inspiring the kids to dream

[from "The Resurrection of Patti Smith," by Chris Brazier, Melody Maker, March 18, 1978]
it's very hard to peg me down because my body encases a soul split and contradictory. i run, like leonardo da vinci, on many rhythms, good and evil, disciplined and maniac. i offer no excuses or explanation. i am still a physical architect. building a temple of experience. i am not dead, finished, or nearly finished. i am, like the anti-hero in resnais's muriel, still gathering information.

I can remember standing by the Wall. The guards didn't shoot above our heads, but Patti twisted in the brazen glare of the car headlamps, posing for a camera with the Wall staring blankly into the night behind her.

The conflict was clear -- what has become to the West a binding, enclosing symbol of both greyness and danger hulking over the one true queen of rock 'n' roll, the only lady who has harnessed herself to the most rebellious of rock's rhythmic spirits and spun out dancing in glory.

I was thrown back to the words of Lenny Kaye, the guitarist who has bound his fortune to Patti's ever since 1971: "Outside of society, that's where we like to create from, with somebody laying down a set of rules.

"As soon as someone sets up a rule we'll bust it up, see what's beyond. It's like this city, it's got a big rule around it, the Wall, and too often people try to put those rules into rock 'n' roll."

Patti Smith has been given a rough time by a lot of critics, spat and sneered at most by writers at this paper who utterly failed to recognise the genius in her first album, Horses, which they attacked solely on the grounds that her band was not technically able enough.

That seems ludicrous now -- Horses was visionary in its own right, but also as a precursor of the British new wave and its assertion of passion and content over form and technique, and the Patti Smith Group was far more proficient even then than many new bands turning out indisputably fine music now.

She's a vulnerable target because she plunges so uninhibitedly into "the sea of possibilities", because she'll try anything, negotiate any extreme for the sake of her own experience or art, because she's always prepared to run the risk of looking foolish.

On Horses everything came off in a spectacularly unique way; on Radio Ethiopia she made mistakes; and I was so anxious to weigh up objectively the merits of the new album, Easter, in my review, that I ended up omitting to say what a great album it is.

What right have I to hold back my acclaim from a record because it doesn't join Horses amid the ranks of my all-time top twenty albums?

Easter runs the range from beauty to beast, from Mars to Venus, and still climbs on smiling, and there will certainly be few better albums this year.

One of the most interesting things about Easter is its intimate relationship with Christianity, a striking contrast to the defiant religious iconoclasm of the first album, and when Patti allowed me one question in the dressing-room before the gig in Berlin I asked her about that.

"The myth of Christ is still exciting and stimulating to me, and whether he's a real guy or not doesn't really matter anymore. I did say 'Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine', and I still believe that.

"I wasn't saying that I didn't like Christ or didn't believe in him, just that I wanted to take the responsibility for the things I do -- I didn't want some mythical or ethical symbol taking the credit for what I do.

"When I steal, if I commit murder or adultery, whatever I do -- I believe that crime goes hand in hand with art, and I didn't want some unknown entity taking the blame or credit for anything I do.

"I like coming on the earth fresh. I mean, it's bad enough being a Smith, 'cos the word Smith means Cain, and being a true Smith it means I came on the earth marked anyway, and marked once is enough.

"Also, I'm a very Old Testament kind of person in that in the Old Testament man communicated with God directly; in the New Testament man has to communicate with God through Christ. Well, I'm a one-to-one girl and I have always sought to communicate with God through myself.

"And I feel that was one of the reasons I fell offstage."

(Patti was incapacitated for over a year after falling off a stage towards the end of '76 and breaking her neck -- this is her first proper tour since then).

"I fell during 'Ain't It Strange'. Now all this sounds like mythical bull but it is a truth -- just like the guy at Altamont got shot during 'Under My Thumb', I fell just as I was saying 'hand of God, I feel the finger'.

"And I did feel the finger push me right over. It was like, I spend so much time challenging God when I perform and in everything I do, trying to get God to answer me, trying to feel some kind of cerebral of sexual communication with God, that I feel it was his way of saying, 'you keep battering against my door and I'm gonna open that door and you'll fall in'.

"And that's how I think Hendrix died, that's what I was saying in 'Land' when Johnny felt himself disintegrating and went through the black tube -- that to me is like Hendrix who also wished to communicate with higher orders, whether evil or good, who also sought wisdom.

"And if you keep knocking on the door, the ultimate communication with God is death. Because God is an energy-force and has nothing to do with earth. God is after life, He is something that I do believe exists. He's something with which we have complete cerebral and sexual communication when we're dead.

"I do wish to communicate with God but not at the expense of my life -- I'm very into this plane of being, I like being here.

"There was a moment -- real or surreal it doesn't matter -- when I had my fall that I felt I could have gone through the black tube, I felt myself disintegrating and I didn't wanna go.

"And that's why in 'Till Victory' it says 'God do not seize me, please, till victory' because I felt like my work wasn't done. In 'Ain't It Strange' I keep calling for some kind of communication with God, but I've had a certain communication now which is in a way 'you'd better watch your step, Smith'.

"So I'm re-evaluating my state of being, I'm learning to accept a more New Testament kind of communication. So as part of that acceptance I have to re-evaluate exactly who Christ was.

"To me, the greatest thing about Christ is not necessarily Christ himself but the belief of the people that have kept him alive through the centuries -- the guy must have had powerful magnetism.

"I mean, to me, Christ, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, they're all the same. All great men. Like, in 'Poppies' it says, 'God he's just another spaceman, just another movie star'. But it's like a game -- I'm into that, but simultaneously I'm into the war manoeuvres of Alexander the Great, I'm into Popeye, I'm just not into neo-Christianity.

"Still, you can believe it or not believe it but for me I've had a moment when I had to make a choice, just as I was losing consciousness and I really felt like I was gonna die. It was a very long drop and I had time to think about it like a cartoon character.

"Did I want communication with God so intimate that I'd be dead, off the earth? It might be the greatest f*** in the world to die and be devoured by God, but right now I'd rather be a little less satisfied 'cos I really love being an earthling. But like Alexander, I'm gonna go after all the territory I can."

SHE'D been saving herself for the gig all day -- the reason I was only allowed one question beforehand was that she'd gone down with bronchitis and laryngitis and thus had to save both voice and energy for the performance.

In the morning, she's been given a vitamin shot so enormous that "it was a needle any junkie would envy" and that she could only face by thinking of William Burroughs, the most famous of junkies, and in her opinion the greatest writer of our time.

Whatever the preparation, the gig was tremendous, though it focused more on the band and the music and less on Patti and her poetry than I'd ever seen before.

Her first British concert, for instance, at the Roundhouse in the spring of '76, was full of spontaneous raps, Patti "spitting words like jewels" (as Lenny Kaye put it), and their wedding celebration with the music left me completely overwhelmed -- it rates second only to Bruce Springsteen's as the greatest gig I've ever seen.

A year later, at Hammersmith, she still rapped, but little of it seemed to come off -- here, whether by design or because of her illness, she was pretty quiet between songs, only improvising on the bridge between "Radio Ethiopia" and "Gloria."

The band is pushed further forward now, too -- Lenny takes vocals for a version of "The Kids Are Alright," and Ivan Kral for "You Really Got Me," presumably products of the year after Patti broke her neck, during which the group kept themselves in shape by playing oldies gigs.

The best moments came during "25th Floor," a well-rounded shot at "Be My Baby," the epic immediacy of "Because the Night," which must surely give them a hit single, and, inevitably, "Gloria," thought the whole gig was fine enough for the crowd to carry on chanting for 15 minutes after the lights had come on and the equipment disconnected, eventually persuading Patti to return (beaming like it was her fifth birthday) and play the quintessential "Land" as a second encore.

With its "sea of possibilities," "Land" is evidence of Patti's romanticism, which leads her to cry elsewhere "I'm in love with the fountain of pleasure/I'm in love with the infinite sea."

I believe rock 'n' roll is in spirit a direct descendant and development of Romanticism in poetry -- particularly that of Blake -- the original hippie aim to liberate the imagination by any means, chemical or sexual, was essentially romantic, as is rock 'n' roll's foundation in rebellion and aspiration, in the imaginative energy, and innocence of the young.

And, just as Patti Smith is more dedicated to the spirit of rock 'n' roll than most, so she is more clearly romantic. Apart from anything else, she has the Romantics' desire to communicate with the Infinite, with God, via her imagination and her art; yet, again like them, she is irreligious not areligious, rebelling against the conventional God and all His strictures while still believing in Him (which is why the Cain myth appeals so much to both her and the poets).

And that was what I next confronted her with, after the gig, and after she'd written the message which heads this piece on a typewriter in an abortive attempt to save her croaking voice by doing the interview that way.

"ALL ART is romantic, because if you take the romance out of art it becomes science. That's what happened to Rimbaud -- when he lost his sense of romance he tried to dedicate his life to the future of science. I'm very romantic, yes I'm proud of it."

But did you see yourself on Horses as throwing down the gauntlet in front of God, like in the Prometheus myth, or the Tower of Babel myth of which you are so fond?

"Well, not so much on Horses -- that was more of an investigation and a celebration.

"It was a tribute album, yet also our first spurt of positive anarchy -- 'Gloria' was positive anarchy, not saying Christ was an asshole but that I chose to start with a totally fresh slate, without the burden of Christianity on me.

"As far as challenging God, that's what I feel Radio Ethiopia was. I was saying, 'c'mon God, this girl's ready to f*** you.'"

At the fanzine conference (in London last week) you said you thought kids everywhere were becoming restless because of the influence of rock 'n' roll, and that in ten years or so they'd be overthrowing governments. Could you expand on that?

"It's not my job to expand on it -- after someone makes the first move it's the kids' job to expand on it, to make it snowball.

"That's one of my disappointments about the new wave. I haven't given up on it yet, I have a lot of hope in those kids, but I know a lot of them in the most popular new wave bands and all of them are getting caught up in a business game -- if they started out with integrity they must be strong and not get caught up in the mere image, the surface.

"All their managers think they're gonna make a big splash in America with another British invasion. But it's not gonna happen -- America's not the same as it was, it's not as innocent, not as trusting.

"We all opened our hearts to that invasion, to the Beatles and the Stones and to high political consciousness and drugs. We gave our energy to it and were one with it and that's why it worked.

"But now people have become very wary and it's almost like the Fifties again when an artist like Peter Frampton can sell five million records and not do one f****** thing to raise the consciousness of America, nothing.

"In the Sixties, you didn't just sell records, you had something to say. There are so many people who need our help. Like the miners in America now -- they give their energy to put warmth in our houses, give us the energy to create millions of useless objects, yet they get nothing and they're fighting now to be recognized.

"Those are the kind of things we should be speaking out about, not spending all our time running around to parties or collecting rock awards.

"Don't think that I don't like fun -- I love the image, the glamour, and the excitement of rock 'n' roll.

"I'm not against fun, but I think that we all have a certain responsibility, and if these bands really want something to happen and not to be just another fad, a hula-hoop the media created, they'd better find their solidarity instead of being jealous of each other.

"I love these kids and it really breaks my heart to see them falling into the vicious trap of corporate greed.

"I have always said since I first started that I am only here because I saw something that I believed in go through in the early Seventies a massive serious decline. I use to have nightmares about the death of rock 'n' roll.

"And when I say 'rock 'n' roll' I don't mean just a band playing songs, I mean, a universal community through sound and energy exchange and rhythm. Some kind of common understanding. The sense of being together at something we're all one in.

"It's not hippie bulls***. There is something inherent in all of us, that connects all of us. I mean, I don't believe we should have a world where everyone's going 'lalalala' and throwing roses all over the place, but I do believe that a future does exist where we're all communicating."

So you think rock 'n' roll can create a society of itself? "No, I don't have the intelligence or the scope to make that kind of statement -- all of the political statements I make are pretty romantic, and I realise that, but I do believe that rock 'n' roll is the most universal form of communication since Christianity.

"I know that very soon I'm going to be finished in rock 'n' roll but there have to be others to carry it on, and whether people like me and my records or not I have always tried to be honest and to work toward the unification fo people through rock 'n' roll.

"I mean, I don't just play guitar to 'melt into the soul' of Jimi Hendrix but to show that if a puny dumb girl from New Jersey can take this electric guitar and make it into a weapon then any kid can do it.

"I was nobody, a skinny little runt that used to hang out, a lot of people's joke but I had a dream. And my dream was not to become a star, but to help perpetuate the future of rock 'n' roll into the 21st Century.

"And when I awaken from that dream I expect to leave behind thousands of kids quietly sleeping dreaming the same dream."

She's still vulnerable -- in this interview alone she's soared into what is, for rock 'n' roll, uncharted territory. Which means she's a target again if you have to make her one. But for me now she's the high priestess.

Copyright © Chris Brazier 1978

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