Although rock and roll has never
abandoned rebel style and attitude, over the past two decades it has gradually
given up its power to inspire utopian dreams. The best of the music still
expresses important social and personal concerns. It still frees the spirit
and body from earthly woes and inhibitions. But rock and roll, as we enter the
21st century, seldom imagines a world radically beyond what is.
How stunning it is then to hear Patti
Smith’s furious declarations of love and revolution on her masterful new
album Gung Ho (Arista). Confronting sins of the American Empire,
commodity culture and greed with no frills, hard rock passion and urging her
audience “to take things into your own hands,” Smith, at the age of 53, is
resurrecting rock as a music of action and conscience.
When her debut album Horses
arrived in 1975, rock was clearly drifting from its grand ambitions of the
1960s. Popular political and cultural movements were collapsing and the
music’s greatest heroes were either dead (Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi
Hendrix) or floundering for inspiration (Bob Dylan, John Lennon, the Rolling
Stones). But with a reckless mix of garage band primitivism, torrents of
visionary verse and absolute emotional conviction, Patti Smith stalled the
rising tide of complacency.
With the audacious opening line
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” Horses launched listeners
into an electrifying and scary struggle between good and evil, life and death.
In the coming decade the album would become a beacon to punks and feminists
still holding faith in the redemptive power of raw “uncommercial” sound.
A child of postwar working class New
Jersey, Smith broke free of blue collar life in the mid-60s. At the age of 20,
dropping out of community college and leaving a newborn daughter behind for
adoption, she sat out for New York City to become a painter. Soon frustrated
with her limits on canvas, she began to find an artistic voice through words.
Emerging from the New York underground
of the early 1970s, Smith first stirred attention reading her Beat influenced
poetry to small gatherings at St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery. But like Bob
Dylan, her great early influence, she yearned to fuse language to the
accessible power of rock and roll. In 1974, with back-up support from electric
guitarist/rock critic Lenny Kaye, Smith released an inflamed autobiographical
rant, “Piss Factory,” as an independent label single. By the following
year, she had formed the Patti Smith Group and gained a substantial following
playing clubs like the punk rock landmark CBGB.
Against a backdrop of riotous guitar
riffing, Smith prowled the stage like a possessed, androgynous shaman, pouring
forth intensely personal, partially improvised recitations risking erotic
fantasies, primal wounds and glorious blasphemy. Rock and roll, made by a
woman, had never been so frenzied and extreme before.
Although harnessed and polished by
producer John Cale (formerly of the Velvet Underground), Horses managed
to capture the stark and passionate glory of the Patti Smith Group in its
prime. The 1976 follow-up, Radio Ethiopia, had its moments, but a more
mainstream sound and unfocused experimentation diluted the band’s urgency.
On 1978′s Easter, Smith found a more cohesive sound yielding
exhilarating anthems such as “Space Monkey” and “Till Victory,” and a
hit single collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, “Because The Night.” But
only a year later, following the release of the disappointing Wave,
Smith retired from the music world; married ex-MC 5 guitarist Fred “Sonic”
Smith and settled down in suburban Detroit to raise two children. Over the
next sixteen years, there would be few public appearances and only one
album–1988′s quietly released, mostly uninspiring Dream Of Life.
Despite her public absence and erratic
creative output, Smith’s artistic stature continued to rise in the 80s and
90s. On the basis of the enduring power of Horses and a few triumphs
scattered through her other work, she gradually attained iconic status among
two generations of alternative rockers. And, improbable as it may be, since
returning to recording and performing in 1995, Patti Smith is making some of
the most consistently inspired music of her life.
Following the deaths of her husband,
brother and friends Allen Ginsberg and Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith recorded Gone
Again, a gripping collection of mortality themed, folk rock arranged songs
reflecting her losses and grief. In 1997, Peace And Noise extended the
exploration of life’s impermanence, but this time adding more electric
settings and socially charged tunes decrying the American role in Viet Nam and
Chinese repression in Tibet. Now with Gung Ho, she makes a full blown
comeback to rock and roll and unbridled rebel rousing.
The strength of Smith’s appeal has
always derived from her ability to unleash striking imagery while exorcising
her fiercest desires. Her ambitions are grand. Commenting on the motivations
behind her work in a 1976 interview, she explained, “I’m trying to figure
out what happened in the Sixties. I’m working on a link–to keep it
going.” A quarter of a century later, she still aims to reveal and redeem
life’s most profound possibilities.
Given the times, and despite her
recent renaissance, it’s a surprise to hear Smith so infused with idealism
and call-to-arms bravado. But on Gung Ho, more than on any album of a
her career, Smith seems intent on rallying resistance to fundamentally alter
the dominant order. From the loving unity vision of the album opener “One
Voice” to the closing plea of the title track (“Give me one more turn/ One
more turn of the wheel/ One more revolution”), Smith serves up anthems,
protests, history, myth and harangue in a relentless effort to stir the
In service of the message, producer
Gil Norton, best known for work with the Pixies, gives Smith’s veteran band
a crackling resonance. Restraining solos and all out bashing, song
arrangements concentrate mostly on weaving clean, spacious atmospheres suited
to Smith’s free-styled phrasing. Yet as the occasion demands, the guitars of
Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray surge with snarling precision.
The album does offer some quieter
moments. On the delicate “China Bird,” the countrified “Libby’s
Song,” and the acoustic ballad “Grateful” (a tribute to Jerry Garcia),
Smith again evokes the pain of loved ones passing. But the bulk of Gung Ho
is fueled by other emotions.
In the growling tirade against the
market economy, “Glitter In Their Eyes,” Smith snaps sarcastic lines
(“They’ll trade you up/ They’ll trade you down/ Your body a commodity/
Our sacred stage/ Has been defaced/ Replaced to grace/ The marketplace”)
that clearly reside beyond the ideological frame of CNN. And later on “New
Party,” when she spews a venomous retort to a rosy report on the state of
the union (“Why don’t you fertilize my lawn with what’s running from
your mouth?”), there is no doubt she is inviting listeners to share in her
contempt for official truth.
Smith’s most riveting challenges,
however, come on pieces that allow more room for drama and improvisation. On
the slow pulsing, eight minute long “Strange Messengers,” Smith bides her
time etching the bitter landscape of African-American slavery:
I looked upon the book of life Tracing the lines of face after face
Looking down at their naked feet Bound in chains bound in chains Chains of
Leather chains of gold Men knew it was wrong but they looked away And paraded
them down the colonial streets
But as the singer hears the ghosts of
slaves calling out for recognition of humanity and suffering, emotions rise
with explosive fury. Finally, choking on rage and horror, Smith exits howling
“We will be heard, we will be heard.”
Less harrowing, but equally
provocative, is Smith’s nearly twelve minute rumination on Ho Chi Minh.
Against a chugging drone of guitars and drums and the hypnotic swirl of
helicopters, “Gung Ho” unfolds the life of a man and a revolution from the
perspective of the oppressed. Methodically recounting the toil, hunger and
injustice seeding discontent, Smith pushes listeners to recognize a common
humanity. Yet as she repeats and lingers over the line “Nothing was more
beautiful than Viet Nam,” she also leaves behind a defiant reminder of
American arrogance and damage done. Z