hip about your generation?" (You might note, readers, that Smith's version of the tune has the lady screaming, "I'm so young, I'm so goddamn young" over the coda. An easily contestable statement.)

"How old are you?" demanded Patti.


"Well, you're part of my generation. My little sister's 18. She's part of my generation. I mean, everything has to be redefined. That's part of the whole process of art. One of the things that we're, like, really involved with is the redefinition of certain terms.

"The word generation used to mean the time from parent to child. Then it took a ten year span from Elvis to Dylan. Then because of like implosion, population explosion . . . but hey, I mean we both know what's happening . . . you come in, real aggressive. You don't like us. You think we're lousy.

"You've written a lot of articles about us, saying we stink. We were gonna make a riff out of it. I hung up your review and we were gonna laugh at you, and see which of us could put you down the hardest. But that's b***. Your question is b***, because I don't have any desire to be trapped by you. It's stupid.

"You're writing for a rock and roll magazine. I do rock and roll. You seem to feel for some reason that we have been fraudulent . . .

"Well there are two ways I can handle this. I can, like, cop an attitude with you, and really come on like a punk, or else I can try and figure out, like, what it is that, like, hurt you so much.

"I'm not afraid of criticism. I like criticism. But I like funny criticism., when it's, like, so far out that it's, like, stupid. Like when some bald-headed old fat man decided that a girl shouldn't be singing about sex and drugs. But when a kid writes something bad, that disturbs me, because it, like, shakes up the conspiracy.

"So instead of snarling at each other why don't we try to find out what it is that you don't dig? So, c'mon, talk to me . . . I don't care if you never write an article. I don't care if I never get any British press.

"I'm not trying to con you into nothin'. You can turn the tape off. I just sincerely wanna know what you don't like about the band."

"Well," I said. "I've already written it . . ." but I go through the basics again, about how I believe that there's an essential difference between punk rock as played by everybody from the Seeds, Standells and Shadows of Knight on through the Heartbreakers, Ramones and the rest, and the way that Smith and Kaye operate.

Since both are ex-rock writers, I view their stance as entirely manipulative and calculating. The only way that punk rock works is when it comes from the heart. It might be dumb, but it has its own integrity. I don't think Smith and Kaye have too much, deny it though they may.

Use of the phrase "punk rock" in this context upset the musicoligist in Kaye.

"We're not a punk rock band," he sneered. "We're not a punk rock band because we don't have a Farfisa organ. We don't do three-minute singles and we don't do psychedelic lyrics."

"Okay, but the stance you effect on stage . . ." I began.

"Stunts?" said Patti, "stunts? I've never done a stunt in my life."

"No, not stunts. Stance."

"Stance? Stance? You mean the way the boys stand on stage? Do you know how big CBGB's stage is? We didn't play the place because it was groovy you know. CBGB's is a dive, old tramps knocking amplifiers, bartenders yelling. But it was, like, the only place that would have us.

"You have to have some compassion if you're talking about the bands that play there, us included, because it's impossible to get a good sound."

"But you don't seem to have any desire to get a good sound," I said, "why did you deliberately go out of your way to cultivate a rancid sound? Why did you choose musicians who couldn't play? Your sets are always out of tune. Lenny doesn't seem to be able to tune a guitar. You usually sing flat . . ."

"Well if you're looking for the Eagles," said Patti, "go hear the Eagles. Lenny and I just do what we do. We've been doing it for five years and we play and sing as good as any two people can.

"This band isn't any kind of parody. I abhor parody. I abhor camp. I abhor any kind of phoniness, and if you see us as any kind of indulgent parody, well, it makes me sad, because I don't believe that two people with the heart and the love and the philosophy that Lenny and I have project that."

"To me," interjected Kaye, "a thing like tuning is so beside the point that it's totally irrelevant. If you have trouble with tuning, all you have to do is buy a strobe tuner. Which we now have, so now we play in tune. Big deal. That doesn't make us any more or less musicianly.

"There are eight million guitar players with technical facility, but as far as I'm concerned 7,900,000 of them don't play with any imagination. I make no defences for my technical ability. I'm better than I was six months ago, but I'm not about to have a guitar battle with Jeff Beck. But I believe that the way I use the instrument is a way in which it has not been utilised."

I could not restrain an ironic chuckle at that.

Kaye continued: "It amazes me that you, someone I used to be very in tune with, philosophically, should say these terrible things. You, you of all people, with your roots in jazz, with your roots in avant garde music should realise that an instrument is just a tool for making sounds. That's the way I approach the guitar. To me, if I can play a blues solo like Albert King it has no relevance."

That's easy to say when an Albert King solo is quite out of one's reach.

"I'm not interested in that, what I'm into is playing free."

I must admit that I was momentarily stunned by the sheer gall of this statement. Really, it's a kind of comment that would get a jazzman laughed off the stand, because free music -- and it doesn't necessarily matter whether it's promoted as jazz or rock or avant garde classical -- is music that requires the utmost discipline, the most thorough understanding of the instrument.

Any guitarist who tells you he's "into playing free" when he can't even tune his axe has got to be full of crap.

"Lenny," I said, wearily, "most free musicians learn how to play their instruments before they talk about free improvisation."

"What's that got to do with it? So now I'm going back and learning my fundamentals, but that doesn't negate the fact that I play free better than nine-tenths of the guitarists on the scene today. I'm not going out and being Eric Clapton and playing 20 minute solos because I'm not particularly interested in that. To me, that end of it is played out.

"I'm interested in seeing how free we can get. All we've been trying to do for years and years and years, is to take rock and roll, because that's where our roots are, into a place where it's never been before. As for technical proficiency, I can play the bass better than anyone in the world."

In the world?

"I'm a really good bass player. But so what? I decided that the bass was a limited instrument so I progressed to the guitar. Now if you're gonna get on at us for crimes against humanity by playing out of tune, it seems to me that you're using that as a foil to avoid the real issue of what we're trying. We're trying to expand the music lyrically and philosophically.

"You don't think I'm in this to become a rock and roll star do you?"

"Well . . . yeah."

"What do I need to be a rock star for? I made more money as a rock critic. I don't get any particular ego gratification out of getting up on a stage. It's hard work, the hardest I've ever done in my life. The attitude you're taking with us is a reactionary one, an attitude that can only lead to the kind of pap you hear on AM radio."

A curious observation, and one that Kaye did not attempt to clarify.

"Don't forget," said Patti, "you saw us in New York when we were just growing. Well, we're still growing. The sound hasn't changed all that much. And if you don't like it or you're not into it, that's really cool.

"But all I want you to know, that's important for me to communicate to you, is that we're not trying to rip anybody off . . . We're not any kind of con game. I love rock and roll too much. And if you represented the majority opinion, I'd pull out. I'd give up the band and sit back and try and suss out what I should do.

"Writers can say what they want about me. That I'm skinny, that I'm ugly, that I got pimples. I don't care. The only thing that disturbs me is when somebody questions my integrity.

"Because, to me, see, you're right -- technically, I ain't up there. I'm not the best singer. I'm still learning. Technically, Lenny isn't a great guitar player. Technically. Nobody in the group . . . 'cept maybe my drummer, amd he wasn't so hot a few months back. But we're aware of it, you know, and we're working on it. We're not trying to pull anything over on anybody.

"But on the other hand we are very, very proud of what we can do. No matter how musically inefficient we may be, I believe that we still have something that is unique. A very special form of communication that is usually only blessed to, like you say, the really great jazz musicians. We started free first. It might seem ironic, but there's no contradiction there.

"Think of all the groups that are technically perfect, that never get anywhere.

"I, unfortunately, was very rebellious at school. I wouldn't learn my grammar. I wouldn't learn it because I thought it was ****. No one explained to me that I could transfer it into something celestial. No one explained to me that if I learned my grammar I could really get a grip on language like Rimbaud does.

"And maybe nobody explained to Lenny that if he got all his basics down, like if he learned to play his chords, that he could go even further with the guitar.

"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.

"I think it's very dangerous, especially for someone as young as you are, to get hung up in the dogma and the verbalisation of art. I've been a committed artist since I was a child. I do art every day. Some form of art.

"I try to pump art in interviews. I don't do no slipshod interviews, like (pulls pouting rock star face) 'yeah. No. New Jersey, grunt, grunt . .' I don't do none of that. Today I won't write or paint or sing, so it's up to you to help me do my art for today. I have to create every day.

"To me, you know, rock writing is one of the highest professions. Such a high profession that I chose a rock writer to be my lead guitarist. Now, you're a rock writer and you question my integrity. Well, my integrity remains constant through everything I do . . . it's all the same activity, whether it's painting or writing an article or performing."

"Do you feel, then," I asked, "that the personality that you project on stage is an accurate representation of the way you really are?" The off-stage Patti Smith seemed a much more fragile character.

"I don't deal in persona," she said. "That seems to be like a very old concept. Very Sixties. And, as I look at it, very English. I can't b***. I am what I am. Although, at the same time, if there's like 5,000 people in the room I don't close myself off to that energy. Obviously, that influences me. And so do my guys.

"Look . . . I've read Melody Maker for years and it's like a lot of rock magazines, it takes a very hard line. It has a very self-important attitude, and rock and roll isn't the property of the Melody Maker. Rock and roll belongs to the people."

"Right," said Kaye, "I think the time has come to stop apologising for rock and roll. It's time for people to put themselves on the edge and take a chance, man."

Patti spoke of the redundancy and lack of imagination of certain bands, singling out Be-Bop Deluxe for their clinical interpretations of "Hendrix's magic." There's no originality, she claimed. "Nobody is doing anything new except us."

I almost agreed, I said, but couldn't allow that the Patti Smith band was doing anything new, either, with a repertoire based around songs like "Gloria", "My Generation", "Hey Joe", "Land of a Thousand Dances" and "Time Is on My Side."

"Well, look at the Stones' first album," said Lenny, "you have to pay off your roots. Our next album will be all original. We've paid our dues, paid our debts, kissed our asses. Basically, we just use those songs as hook, anyway. Hooks on which to hang our improvisations."

But, I maintained, you can't seriously talk about improvisation in a set-up as ramshackle as the Smith Band.

"'Ramshackle' implies a value judgment on your part," retorted Kaye. "We certainly don't hear it that way, and anyway I think it's invalid, because our music is not comparable to anything else. You have to examine it inside its own context."

"How about the reggae track, 'Redondo Beach'? If you're as into reggae as you purport to be, I'd have thought you'd have learnt to play the rhythm correctly. You really screwed that one up."

"It's not a reggae song," said Patti simply, "because it has a plot. Reggae songs don't have plots."

I could see that I was drawing a blank. Let's talk about John Cale, I said. Let's talk about how you rowed in John Cale as producer to increase your underground standing by making a bond with Velvet Underground history.

"Hey," said Patti, "you should forget about Cale. He had nothing to do with anything. I mixed the record myself, blame me for the way it sounds. The album was spewed from my womb. It's a naked record. We ignored all Cale's suggestions.

"As for the Velvets, what do I know about them? I'm from South Jersey, remember? I never heard of the Velvets till Lenny played me some records.

"To me, the saddest thing about it is that the album isn't recorded well. I'll grant you that. It doesn't sound good. We all know that. It's badly recorded. It sounds lousy on the radio. But it's cool, because it's a document of how it was.

"I mean, I know a lot of famous people. I could have had everybody in rock and roll on my f****** record. But I wasn't interested in that. I wasn't interested in any big star syndrome thing. You can call the record f***** up technically. You can call it a piece of s***. I call it a naked record. Naked and exposed. And I really don't feel that I have to defend it."

Copyright © Steve Lake 1976

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