american art creates space

[from interview with Andrew Masterson, The Age, January 24,1997]

"At heart, I am a Muslim,
At heart, I am an American,
At heart, I am a Muslim,
At heart, I am an American artist,
And I have no guilt... "

S0 SAID Patti Smith in 1979, intoning, hectoring, increasingly frantic over churning, angry guitars and the whooping exhortations of the crowd, in a work called "Babelogue", on her album Easter.

Her ranting continues, the words spitting and hissing from her mouth, indistinguishable at times, until, suddenly, crystal clear comes the cry "I have not sold myself to God!" and the band crashes into a classic punk anthem "Rock'nRoll Nigger", in which Smith proclaims that she, Jackson Pollock, Jesus Christ and Jimi Hendrix are "outside of society", which is, at least in her case, "where I wanna be".

All over the English-speaking world, a generation of proto-punks, proto-poets, fashionably alienated students, refugees from Top-40 trivia, musical existentialists and misfits, nodded along, imagining themselves part of this defiant Niggerdom, awed by the power, the intelligence, the sheer bloody chutzpah of the woman.

That was then. This is now, and Patti Smith, in a voice less strident but more dignified, has just said, "At heart, I am a Muslim" down the telephone. With one quiet phrase through the earpiece, a cynical journalist, proto-nothing any more, has been reduced to quivering fan, again.

"Saying that one is an American artist in America is pretty much -- perhaps, like Australia -- it's a new country, relative to other civilisations," she said. "And because it's new, and because it's built on very strong equal principles, whether or not they're always abided by, it gives one still a very pioneering landscape.

"An American doesn't have the same ... we don't have the burden and the beauty of ancient temples. We're still pretty much new territory. We're all, like, children of Jackson Pollock. Everything hasn't been revealed.

"I find it for me still a very exciting landscape to work in - also spiritually. But I still have a bent towards other civilisations. That's pretty much what other sections (of "Babelogue") meant. I said, 'At heart, I am a Muslim', or something. That was really just symbolic of appreciating the spirituality of other civilisations and their manner of prayer."

Patti Smith never really fitted into the punk ethic of the '70s, being rather too diverse in her reference points. She seemed, and still does seem, a contradictory blend of the artist and anti-artist, the punk and the poet. She seemed this, not just in her music, but also in her life. Her best friend was the controversial, but poignant and contemplative, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. She married Fred "Sonic" Smith of the Detroit band MC5, one of the most raucous, bare-bone guitarists of all time.

Her first album Horses (1975), arguably one of the finest moments in the history of rock, was produced by former Velvet Underground performer John Cale. It contains a cover of Van Morrison's "Gloria," punked up to the maximum and introduced by the singer, using the voice of the damned, with "Jesus died for somebody's sins...but not mine". She has quoted influences as diverse as Bob Dylan and Arthur Rimbaud, yet still wrote a song with Bruce Springsteen (her only real chart hit, "Because the Night", also on Easter).

Given such breadth, it's hardly surprising that her latest album, Gone Again, while suffused with a grace that befits her age, sounds every bit as considered and honest as her early work. At 50, Smith seems to have escaped the laws of diminishing returns and the increasing absurdity that often colours the careers of ageing punks. She is a poet, and, like the country in which she lives, barely getting started.

"What has America produced in the world of art?" she asks, rhetorically. "We've produced abstract expressionism, we've produced jazz, we've produced rock `n' roll. All of it is somewhat combative. All of it is filled with a certain type of energy, all of it is seeded by rebellion, or trying to open up space, create space.

"None of those things are defining. They're all things which open up. We didn't invent, you know, other forms of communication, but we did ... well ... It's one of the few things that America has: we brought to the world these forms that haven't been defined, and still exist. You can't really define Pollock, or John Coltrane, or Jimi Hendrix. They've created a space that people are still working on, reinventing, and I guess I feel proud to be of that heritage.

"I've always appreciated the work, the literature, the architecture and the spiritual output of other civilisations, but in America we also have a few things."

In the examples, the heroes she cites, there is a common human factor. There is tragedy, there is trouble. In her work and life, Smith echoes her influences. Mapplethorpe is dead now, before his time. Fred Smith is also dead, also before his time. Gone Again rings and shudders with the contemplation and memories of the dead.

And its reception, by staid and groovy critics alike, rang and shuddered with the accolades of genius. Ah, many of the critics seemed to say, so that's where Alanis Morrisette, P. J. Harvey, Courtney Love, Tori Amos and so on got it from. Charmingly, Patti Smith was surprised by it all.

"I really wasn't completely aware of it," she says. "People seem to want to make me aware of that. I find it hard to believe that I could have so much impact. It's sort of like .... it's an extreme honor. I wouldn't look at it as a burden. It is an honor and a responsibility and I'm still examining it.

"I mean, I have never been very successful, so I didn't really ... I wasn't aware of that. I would certainly think that if it's true, then it's something far more valuable and worth cherishing and developing than material or commercial success.

"I consider myself quite blessed, really. Hopefully, I can continue doing things. Even if they aren't influential, they might be helpful. I don't know if I can be of any influence at this time of my life, but I might be of some help. I believe I can be trusted. I have survived certain things, and survived where a lot of my friends, a lot of my co-workers haven't."

Patti Smith not being influential? Perish the thought, an impossibility. But, then again, I am fan. And she is an artist, an American artist. And she has not sold herself to God.

Copyright © Andrew Masterson 1997

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