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Patti Smith: Save This Rock and Roll Hero

Although it’s easy enough to get a contrary impression from one of her triumphant New York appearances, Patti Smith is in trouble. She’s caught in a classic double bind — accused of selling out by her former allies and of not selling by her new ones. Maybe she’s just too famous for her own good. Habitues or the poetry vanguard that provided her initial panache, many or whom mistake her proud press and modest sales for genuine stardom, are sometimes envious and often disdainful of her renown as a poet, since she is not devoted to the craft of poetry and they are. Music-biz pros both in and out or her record company, aware that her second album, Radio Ethiopia, is already bulleting down the charts, are reminded once again that print exposure is the least reliable of promotional tools in an aural medium, not least because the press can be fickle. Somewhere in between are the journalists and critics, who count as former allies and new allies simultaneously, and who can now be heard making either charge, or both.

Cut to Patti Smith on her first gig in the Bottom Line, last December, wearing a T-shirt that says CULT FIGURE. It’s possible to accuse Patti of taking herself too seriously, but you can’t say she doesn’t have a sense of humor about it. She knows that her audience — “my kids,” she calls them, more maternal than you’d figure — has the earmarks of a cult. And she knows that her band can be described as a critics’ band. Patti herself has been a practitioner of rock criticism — “rock writin’,” as she calls it, always having preferred celebration to analysis and analysis to cen­sure — and her first guitarist and lead mentor, Lenny Kaye, made his living that way until less than two years ago. She’s always had critic fans, and these fans have spread the news, so that by now Patti has probably inspired more printed words per record sold than any charted artist in the history of the music — except maybe Dylan or the Stones. Two of her critic fans, Stephen Holden and John Rockwell, even spurred her commercial good fortune. Holden, then working in a&r, tried to sign her in 1974, but before RCA could be persuaded to come up with the few requisite bucks, Clive Davis waded in waving much bigger bucks. This was shortly after Rockwell’s report on Holden’s activities in the Times, which Davis insists had nothing to do with his own timing.

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Although Patti was personally acquainted with more than a few critics, the nationwide journalistic excitement she initially aroused went far beyond cliquishness. Like Bruce Springsteen, she answered a felt need. Nineteen seventy-five was an especially lousy time for up-and-com­ing rock and rollers, at least in the opinion of those who make copy out of them. The insistence of the record companies, booking agencies, and concert promoters on professionalism seemed to have produced a subculture of would-be studio musicians who were willing to apprentice as touring pros just to build up a bankroll and establish themselves in a growing industry. Patti wasn’t like that. She recalled a time when rock and roll was so conducive to mythic fantasies that pretentiousness constituted a threat. Patti had her pretentious side, everybody knew that, but in her it seemed an endearing promise that she would actually attempt something new. Moreover, she had earned her pretensions: what other rock and roller had ever published even one book of poetry without benefit of best-selling LP? Nor was it only critics who felt this way. A rock audience that includes six million purchasers of Frampton Comes Alive!, spins off dissidents by the hundreds of thousands, many of whom are known to read. People were turned on by Patti Smith before they’d seen or heard her. Even in New York, the faithful who had packed into CBGB’s for her shows were only a small fraction of her would-be fans, and elsewhere she was the stuff of dreams.

The problem with this kind of support is that it is soft — it’s not enthusiasm, merely a suspension of the disbelief with which any savvy rock fan must regard the unknown artist. In Patti’s case this openness lasted even after her first album, Horses, came out in October 1975. Patti has always attracted a smattering of sensitive types who are so intrigued by the word “poet” that they pay no heed to its customary modifier, “street”; these poor souls will attend one show and leave early, wincing at the noise. But they don’t count — it’s the informed fence sitters Patti could use. There’s no way to know how many of the almost 200,000 adventurous rock fans who purchased Horses feel equivocal about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if half of them balanced the unusual lyrics, audacious segues, and simple yet effective vocals and melodies against what is admittedly some very crude-sounding musicianship. These were people who wouldn’t rule out the next LP — a genuine rock poet deserves patience, after all — but wouldn’t rush out for it, either. For although Patti is a genuine rock poet, what she does — her art, let’s call it — is not calculated to appeal to those attracted by such a notion.

Patti is actually far from the first published poet to have turned to popular music in the rock era, and contrast with some of the others will be instructive. Recall with pleasure Leonard Cohen, who for almost a decade has been singing his verses in an all-but-tuneless yet seductive monotone to pop-folk cum European-cabaret backing, or Gil Scott­-Heron, who declaims both poetry and songs over soul-jazz polyrhythms. Apprehend briefly and then banish from your mind Rod Taylor a/k/a Roderick Falconer, who in both his Sensitive and Fascist-cum-Futurist incarnations has attempted to sell his rhymes with the most competent rock musician Los Angeles could afford. Or consider, if you will, Rod McKuen and his numerous strings.

Now let me name three more poet-singers, all of them considerably closer in spirit to Patti Smith — David Meltzer, who is quite obscure, and Ed Sanders and Lou Reed, who are not. All three are distinguished by a salient interest in those innovations of voice and prosody that occupy dedicated poets as opposed to versifiers good or bad; moreover, their alliances are vanguard as opposed to academic. Meltzer, who recorded one mordant, playfully mystagogic LP out of flower-power San Francisco with his group, the Serpent Power, can be found in Donald M. Allen’s seminal Grove anthology, The New American Poetry; Sanders, the versatile avant-gardist who was the focus of the Fugs (a group that featured occasional early performances by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso as well as the permanent contributions of Tuli Kupferberg), was included by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro in Random House’s An Anthology of New York Poets; and Reed, who (unlike Jim Morrison) had appeared in little magazines before rock-legend status made publication a sure thing, has been in Anne Waldman’s Another World anthology. None of them is a major figure in these contexts, although Sanders is certainly very talented. But all of them craft poetry of a very different order of sophistication from Leonard Cohen’s melancholy anapests or Gil Scott-Heron’s Afroprop, however much one may value listening to either.

The instrumental styles over which the first poets I named presided, although as disparate in both content and some quality as their words, share a committed professionalism. Each is molded to the preconceptions of a well-imagined audience, and each in its own way is smooth and predictable, proper accompaniment for the verbal “mes­sage.” In contrast, the music of the avant-gardists strikingly amateurish, with all three bands using what might be described as found drummers — poet Clark Coolidge in the Serpent Power, general-purpose bohemian Ken Weaver in the Fugs, and friend-0f-a-friend fill-in Maureen Tucker in the Velvets. Yet the Fugs never got their rock and roll together because they were satirists, not because they couldn’t play, while the gentle anarchy of the Serpent Power now sounds coherently conceived, almost a folk-rock version of the ominous minimalism that the Velvets created out of their own limitations.

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Like the Fugs and the Serpent Power, the Velvets never hit very big, although like the Fugs they did sell a fair number of albums on sheer notoriety. Yet it seems undeniable to me that they were one of the five great American rock groups of the ’60s. Like Question Mark & the Mysterians and the Dave Clark Five, the Velvets were minimal first of all because their expertise as instrumen­talists was minimal, but their acquaintance with avant-garde ideas — not only Andy Warhol’s aesthetics of opportunism but, for instance, the trance music of La Monte Young, with which John Cale, trained classical musician and amateur rock and roller, was quite familiar — meant they could turn their disabilities to artistic advantage. They created a deadpan, demotic, jaded, oddly sensationalistic music that was primitive both harmonically and rhythmically and all but devoid of flourishes. They were always hard-edged and usually quick, never slow and heavy at the same time. This was music that worked with Reed’s words, not behind them; the two united were the group’s “message.” Eventually it inspired a whole style of minimal American rock, a style that rejects sentimental­ity while embracing a rather thrilling visceral excitement. Patti Smith, a vanguard-allied poet who also appears in Anne Waldman’s anthologies, performs directly and consciously in this tradition.

Because the minimal style is simple — if not in the conception, then at least on the surface that results — the people who play it get hurt when it doesn’t achieve instantaneous popularity. But it’s hardly good old rock and roll. In the era of the Dave Clark Five, a similarly impoverished music sold well, but it sold on a bright, calculated cuteness that the Stooges and the Dolls and even the Ramones have never come near. And unlike the heavy metal kids who are their closest relatives today, minimal groups have always eschewed self-pity and phony melo­drama. They evoke factories, subways, perhaps war­fare — all the essential brutalities of a mechanized exis­tence — in a sharp rather than self-important way; they provide none of the comfort of a staged confrontation in which a proxy teenager, arrayed in the garb and mien of a technocratic immortal, triumphs over his amplifiers. Minimal rock is too narrow to be comforting; it frightens people.

I trust it is obvious that I don’t mean to define “minimal” as strictly as an avant-garde composer like La Monte Young or Philip Corner might, but rather in the traditional sense of “less is more.” In this case, the maxim implies simplicity in an urban context and irony through understatement, all with populist overtones. Good old it’s not, but, though the melodies be spare, the rhythms metro­nomic, the chords repetitive, at its most severe this is still rock and roll, a popular form that is broadly accessible by the standards of a SoHo loft concert. Even those groups that further reduce the Velvets’ ideas — the Ramones, for instance — also tend to soften their cerebral sting, most often with pop touches from the ’60s. One reason Horses, produced by John Cale, was so well received critically­ — and sold so much better than critics’ albums like the first Dolls or Ramones LPs — was that it managed to meld the pop notes with both basic instrumentation (the back-up singing on “Redondo Beach”) and poetic fancies (the revelatory transition from Johnny’s horses to “Land of a Thousand Dances,” or from the sweet young thing humping the parking meter to “Gloria”). But Patti’s and Lenny Kaye’s public pronouncements on rock and roll have always indicated that something rather different was also to be expected.

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Sure Patti and Lenny love mid-’60s pop-rock. Patti’s fondness for both Smokey Robinson and Keith Richard is well documented; Lenny’s credits as a record producer include Boston’s poppish Sidewinders and Nuggets, the recently reissued (on Sire) singles compendium that defines the original punk rock of a decade ago at its most anonymous and unabashed. But Lenny also christened heavy-metal music and has been known to say kind things about abstract shit all the way from Led Zeppelin to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, while Patti’s rock writin’ included paeans to Edgar Winter as well as the Stones. Moreover, both have always been enamored of unpunkishly hippie­-sounding notions about rock culture and the rock hero. Patti sometimes seems to prefer Jim Morrison to Bob Dylan and obviously relates to Keith Richard more as someone to look at than someone to listen for — as does Lenny, which is doubly dangerous. It is out of all these buts that Radio Ethiopia — which by comparison to Horses is ponderous, postliterate anarchically communal — proceeds.

Unlike almost all of my colleagues, whose reactions have ranged from liberated hostility to bitter dismay to affectionate tolerance, I am an active fan of Patti’s second album. It’s unfortunate that its one bad cut is its title cut and lasts 11 minutes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I reached a place where I even liked that one. I’ve already gotten there with “Poppies” and “Pissing in a River,” two cuts I originally considered dubious, as I did long ago with some of the more pretentious stuff on Horses. If by bringing in producer Jack Douglas Patti intended to make an Aerosmith record, as some have suggested, then her intentions are irrelevant, as artists’ intentions so often are. Personally, I believe Patti’s smarter than that. She knows the Patti Smith Group (as she now bills herself) isn’t good enough to make an Aerosmith record, and she also knows it’s quite capable of something better. It’s priggish if not stupid to complain that Radio Ethiopia‘s “four chords are not well played” (to quote one reviewer). If they were executed with the precise finesse of an Aerosmith, or a Black Sabbath, or a Chicago blues band, then they would not be well played.

For although there is no such thing as an unkempt heavy metal record — technocratic assurance, control over the amplifiers, is the soul of such music — unkempt rock and roll records have been helping people feel alive for 20 years. When it works, Radio Ethiopia delivers the charge of heavy metal without the depressing predictability; its riff power — based on great ready-made riffs, too — has the human frailty of a band that is still learning to play. “Don’t expect me to be perfect,” Patti warned her full-house cult at the Palladium New Year’s Eve in between her final skirmishes with the sound system. “You never know what our show’s gonna be. But what it will be, even if it’s fucked up” — and she fucked up herself, momentarily, pausing vacantly as she tried to figure out just what to say next — “it’ll be all we got.”

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It went against habit for me to go see Patti that night: I almost never attend concerts when I’m sick, I almost never smoke dope anymore, and I’m superstitious about spending New Year’s Eve in the company of strangers. Nevertheless, there I was at the best concert of the year, nursing a bad cold and a pleasant high and engulfed by Patti’s “kids,” who looked to average out to college age, juniors and seniors rather than freshmen and sophomores. The crowd wasn’t as loose as it might have been, but I liked its mix — a few arty types among the kind of intelligent rock and rollers who almost never come out in force anymore, a sprinkling of gay women among the hetero couples. When Patti came on, these sophisticates rushed the stage like Kiss fans, and eventually two women took off their tops and had to be dissuaded physically from dancing on-stage. I hadn’t seen the like since a Kinks concert in 1973 or so, when such hijinks already were blasts from the past, and the climax was better, the true “My Generation.” It began with Patti wrestling a guitar away from her female roadie, Andi Ostrowe, and ended with Patti — joined, eventually, by Ivan Kral — performing the legendary guitar-smashing ritual that the Who had given up by 1969 or so.

And that was only the ending. Because I’d never seen Patti’s opening acts — Television (ex-lover) and John Cale (ex-producer) — out of a club setting, I assumed they’d have trouble projecting to a big audience, but in fact, the Palladium seemed to theatricalize them. John Cale filled the whole hall with the same set I’d seen him premier at CBGB’s less than two weeks before, not because his band was tighter, although it was, but because his obsessive riffs and yowls assumed dimensions unrealizable in a Bowery bar. And the transformation of Tom Verlaine into Tomi Hendrix is so near completion that the always indecipherable lyrics are now totally subsidiary to the band’s ever denser and keener instrumental work. Both acts indulged in basic arena showmanship moves. In fact, it occurred to me during Billy Ficca’s drum solo and Verlaine’s understated yet inevitably show-offy unaccompanied guitar finale — both of which were boring, naturally — and then again during one of Cale’s showier screaming sessions that if these acts were to open for, let us say, Aerosmith in Louisville, Kentucky, they’d definitely pick up fans. The kids, unable to articulate what was off about them — Cale’s jowls? Verlaine’s wobbly voice? their plan clothes? — would eventually succumb to talent.

Granted, this might have been the dope fantasy of a New York rock critic. But more likely it says something about what can happen to minimal rock — namely increase. Two years ago, Television was an affectless song band of barely discernible instrumental attainments, but Verlaine was always a talented guitarist in there somewhere, and he has evolved into a whiz as rapidly as his band has learned how to rave up. Similarly, Cale is by now a veteran rock multi-instrumentalist, minimal mostly by historical asso­ciation. Both retain the dry, oblique edge of an approach that loses a certain formal interest as it gains in virtuosity, but they may really be ready to go out there; perhaps they will comfort and frighten the heartland with a little more intelligence than has been customary.

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The Patti Smith Group is ready to go out there as well, of course — but they insist on their own terms. When Patti first sought a label two years ago, her monetary ambitions were modest, but she demanded an absolute creative autonomy that new artists almost never get — or even seem to care about — anymore. (The much-bruited $750,000 guarantee, which includes promotional outlay and picked-up options, came almost by accident al the end, I am told, when a hotshot lawyer entered the game.) This unfashion­ably ’60s-ish quirk has meant, for instance, that Patti has run her own ad campaigns; she herself came up with the wonderful line, “3 chord rock merged with the power of the word.” It has also meant that she exercises a producer’s control over her records, no matter who she calls in to advise her. The title cut on Radio Ethiopia, a white-noise ­extravaganza in which Patti yowls incomprehensibly and plays a guitar at Lenny Kaye, who yowls incomprehensibly on his guitar, really isn’t Jack Douglas’s kind of thing.

Actually, I’m a sucker for the idea I perceive in “Radio Ethiopia,” a rock version of the communal amateur avant-gardism encouraged by the likes of jazzman Marion Brown. And it works acceptably on stage, where Lenny’s sheer delight in his own presence gets him and the band through a lot of questionable music. But I’ve never found Marion Brown at all listenable, and l guess I’d rather see the “Radio Ethiopia” idea than play it on my stereo. The same does not go, however, for the other dubious artistic freedom on the LP, the swear words.

Due to what I’ll assume is the merest chance, language was never an issue on Horses, despite its less than oblique references to ass-fucking and the dread parking-meter fetish. But the problem did arise soon enough on the unairable Jive 45 version of “My Generation” (the B side of “Gloria,” it includes the line ‘We don’t want this fucking shit”), and has become almost an obsession of Patti’s with Radio Ethiopia‘s “Pissing in a River.” Mike Klenfner, the “promotion and special projects” veep at Arista who has made Patti a special project indeed, tried to convince her to title it “In the River” and shuffle the words into something like (really) “sipping in a river,” but Patti was adamant. It’s almost as if her accommodations to radio on this LP, for that is how she understands its heavy tendencies, had to be balanced by a blow for free speech, although I seem to recall her protesting about whether “the people” own the radio stations at her moderately disastrous Avery Fisher Hall gig last Match. By that time she was in trouble with WBCN. the key FM station in the key (for Patti) Boston market, after sprinkling a non-bleepable interview with fucks and shits. More recently, Patti willfully tossed a fuck into — of all places — a Harry Chapin Hungerthon on WNEW-FN, and since then has been in trouble there as well, although how officially or pervasively remains in dispute. At the Palladium, we all recieved a flier offering Patti’s side of the story. Its theme: “We Want The Radio And We Want It Now.” Perfect.

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This crusade is clearly an instance of the People’s Park fallacy, in which one’s allies — the members of one’s cult — are confused with “the people.” The people are different from you and me, Patti — there’s more of ’em. Broad-based rock-and-roll alliances (Peter Frampton’s, say) have rarely been of much use for anything as practical as a crusade anyway, but I’m willing (even eager) to suspend my disbelief about that. The larger question is whether Patti can gather such an alliance. She appears to have the makings in New York, but not nationwide; in some former strongholds (San Francisco, for instance) she’s slipping. I think this is primarily because her music is harder to digest than she is prepared to admit; insofar as she can be said to be censored, it is because program directors now regard her as more trouble than she’s worth and are faced with no public outcry to the contrary.

And yet wouldn’t it be wonderful if she stuck at it and won? The swear-words-on-the-radio issue is admittedly not as important as Patti thinks it is, but it’s not “boring” or “trivial” either. The airwaves really ought to belong to “the people,” and the vast preponderance of “the people” who listen to FM stations like WNEW or WBCN would clearly welcome or at least tolerate a degree of linguistic freedom that the FCC, the owners, and the advertisers, all committed to the status quo and least-common-denominator inoffensiveness, now make impossible. To pretend that this bucket in the ocean of our cultural impotence is boring or trivial is to construct one more defense against the challenge that Patti throws down before us all. She dares us not to settle into our lives. She dares us to keep trying for what we want as well as what we need.

Patti’s unawareness that this is not a propitious time to launch such a challenge is of course typical of the trouble she’s in. This is not someone who is long on analysis. She is a utopian romantic whose socioeconomic understanding is so simplistic that she can tell a Hungerthon that rock-and-­roll power will feed Ethiopia (which is probably the main reason she has WNEW pissed off, by the way); she is an autonomous woman with such shameless male identifica­tions that she can cast herself cheerfully as a rapist in one poem and begin another: “female. feel male. Ever since I felt the need to/choose I’d choose male.” Clearly, her line is not calculated to appeal to the politicos and radical feminists who actually live up to her challenge; it can also be counted on to turn off most intelligent, settled adults, by which I mean people pushing Patti’s age — 30. But Patti won’t miss those uptights — she wants kids. Her sense of humanity’s potential is expressed most often in the dreamscape images of heavy rock: sex-and-violence, drugs, apocalypse, space travel. She theorizes that rock and roll is “the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel).” She believes that the “neo-artist” is “the nigger of the universe.” In short, she would appear to be full of shit.

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Well, so did Rimbaud, who, while no longer dominating Patti’s cosmology, continues to exemplify her artist hero, theoretical inadequacies and all. I say artist hero, not artist, to avoid the absurdity of comparing poetry, but Patti’s poetry itself is a place to begin. Both rock critics and poets have been known to put it down. Observers of the world of poetry inform me that some of this censure can be attributed to envy, and I suspect the same of the rock critics. In any case, as a reader who reveres Whitman, Yeats, and Williams and whose tastes in contemporary poetry — at those rare times when he has wanted to read it — have run to Creeley, Wieners, Padgett, Denby, I’ve found most of Patti’s published work likable and some of it remarkable; one poem — “judith,” in Seventh Heaven — strikes me as, well, a great poem, and one great poem is a lot. Still, I’ll go along with the poet who told me he liked her wit and quickness but found her work unfinished. Patti reports that she works hard, tediously hard, on most of what she writes. But if it didn’t seem unfinished at the end, like her rock and roll, then it wouldn’t do what she clearly wants it to do.

In her search for a “universal form of expression,” Patti rejects the whole idea of the avant-garde. She will talk about the way Bobby Neuwirth and Eric Andersen encouraged her to write but never mention Frank O’Hara, who others cite as a major influence on her. Obviously, she doesn’t want to be associated with the avant garde’s limitations. But this in itself is a kind of vanguard position that places her firmly where she belongs — in the camp of anarchists like Jarry or Tzara, as opposed to the unofficial academy of formalists like Gide or Mondrian. Avant-garde anarchists have always been especially fascinated by popular imagery and energy, which they have attempted to harness to both satirical and insurrectionary ends. Patti simply runs as far as she can with the insurrectionary possibility: Her attempt to utilize the popular form authentically is her version of the formal adventurousness which animates all artistic change.

Can I possibly believe that this deliberately barbaric sometime poet and her glorified garage band are worthy of comparison with Rimbaud, Jarry, Tzara, Gide, Mondrian? The short version of my answer is yes. The long version must begin with a reminder that Jarry and Tzara are obviously more relevant than Gide and Mondrian before returning inexorably to Rimbaud. One poet I spoke to posited rather icily that Patti reads Rimbaud in transla­tion. This is more or less the case — but it is also one appropriate way to get to the whole of what Rimbaud created, whether monists of the work of art like it or not. For although her verse may strive (with fair success) for a certain unrefined alchimie du verbe, it is Rimbaud the historical celebrity Patti Smith emulates — the hooligan voyant, the artist as troublemaker. Even the formal similarities — such as Patti’s exploitation of the cruder usages of rock and roll, which disturb elitists much as Rimbaud’s youthful vulgarisms did — are in this mold. For if Patti is clearly not the artist Rimbaud was, she can compete with him as an art hero, at least in contemporary terms. Rimbaud, after all, would appear to have quit poetry not to make up for his season in hell but simply because he couldn’t find an audience in his own time. So far, that has not been a problem for Patti.

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Of course, one understands that even the most attractive art-hero/celebrity must actually produce some art, lest she be mistaken for Zsa Zsa Gabor, and that it is appropriate to scrutinize this art critically. Well, here is one critic who values it highly. Settled, analytic adult that I am, I don’t have much use for its ideational “message,” for the specific shamanisms it espouses — astral projection, Rastafarianism, whatever. But I’m not so settled that I altogether disbelieve in magic — the magic power of words or the mysterious authority of an assembly of nominally unconnected human beings — and I find that at pivotal moments Patti quickens such magic for me.

The secret of her method is her unpredictability. To a degree this is assured by the very ordinary technical accomplishments of her musicians, but even her intermit­tent reliance on shtick and intermittently disastrous tendency to dip into onstage fallow periods help it along by rendering those moments of uncanny inspiration all the more vivid and unmistakable. Actually, her comedic gift is so metaphysical, so protean, that sometimes her musings and one-liners, or even her physical attitudes as she sings, will end up meaning more than whatever big-beat epi­phanies she achieves. But when she’s at her best, the jokes become part of the mix, adding an essential note of real-world irony to the otherworldly possibility. “In addi­tion to all the astral stuff,” she boasts, “I’d do anything for a laugh.” Thus she is forever set apart from the foolish run of rock shaman-politicians, especially Jim Morrison.

Discount Morrison, assign Jimi Hendrix’s musical magic to another category, and declare Patti Smith the first credible rock shaman, the one intelligent hold­out/throwback in a music whose mystics all pretend to have IQs around 90. Because spontaneity is part of the way she conjures, she is essentially a live artist, but through the miracle of phonographic recording conveys a worthy facsimile of what she does in permanent, easy-to-distribute form. I don’t equate these records with Rimbaud’s poetry or Gide’s fiction or Mondrian’s paintings, although without benefit of historical perspective I certainly do value them as much as I do the works of Jarry or Tzara, both of whom survive more as outrageous artistic personages, historical celebrities, than as creators of works of art. Since popular outreach is Patti’s formal adventure, I might value what she does even more if I thought she could be more than a cult figure — and retain her authenticity, which is of course a much more difficult problem. But in a world where cult members can number half a million and mass alliances must be five or 10 times that big, I don’t. If you like, you can believe that her formal failure reflects her incomptence. I think it reflects her ambition, the hard-to-digest ugliness and self-contradiction of what she tries to do.

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Now Patti must live with that shortfall, aim for her half million or 350,000 as if they were worth all her will, and go on. Clearly she’s determined to survive. She works hard; she’s committed to touring although it wears her out; she tries to be punctual and cooperative, with obvious limits on the latter. Significantly, especially for those of us who used to root for the New York Dolls, she seems to have her record company solidly behind her. Bless Clive Davis’s pretensions and hope that the two of them together can play Patti’s long tether out to the end and then cut it cleanly. Patti talks in terms of five years or maybe less. As a retired rock cult figure she’d make a great Zsa Zsa Gabor, only with real books. I can just hear the savants of 1982 dismissing her writing and undervaluing her shtick. But me and the rest of her Cult, we’ll just turn on the tube and get zapped.


The Return of Patti Smith

Because the Night: Patti Smith Joins Family and Friends in Central Park
August 1, 1995

Patti Smith folds the air. Onstage at Toronto’s Phoenix nightclub July 5, fronting a band for the first time in 16 years, the woman who brought a shamanistic force to punk’s tattered style is in an ex­pressive trance. She seems un­conscious of her elegant, long-­boned fingers as they flutter before her, or as she crosses her arms over her chest and rests her hands on her shoulders, anchoring body to earth. Singing a new song, “About a Boy,” about Kurt Cobain, she shuts her eyes as if calling up an image, then raises her sight to the heavens to follow its ascent.

Suddenly Smith – her Modigliani features more sculpted, not damaged, by age — returns to the moment with an almost angry jerk, as if she’s grown tired of trying to com­municate with people who are gone. She sings goodbye to the “golden-haired boy,” then releases herself into the familiar strains of “Dancing Barefoot,” her last hit with the Patti Smith Group. Hiking her loose, faded jeans up into her fists as if she were lifting a skirt to do-si-do, she enters the song’s aban­don with idiosyncratic grace, shimmying, shaking her ass at the audience to the words: “Some strange music draws me in, makes me come on, like some heroine.” Chanting the line “Oh God I fell for you,” she suddenly changes it to, “Oh God I’m back again” and looks dazedly out at the club — her face mir­roring the crowd’s disbelief and joy.

Patti Smith is back: playing rock ‘n’ roll, recording an album, publishing books, and preparing for a night of poems and songs Thursday, July 27, at SummerStage in Cen­tral Park. A semirecluse since 1979, when she abandoned her New York rocker life to raise a family in a Detroit suburb, Smith faces a decade and a half’s accumulation of fans’ de­layed but not diminished expectations. Judg­ing by overheard comments and the crowd’s mostly youthful appearance, most of the Toronto concertgoers (myself included) were hearing live for the first time songs we had memorized during repeated listenings to al­bums worn full of pops and crackles. And since much of the impetus and focus of Smith’s new work involves her testimony as a witness to death, it’s perhaps understand­able that her return has been described not as the comeback of some bygone idol but as a resurrection.

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Cobain — Smith never met him, but loves his music — is one of several men taken by death at an early age whom the 48-year-old artist is grieving. In the last six years she’s lost her best friend, Robert Mapplethorpe; her keyboardist, Richard Sohl; and — the double blow of late 1994 — her husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, and her brother Todd. These specters float over Smith’s shoulder, weaving into her conver­sation even though she’s decided not to talk about them, as if she were their oracle. “I’ve always liked collaborating with friends,” she said in a rare interview, explaining why she has set up her SummerStage appearance as a reunion of family and comrades. “And I’ve lost so many of them.”

In person, Smith seems tender and deli­cate, but also fierce. She’s thin as ever and dressed in clothes gauzy enough to see through — revealing the solid flesh beneath. Meeting her at the rehearsal studio, I get care­ful, protective vibes from her band; having gotten her back, we’re all afraid to move too quickly and startle her off. The first time I heard her voice over the phone, I was sur­prised how small and timid it sounded. Now I think Smith’s is the restrained humility of someone who knows her own power.

She’s polite but firm about the scope of our interview. This is a transitional time for her, as she eases herself back into the spotlight, and we have a transitional talk: Nothing about the deaths, the family (she has two chil­dren from her marriage with Fred: Jackson, 13, and Jesse, 8), or even her new material. We talk exactly the allotted hour. Mostly, Smith wants to tell me about her gig at Cen­tral Park. We also discuss the Toronto shows (she did two in one night; I saw the second) and Patricia Morrisroe’s recently published biography of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Looking haggard but translucent, her long black hair streaked with gray and twisted in­to a few braids, Smith sits next to me at the dining-room table of the grand West Village townhouse some powerful music-industry friends have loaned her for the summer. She has a severe case of wandering eye that can make it hard to know if she’s looking at you, through you, or beyond. It’s an ironic mystical mark: Patti Smith has always been a visionary.

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Smith’s renewal actually began two years ago, when she read at Summer­Stage on a steamy July night — her first public reading since the 1979. Un­aware of how sorely she’d been missed over the years, she had worried that no one would come; instead, the concert area overflowed. “It was one of the happiest nights of my life,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how great those people were. The whole at­mosphere — not just the audience, but I had my brother there, and Fred was there, and so I have really happy memories of it.” Smith seemed regal and maternal that evening, wor­rying about a baby who cried in the torrid heat and embarrassed to read some of her older, more sex-and-drugs-and-rock ‘n’ roll poems. The night had a magical aura; at one point Smith looked out over the mass of peo­ple and remarked that she felt like she could step off the stage and float above us.

Smith has again chosen Central Park as the site of her return to performing in New York. “I have a sense in going back there — there’s a certain sadness. But it’s a festive week,” she says, citing various birthdays and anniver­saries. The “family night,” as Smith calls it, will open with a reading by Janet Hamill, whose luminous meditations on Giorgio di Chirico’s paintings were published in a 1992 book called Nostalgia of the Infinite. She and Smith have been friends since they were stu­dents at Glassboro State College in south Jer­sey; they met when the impoverished Smith used to grab unfinished food off Hamill’s tray at the dorm cafeteria. Smith will then read her own poems and sing a few songs ac­companied by Lenny Kaye, her original col­laborator in the Patti Smith Group, and her youngest sister, Kimberly, a musician from Richmond, Virginia. “That’s the thing I’m most excited about, because I’m going to see her play a big area,” Smith says with familial pride. She mentions only one song she plans to perform: Two summers ago, she forgot the words as she recited “People Have the Power,” the populist anthem she and Fred wrote that should have been the ’80s sequel to “Imagine.” Smith figures she’ll have to play it early in the show, while her memory’s still fresh.

Don’t, however, expect a greatest-hits re­vue. This is not time slipping backward, but time, having stopped, starting again. Smith has been writing new songs and is in town recording her first album since 1988’s Dream of Life. In Toronto she performed with cy­clonic energy, as if her rest had fueled her fire — teasing the audience, cracking jokes, rolling on the floor, rubbing her crotch (with casual horniness rather than ball-grabbing machismo), and transfixing the crowd with poetry. Her singing was a revelation: Still raspy as a raven’s caw, her vocals had a strength and depth not heard on record. “My voice might be better,” she admits. “I don’t know why. Sometimes I think Fred’s with me — I mean, I always think Fred’s with me — but sometimes, I think my singing seems to have gotten stronger … ”

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Smith opened the Toronto show reading “Ballad of a Bad Boy,” one of her earliest po­ems, written in 1970. She savored the words’ wickedness — “Oh I was bad/Didn’t do what I should/mama catch me with a lickin’/and tell me to be good” — posturing like a young tough. The poem, a sort of blues for Rim­baud, shows the way Smith combined modernist lyric poetry, an unconstrained sexual­ity, and rock ‘n’ roll mythology to create a playful arena for dreams and transcendent visions. She began her performance career reading in places like the Mercer Arts Cen­ter in the early 70s, sometimes accompanied by Kaye on guitar. They gradually formed the Patti Smith Group, and along with bands like Television, turned a Bowery blues bar called CBGB into the center of a new musical scene. The Patti Smith Group’s 1974 debut single, “Hey Joe” b/w “Piss Factory,” has been called the first punk record.

The Group’s four albums — Horses, Radio Ethiopia, Easter, and Wave (all on Arista)­ — mixed the singer’s incantations with insur­rectionary rock structures. Horses and Easter in particular are absolute classics: no self-re­specting music collector’s archive is complete without them. Because Smith wrote her lyrics as poems to be chanted and sung, the music frequently slipped out of the verse­-chorus grid and into inspired composition­al terrain, as on “Land,” a track on Horses that switches from a story about a JD Jesus to a chorus from “Land of 1000 Dances,” and “Ghost Dance,” a rock ‘n’ roll song for an In­dian ritual.

Smith was critically acclaimed and a su­perstar in Europe, but commercial success eluded her in the States until 1978, when “Because the Night,” written with Bruce Springsteen, went to No. 13 on the pop charts. Smith, who as a youth had always felt out of place because of her strange looks and frequent hallucinations (the result of a bout with scarlet fever at age seven), found her footing in New York’s artistic and bohemian circles. But she had grown up in a working­-class family, and chose to play rock ‘n’ roll in order to reach more than an elite cadre of Americans. She still has such populist aims, and disappointment edged her voice when she said, “I’ve never gotten a gold record. Even though we had a successful single, we were still looked upon as an underground-­type band — alternative, or new wave, whatever they call it.”

Of course, nowadays alternative bands have multiplatinum records; it’s possible they wouldn’t even exist if Smith hadn’t paved the way. She’s been a major influence on some of the most celebrated strains of current pop culture: spoken word, female rockers, the re­vival of punk. Perhaps with the renewal of her career, she will finally achieve her long overdue success.

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Smith may have sabotaged her stardom herself. In 1979 her career was still on the up­swing: Wave yielded three of her most pop­ular songs: “Frederick,” “Dancing Barefoot,” and a cover of the Byrds’ “So You Want To Be (A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star).” The band played to its largest audience ever — 80,000 peo­ple — in Florence, Italy on September 10, 1979. It was also the Group’s last show. Af­terwards Smith announced that she was breaking up the group. She then moved to Detroit with Fred to raise a family.

For fans who felt like Smith’s example had opened up a “sea of possibilities” (as she once sang) for women in particular, and for artists in general, her retreat into domesticity was disappointing. As her absence grew pro­longed, and when she dashed hopes of her return by declining to tour for Dream of Life, rumors circulated that Fred was holding her back, as Morrisroe’s book, which doubles as a biography of Patti, implies. Smith’s return to the public eye after her husband’s death certainly adds credibility to this interpreta­tion. The pain of his death is still very close to the surface for her — in Toronto, she bare­ly got through “The Jackson Song,” a sweet tune they wrote for their firstborn, without breaking down — and Smith isn’t ready to talk about this part of her life yet. Even if she did, she’s probably not going to confess that the father of her two kids, for whom she wrote one of the most tender, beautiful love songs ever written by one rocker to another (“Frederick”), was an evil Bluebeard who kept her locked up in a suburban nightmare.

There is a different explanation for her semiretirement, one she’s hinted at in song and verse. It’s there on Wave, in her cover of “So You Want To Be (A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star),” with its warning of fans “who will tear you apart,” and in her fatigue with touring ex­pressed on “Frederick.” But mostly it’s evi­dent in “Florence,” a poem she wrote after that last show (included in the 1994 collec­tion Early Work 1970-1979, published by Norton), in which she questions the artist’s role in the spectacle of the concert:

I have sung to your children. They descended
upon us like waves; like wolves. They have
torn my clothes and collected my hair scraps.
They have trampled my boots. They no longer
resemble me.
And that is as I wish.
What have we done?
We have reinvented frenzy.

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Smith’s flight from the sort of adulation that certainly never deterred the Rolling Stones resembles the fear of success that many women experience, a psychological response that’s kept men on top in rock and elsewhere. But Smith was also remaining true to a both punk rock and feminist belief that people should not surrender themselves to leaders: that people have the power. “This is the era where everybody creates,” she sang in the bridge she added to “So You Want To Be (A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star),” rewording the inde­pendent credo of do-it-yourself. Inspired by the rock stars of the ’60s, Smith had pursued her dream of the artist as “a saint but with a cowboy mouth,” as she described it in the play she wrote in 1971 with Sam Shepard. But as she began to realize that dream her­self, it collided with the degeneration of ’60s utopian fantasies into ’70s stadium night­mares, and contradicted her own populism. Long before there was a record label with that name, Smith — who in 1977 broke her neck when she fell off a Florida stage — knew that people do “kill rock stars.” John Lennon’s murder a year later must have confirmed her worst fears.

“I think our country’s at a crisis point be­cause people just don’t have respect for each other and each others work,” she told me. “The general feeling seems to be if you are a public person — which means you are con­tinually giving something of yourself — that you have to give everything.” Smith specifically cites the modern penchant for unauthorized biographies and movies as ev­idence of this spiritual malaise, but she’s also reacting to Mapplethorpe, Morrisroe’s book. Smith doesn’t want to be seen as attacking the author, who worked hard on research and was authorized to write the book by the photographer before he died. But she’s dis­appointed with a book that has been criticized for portraying Mapplethorpe — and herself — in a lurid fash­ion, more as freaky bo­hemians than inspired artists.

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“Obviously there’s a lot of sensationalism embedded in his life, or even in our life togeth­er, our lifestyle,” she said. “But there was also a lot of magic, a lot of inno­cence, a lot of youth. One can’t forget that things that were addressed in that book were done by people who were 20, 21, 22, who were still amazed by everything, who were exploring, fearful, awkward …

“Artists are, by the nature of being artists, self-involved or self-possessed. But also, they maintain a certain innocence, partially by continuing to be spoiled children all their lives — like Picasso, who some people say was cruel to his women, but still maintained a certain childlike quality that made him constantly joyful to be alive. So joyful that he created art for nearly 100 years. I think that spir­it was not captured [in Morissroe’s book]. Robert’s story was not a depressing story. What could be depressing about having a gift from God? It’s sad, even tragic, that he died at a relatively young age, when he was still at the height of his powers, and still had a thousand ideas. But the whole scenario is not a depressing scenario.

“I was hoping for a book that would give a real sense of Robert as an artist and of the things that drove him internally as well as ex­ternally. I think the whole reason a biogra­phy was made about Robert was because he had a calling as an artist, which is a rare thing. I knew Robert since he was 20 years old, and he was driven from an early age; he had a definite calling. He wasn’t a hustler who did art, he was an artist. And that to me in itself is something that’s worthy of examination: what does it mean to be called, what does it feel like to be called, what kind of life does one have being called?”

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Smith’s own collection of prose poems in tribute to Mapplethorpe, The Coral Sea, will be published by Norton in the spring. She wrote the book shortly after the artist died. “It was my way of dealing with grief,” she says. “I knew he was going to die after a cer­tain point and I wept for him so much while he was still alive that I found when he died I was unable to weep. And so I wrote. Which I think he would have preferred anyway, be­cause Robert liked to see me work.” (Smith’s collection of new pieces, Wild Leaves, remains unfinished; she has had trouble writing since her husband’s and brother’s deaths.)

Whatever her reasons for vanishing during  much of the ’80s, her departure was neither complete nor permanent. “I never left,” she cracked messianically to the crowd in Toronto. “I was never gone. I was with you always. When I was cleaning my toilet, I thought of you. When I was doing my laun­dry, I thought of you. When I was changing my children’s diapers, I thought of you. Do you believe that? You may.” Reports of her appearances in Michigan clubs surfaced occasionally, and she and Fred did record Dream of Life. In 1990 they performed an acoustic version of “People Have the Pow­er” at an AIDS benefit at Radio City Music Hall. In 1992, Hanuman Books published Wool Gathering, a pocket-sized volume of new writings. In ’93 she read at Summer­Stage, and last year Norton published Early Work.

But those were trickles and spurts compared to the burst of activity this year: reading with Allen Ginsberg in Ann Arbor, performing with Kaye at St. Mark’s Church on New Year’s Day, recording a cover of Nina Simone’s “Don’t Smoke in Bed” for the benefit album Ain’t Nothing but a She Thing, and sit­ting in with Carolyn Striho and the Detroit Energy Asylum, an outfit that plays a somewhat cumbersome mix of soul, rock, and new wave, at several gigs in Michigan. She per­formed again with that band in Toronto. “All of them are very heartfelt,” Smith says. “To give somebody to your people is really generous. That group of people really cared about Fred, and they really wanted to help me get back to work. It’s been good for getting me focused for this record.”

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Smith has borrowed DEA keyboardist Luis Resto for the album. The band also in­cludes Kaye (who’s producing the disc), Pat­ti Smith Group drummer J. D. Dougherty, and bassist Tony Shanihan (who’s played with Kaye and with John Cale), with guest appearances by sister Kimberly and others. Judging by the few new songs she played in Toronto, it will be a reflective, mystical album populated by ghosts and angels — a continu­ation of her early work, imbued with new meaning. Although all of you who see her in Central Park could change that. “I always liked performing while we were recording, because I like to keep in contact with the peo­ple. Somehow that energy you receive gets funneled into the record. I mean, you’re do­ing a record for everybody, and I like to go into the studio having a sense of those peo­ple — some symbol of them.”

To be a whole person, to enjoy the full range of human creation and participate in the human community, everyone must learn to balance work and family (whether blood or chosen), public and personal life — al­though the pressures can be particularly difficult for women. Having swung from an artistic, rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle to a domestic one, Smith seems to be finding her center.

“If generally I seem more austere and con­servative than you might think, it’s because you have a different focus when you’re a parent,” she explained in a phone call after our interview. “I still have the same intensity in my work, but I don’t need to put it in my lifestyle.” I relish the woman I saw shooting poetry from her hips in Toronto, and I cher­ish the careful, caring woman who worries about finishing her album before her kids go back to school. In the introduction to Early Work, Smith offers a blessing and maxim that is undoubtedly the key to her own survival: “In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.” ♦

CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Patti Smith Exposes Herself

The first question about Horses, Patti Smith’s debut album, might be called the Janis question — it comes up whenever a particularly exciting performer has fashioned a distinctive style, attracted a fierce public following, and then steps into a studio for the first time. Either the style informs the record, or the process of making a record causes the performer to alter the style, the result being, more often than not, a garish parody that is forced, hysterical, or both. In that case, the record can be counted on to provide a spurious, instant satisfaction; about a month later, it drops dead. Cheap thrills.

What has happened in Patti Smith’s case is something else again. She had made an authentic record that is in no way merely a transcript once-removed of her live show. The record not only captures Smith whole, it offers shadows, perspectives, and shadings that few of her fans could have caught before. The band has improved enormously (especially Lenny Kaye, who as a rhythm guitarist carries the group); the sound Smith has been working out over the past few months is no different than it has been, simply much stronger and more pointed. John Cale’s production is evident only when you think about how easily someone else could have botched this job. Cale is anonymous, the creator of the album only in the sense that he presumably created the psychological space in which it was possible perhaps, obvious, for Smith and her band to get their music out of their heads onto tape. The music is thin, clean, and brittle: good 1964 rock and roll (see the “Nuggets” collection Kaye produced for Elektra) with a ’70s gloss. It’s what they wanted, one assumes, but not necessarily what anyone but Cale would have known how to get them. One thing that does not come cheap these days is convincing primitivism.

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But if the disc captures Smith, it also exposes her. Those new shadows and perspectives that come off the record add power to her music, but they also, after a few listenings, begin to undermine its incantatory momentum. The concepts that lie behind Smith’s performance — her version of rock and roll raves, the New York avant-garde, surrealist imagery and aesthetic strategy, the beatnik hipster pose, the dark night of the street punk soul, and so on — emerge more clearly with each playing, until they turn into shtick.

Which is to say that after a time one hears points of reference more clearly than a point of view. The brutal, physical details of the self-mutilation in Smith’s most ambitious number, “Horses,” take one right back to the terminal violence best represented by Buñuel and Dali’s “Un Chien Andalou” — you might even think that on some level the horses of the title are the same horses that were stuffed into Dali’s piano. But the sheer surrealistic classicism of Smith’s violence song — after a bit of it seems like a matter of artistic formality — finally makes one doubt that Smith has really thought about why Buñuel centered his film around a shot of himself holding a razor over a women’s eye and an immediately following shot of the eye sliced open; if that was a tradition Smith is trying to understand or a posture she wants to imitate.

For Smith’s posture ultimately seems an end in itself. The success of the album in putting Smith across isolates what she is putting across — raising, and begging, questions of depth, substance, and the like. If the concepts, sources, and references in her lyrics and in her singing overwhelm the music, and the singing as singing, then, if her record shrinks over the next month or so, it will not be because the music has diminished in power, as one keeps playing the record, as happens when a style is forced; it will be because her concepts wore out. If you’re going to mess around with the kind of stuff Buñuel, Dali, and Rimbaud were putting out, you have to come up with a lot more than an homage.

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That said, there is much on Horses that gets home free. “Gloria” takes the listener past its hopelessly tough-chick spoken intro into a realm that shows Patti Smith at her best, all fury and desire. The double-tracked chants and vocals on “Horses,” where Smith sounds with no self-con­sciousness like two very different people telling very different stories, are hypnotic. The stron­gest piece on Horses, though, is “Free Money,” a nice, straightfor­ward rock and roll song about someone with nothing who wants everything. Here, it all comes to­gether: Smith as a writer, singer, poetry reader; and the musicians playing for their lives. The cut opens with Kaye chording lightly, all understated menace, remind­ing one perhaps of the way Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young opened “Southern Man.” Then Smith drives the band forward, the pace picks up, and the music takes shape somewhere between the sound of the early Stones and the one-time-only Hackamore Brick. Smith soars, as she does nowhere else on the album, till the momentum is unbreakable, and then pulls out like a pilot buzzing the house of her ex-lover.

I love “Free Money,” and I have no doubt I always will. The rest of the album is attractive, but it breaks too easily into its parts under the attention it demands. It seems, in the end, an “art statement,” which is to say, more a comment on an aesthetic than an aesthetic in action. That, of course, may come.

CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

When Bob Dylan Called on Patti Smith

Tarantula Meets Mustang

A copy of “Witt” was slid across the table to Patti Smith. “Would you sign this for me, please?” “Sure,” said Patti, “what’s your first name?” He told her. “Like in New Jersey?” Patti asked, and he said no: with a z. “Well, I’ll draw you a map of Jersey,” and so on the inside page Patti scratched its intestinal boundaries, in the middle labeled it Neo Jersey, signed her name, and passed the copy of “Witt” back to Jerzy Kosinski.

The night before, after the second set at the Other End, the greenroom door opened and the remark hanging in the air was Bob Dylan asking a member of Patti’s band, “You’ve never been to New Jersey?” So, all hail Jersey. And in honor of Dylan’s own flair for geographical salutation (“So long New York, hello East Orange”), all hail the Rock and Roll Republic of New York. With the Rolling Stones holding out at Madison Square Garden, Patti Smith and her band at the Other End, and Bob Dylan making visitations to both events, New York was once again the world’s Rock and Roll Republic.

Patti Smith had a special Rimbaud-emblematized statement printed up in honor of Stones week, and when her band went into its version of “Time Is on My Side” (yes it is), she unbuttoned her blouse to reveal a Keith Richard T-shirt beneath. On the opening night she was tearing into each song and even those somewhat used to her galloping id were puzzled by lines like “You gotta a lotta nerve sayin’ you won’t be my parking meter.” Unknown to many in the audience, parked in the back of the room, his meter running a little quick, was the legendary Bobby D. himself. Dylan, despite his wary, quintessential cool, was giving the already highly charged room an extra layer of electricity and Patti, intoxicated by the atmosphere, rocked with stallion abandon. She was positively playing to Dylan, like Keith Carradine played to Lily Tomlin in the club scene from Nashville. But Dylan is an expert in gamesman­ship, and he sat there, crossing and uncrossing his legs, playing back.

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Afterwards, Dylan went backstage to introduce himself to Patti. He looked healthy, modestly relaxed (though his eyes never stopped burning with cool-blue fire), of un­imposing physicality, yet the corporeal Dylan can never be separated from the mythic Dylan, and it’s that other Dylan — the brooding, volatile, poet-star of “Don’t Look Back” — who heightens or destroys the mood of a room with the tiniest of gestures. So despite Dylan’s casual gracious­ness, everyone was excitedly unsettled.

And there was a sexual excitation in the room as well. Bob Dylan, the verdict was unanimous, is an intensely sexu­ally provocateur — “he really got me below the belt,” one of the women in the room said later. Understand, Dylan wasn’t egregiously coming on — he didn’t have to. For the sharp-pencil, slightly petulant vocals on “Blood on the Tracks” hardly prepared one for the warm, soft-bed tone of his speaking voice: the message driven home with that Dylan offhand is still Dylan compelling. So with just small talk he had us all subdued, even Patti, though when the photographers’ popping flashbulbs began, she laughing­ly pushed him aside, saying, “Fuck you, then take my picture, boys.” Dylan smiled and swayed away.

The party soon broke up — Dylan had given his encouragement to Patti, the rest of us had a glimpse from some future version of “Don’t Look Back” (but with a different star) — and the speculation about Dylan’s visit commenced. What did his casual benediction signify?

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Probably nothing, was the reasonable answer. But such sensible explanations are unsatisfying, not only because it’s a waste of Dylan’s mystique to interpret his movies on the most prosaic level, but because the four-day engagement at the Other End convincingly demonstrated that Patti and the band are no small-time cult phenomenon. Not only was Patti in good voice, but the band is extending itself confidently. Jay Doherty, the newly acquired drummer (he played with Lance Loud’s group and lived to tell the tale), provides rhythmic heat, and Lenny Kaye has improved markedly on guitar — his solo on “Time Is on My Side” for example moves Keith Richard riffing to Verlaine slashing. The band’s technical improvement has helped revivify the repertoire: “Break It Up” is now more sharply focused, “Piss Factory” is dramatically jazzy, and their anthem, “Gloria,” ends the evening crashingly. Missing were “Free Money,” and “Land” — the Peckinpahesque cinematic ver­sion of “Land of 1000 Dances” — which is being saved for the forthcoming album.

Something is definitely going on here and I think I know what it is. During one of her sets Patti made the seemingly disconnected remark, “Don’t give up on Arnie Palmer.” But when the laughter subsided, she added, “The greats are still the greatest.” Yes, of course! All her life Patti Smith has had rock and roll in her blood — she has been, like the rest of us, a fan; this is part of her connection with her audience — and now she’s returning what rock has given her with the full force of her love. Perhaps Dylan perceives that this passion is a planet wave of no small sweep. Yet what I cherished most about Patti’s engagement was not the pounding rock-and-roll intensity but a throwaway gesture of camaraderie. When Lenny Kaye was having difficulty setting up his guitar between numbers, Patti paced around, joked around, scratched her stomach, scratched her hair­ — still Kaye was not quite ready. “I don’t really mind,” she told the audience. “I mean, Mick would wait all night for Keith.”

CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1975 Pazz & Jop: It’s Been a Soft Year for Hard Rock

As per tradition, let me open this discussion with my own personal top 30 for 1975, arrived at with more travail than seems healthy to me.

1. Bob Dylan/The Band: “The Basement Tapes” 24. 2. Neil Young: “Tonight’s the Night” 11. 3. Steely Dan: “Katy Lied” 10. 4. James Talley: “Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got a Lot of Love” 10. 5. Bob Dylan: “Blood on the Tracks” 10. 6. Toots and the Maytals: “Funky Kingston” 8. 7. Elton John: “Rock of the Westies” 8. 8. Bob Marley and the Wailers: “Natty Dread” 8. 9. Patti Smith: “Horses” 6. 10. Bonnie Raitt: “Home Plate” 5.

11. Roxy Music: “Siren.” 12. Bruce Springsteen: “Born to Run.” 13. Lynyrd Skynyrd: “Nuthin’ Fancy.” 14. Neil Young: “Zuma.” 15. Eno: “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).” 16. The Band: “Northern Lights — Southern Cross. 17. “Fleetwood Mac.” 18. Amazing Rhythm Aces: “Stacked Deck.” 19. Gary Stewart: “Out of Hand.” 20. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: “Nightingales & Bombers.”

21. Terry Garthwaite: “Terry.” 22. Loudon Wainwright III: “Unrequited.” 23. John Prine: “Common Sense.” 24. Randall Bramblett: “The Other Mile.” 25. “K.C. and the Sunshine Band.” 26. Shirley and Company: “Shame Shame Shame.” 27. Pink Floyd: “Wish You Were Here.” 28. Al Green: “Al Green Is Love.” 29. The Meters: “Cissy Strut.” 30. Leon Redbone: “On the Track.”

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A lot of my colleagues are feeling beamish with power these days; this has been a good year for rock and roll, they tell me, burping contentedly after trying to fit 13 records onto their 10-place ballot for this year’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. I disagree, and I think Pazz & Jop illustrates why. Look carefully at the results for a moment; I did not choose the figure 13 arbitrarily. Roughly speaking, that is where the critical consensus stops short. Not that any of the 38 participating critics chose from precisely those 13 records on which the consensus arrived. But those were the possibilities that dominated our collective mind; with the inevitable exceptions (especially vehement on Patti Smith, who is not much appreciated outside of New York, at least not yet; more weary and widespread on Roxy Music, who understandably leave many listeners cold, and the Who, whom even admirers of the present LP suspect of moribundity) people who apply aesthetic standards to “rock” agree that all 13 are “good records” of one sort or another.

In contrast, consider the next three finishers. Paul Simon’s staunchest fans will admit that “Still Crazy” represents a slip — the controversy is over how big a slip. “Red Headed Stranger” is a cosmic cowboy cult record. And while “Fleetwood Mac” is very, very pleasant, as my own list attests, it most certainly garnered its votes as “good listening” rather than “good art.”

Since rock criticism is determinedly hedonistic, that distinction still doesn’t go down with some participants, who insist that what they listen to is identical to what is good. Lester Bangs voted for “The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!” and “Metal Machine Music” because he played them more than he did “Blood on the Tracks”; Vince Aletti omitted “Al Green Is Love” because he filed it away after admiring it a few times. But more than ever the results represent a kind of balance. What mattered was not only what we’d been playing, but also how much a record had to give when it did reach our turntables.

Which brings us back to the lucky 13. Look at the titles again — a rather limited selection, wouldn’t you say? Two each from Bob Dylan (numero uno), Roxy Music (critic’s band), and Neil Young (genuine comeback, hooray). An album by numero uno’s band. Old faves the Who, new faves Steely Dan. Token blackness from two of the three single-artist reggae LPs released in America in 1975, one of them a compilation stretching back more than half a decade for its goodies. And two critic’s records, one an enormous — frightening, I’d say — commercial success, the other as yet unproved among people in general. Charley Walters — who voted for “Diamond Head,” by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera — looks over his list and experiences some disquiet: “It makes me feel as though I spent the entire year listening to Dylan and Roxy.”

In 1974, the top 13 were not so sharply demarcated from what came below, and there were really 13 of them: Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Band, Roxy Music, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, New York Dolls, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, the Raspberries.

Admittedly, part of this year’s narrowness reflects nonoutput by Newman, Wonder, the Stones, and Browne, all of whom will be back. But it also reflects the death of Parsons and the break-up of the Dolls (now semi-reunited and looking for a contract) and the Raspberries (a fluke anyway, I suppose — leader Eric Carmen’s solo album of this year received just one mention). And it reminds us of how badly Joni Mitchell (two mentions), Linda Ronstadt (also two mentions, albeit such enthusiastic ones that she placed number 26), and Eric Clapton (one mention for his studio LP, two for his live) let us down this year. Two fine LPs from Neil Young don’t quite compensate for all of that.

Of course, I could be reading too much into this. A certain ebb and flow is to be expected, and I have no doubt that some of the artists who were disappointments in 1975 will surprise me pleasantly in 1976 or 1979. But there’s more reason for my gloom; you can find it in the point values I assigned in my own Pazz & Jop ballot: “The Basement Tapes” 24, “Tonight’s the Night” 11… There were 12 albums vying for my top 10, but only one of them had the earmark of greatness — the same album that also dominated the Pazz & Jop consensus by a wide margin. This album was never intended to be an album at all, which is fine with me — I’m not much of a studiolator myself. But it has to be just a little depressing to people that the accident occurred in 1967.

I made the counterargument myself when the set appeared last summer: it would have been the best of 1967, too. I think so. But it is significant how utterly “The Basement Tapes” dwarfs even the most courageous music to come out of this year, this time. “Tonight’s the Night” and “Horses” — both uncompromising records — sound puny and desperate in comparison. They lack the utopian edge, that hint of cultural possibility, that gives the realism of “The Basement Tapes” its agreeably wry flavor. Realism is narrower now, more personal, and so 1975 produced 13 “good records” by 10 artists plus a lot of (often excellent but nevertheless) personalized taste.

This fact embarrasses critics a little, I think — Jerry Leichtling told me he omitted “The Basement Tapes” to make his list more contemporary, and others commented that they didn’t want to list two records by one artist. Which is to say, the consensus could have been even broader. As I compiled it was not clear for a while which of the top four would pull ahead. I was surprised and gratified by Patti Smith’s strong showing (which came almost entirely from New York in what is purposely a New York-dominated poll — a late vote from Larry Rohter of the Washington Post would have put Springsteen back in second) and slightly embarrassed by Springsteen’s. But I was worried by both, because the two records seem to me to typify the inevitable insularity of criticism.

Taking a lead from MIT prof and former Rolling Stone reviewer Langdon Winner, who came out of semi-retirement in the Real Paper to point out that “Born to Run” represents the formalization of all rock’s rebel precepts, I have to believe that neither Springsteen’s sense of history nor his saving vulgarity contributes as much to his popularity as the subliminal promise of aesthetic safety he offers. And while the acceptance of Patti Smith signifies the receptivity of rock’s critical establishment to music that is genuinely avant-garde in roots and intent, that does not obliterate two objections: one, that Smith’s avant-gardism is second-hand, semi-realized, or both — I’m not convinced that many of the critics who like her work are qualified to judge how vanguard it really is; and two, that the popular appeal of Smith’s music may be limited to those who want to think of themselves as avant-garde, critics included. I’m not saying I believe this myself; I don’t think I do. But the possibility remains, and I think it’s much too early to declare “Horses” any kind of masterpiece. The victory of “The Basement Tapes” represents the bitter truth about a year that was equivocal at best; I’ll always settle for that.

This was a bad year for black music, especially on albums; if I’d contacted more critics specializing in black music — next year I will — I’m sure the Harold Melvin album would have done even better, but after that it’s Earth, Wind & Fire, the equivalent of Fleetwood Mac. It was also an excellent year for country music, with four albums making the top 30 as opposed to one last year. In the case of each fringe I think this is largely a matter of care in making the albums inconsistent at best, while country artists are just beginning to catch on to the great “Sgt. Pepper”/Otis Redding album-as-work-of-art tradition.

Pazz & Jop was expanded this year; due to my own bad organization, I didn’t reach as many critics as I would have liked. Critics who don’t know a lot of other critics are the best corrective to critical cliquishness, though a certain penchant for the obvious does tend to result as well. Last year 24, this year 38, next year 52? And maybe someone named Brenda to help me with the tabulations.

Meanwhile, thanks to all voters, plus a few sample ballots below if there’s room: Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, Patrick Carr, Georgia Christgau, Ben Edmonds, Ken Emerson, Danny Fields, Ben Gerson, Toby Goldstein, Peter Herbst, Robert Hilburn, Stephen Holden, Lenny Kaye, Jerry Leichtling, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Janet Maslin, Ira Mayer, Bruce Meyer, Jim Miller, John Morthland, Fred Murphy, Paul Nelson, Wayne Robins, Lisa Robinson, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Mitchell Schneider, Bud Scoppa, Tom Smucker, Geoffrey Stokes, John Swenson, Ken Tucker, Mark von Lehmden, Charley Walters, Ed Ward, James Wolcott.

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Other Critics Pick Their Hits

PATRICK CARR: 1. “Red Headed Stranger” 20. 2. “The Basement Tapes” 15. 3. Delbert McClinton: “Victim of Life’s Circumstances” 15. 4. “Natty Dread” 10. 5. “Dreaming My Dreams” 10. 6. “Horses” 10. 7. Allen Toussaint: “Southern Nights” 5. 8. Robert Palmer: “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” 5. 9. Bad Company: “Straight Shooter” 5. 10. “Funky Kingston” 5.

VINCE ALETTI: 1. Silver Convention: “Save Me” 10. 2. Donna Summer: “Love to Love You Baby” 10. 3. Smokey Robinson: “A Quiet Storm” 10. 4. “To Be True” 10. 5. The O’Jays: “Family Reunion” 10. 6. “That’s the Way of the World” 10. 7. “The Salsoul Orchestra” 10. 8. Barabbas: “Heart of the City” 10. 9. “The Trammps” 10. 10. Bohannon: “Insides Out” 10.

TOM SMUCKER: 1. Shirley and Company: “Shame Shame Shame” 20. 2. Evie Sands: “Estate of Mind” 20. 3. “Prisoner in Disguise” 15. 4. “Stacked Deck” 10. 5. Pink Floyd: “Man Shakes Hands With Man on Fire” 10. 6. Commodores: “Caught in the Act” 5. 7. “Horses” 5. 8. “Red Headed Stranger” 5. 9. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 5. 10. The Miracles: “City of Angels” 5.

LESTER BANGS: 1. “Horses” 30. 2. The Dictators: “The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!” 20. 3. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” 15. 4. “Born to Run” 5. 6. David Bowie: “Young Americans” 5. 7. Lou Reed: “Metal Machine Music” 5. 7. “That’s the Way of the World” 5. 8. Kraftwerk: “Autobahn” 5. 9. “Country Life” 5. 10. “Funky Kingston” 5.

ED WARD: 1. Elvin Bishop: “Juke Joint Jump” 22. 2. “Dreaming My Dream” 20. 3. “The Basement Tapes” 10. 4. Asleep at the Wheel: “Texas Gold” 10. 5. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” 7. 6. Man: “Slow Motion” 7. 7. “Tonight’s the Night” 7. 8. “Out of Hand” 6. 9. “Natty Dread” 6. 10. Betty Wright: “Danger High Voltage” 5.

GREIL MARCUS: 1. “The Basement Tapes” 17. “Katy Lied” 15. 3. “Blood on the Tracks” 14. 4. “Got No Bread…” 12. 5. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 12. 6. “Siren” 10. 7. “Funky Kingston” 5. 8. “Natty Dread” 5. 9. “Tonight’s the Night” 5. 10. “Born to Run” 5.

GEOFFREY STOKES: 1. “The Basement Tapes” 23. 2. “Tonight’s the Night” 12. 3. “Blood on the Tracks” 11. 4. “Horses” 10. 5. “Funky Kingston” 10. 6. Rod Stewart: “Atlantic Crossing” 8. 7. Bonnie Raitt: “Home Plate” 8. 8. “Stacked Deck” 7. 9. Tut Taylor: “The Old Post Office” 6. 10. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 5.

FRED MURPHY: 1. “That’s the Way of the World” 10. 2. “Revelation” 10. 3. Natalie Cole: “Inseparable” 10. 4. Labelle: “Phoenix” 10. 5. The Pointer Sisters: “Steppin’ ” 10. 6. “Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan” 10. 7. Isaac Hayes: “Chocolate Chip” 10. 8. The Isley Brothers: “The Heat Is On” 10. 9. “To Be True” 10. 10. Roberta Flack: “Feel Like Makin’ Love” 10.

JAMES WOLCOTT: 1. “Horses” 18. 2. “The Basement Tapes” 13. 3. “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)” 13. 4. “The Who by Numbers” 12. 5. “Blood on the Tracks” 10. 6. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 10. 7. “Katy Lied” 7. 8. Elton John: “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” 7. 9. Born to Run 5. 10. “Beserkley Chartbusters Volume 1” 5.

FRANK ROSE: 1. “Blood on the Tracks” 14. 2. “Horses” 14. 3. “Funky Kingston” 13. 4. “Born to Run” 13. 5. “Zuma” 11. 6. Ronnie Lane: “Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance” 9. 7. Joni Mitchell: “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” 8. 8. Millie Jackson: “Still Caught Up” 7. 9. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 6. 10. “The Basement Tapes” 5.

JERRY LEICHTLING: 1. “Blood on the Tracks” 15. 2. “Tonight’s the Night” 13. 3. Marlena Shaw: “Who is this Bitch Anyway?” 12. 4. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 12. 5. “Katy Lied” 10. 6. Jan Hammer: “The First Seven Days” 10. 7. Melissa Manchester: “Melissa” 9. 8. Larry Coryell: “The 11th House: Level One” 8. 9. Leon Redbone: “On the Track” 6. 10. “Funky Kingston” 5.

LENNY KAYE: 1. “Physical Graffiti” 10. 2. “Tonight’s the Night” 10. 3. “Blow by Blow” 10. 4. “The Basement Tapes” 10. 5. “Natty Dread” 10. 6. Steve Harley & Cockney Rebels: “The Best Years of Our Lives” 10. 7. Albert Ayler: “Witches and Devils” 10. 8. “Beserkley Chartbusters” 10. 9. “Horses” 10. 10. “Siren” 10.

CHARLEY WALTERS: 1. “Country Life” 13. 2. “The Basement Tapes” 13. 3. Phil Manzanera: “Diamond Head” 12. 4. “Physical Graffiti” 11. 5. “Siren” 11. 6. “Katy Lied” 10. 7. “Blood on the Tracks” 9. 8. “Hummingbird” 8. 9. “The Who by Numbers” 7. 10. Mahavishnu Orchestra: “Visions of the Emerald Beyond” 6.

JANET MASLIN: 1. “Blood on the Tracks” 15. 2. “Still Crazy After All These Years” 15. 3. “Katy Lied” 13. 4. “The Basement Tapes” 13. 5. Bee Gees: “Main Course” 10. 6. “To Be True” 8. 7. “Born to Run” 8. 8. “Ian Hunter” 6. 9. Millie Jackson: “Still Caught Up” 6. 10. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 6.

PAUL NELSON: 1. “Born to Run” 13. 2. “Zuma” 13. 3. “Red Headed Stranger” 13. 4. “The Basement Tapes: 13. 5. “Blood on the Tracks” 13. 6. “Tonight’s the Night” 9. 7. “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” 9. 8. “The Who by Numbers” 7. 9. Rod Stewart: “Atlantic Crossing” 5. 10. Elliott Murphy: “Lost Generation” 5.

Top 10 Albums of 1975

1. Bob Dylan/The Band: “The Basement Tapes” (Columbia)

2. Patti Smith: “Horses” (Arista)

3. Bruce Springsteen: “Born to Run” (Columbia)

4. Bob Dylan: “Blood on the Tracks” (Columbia)

5. Neil Young: “Tonight’s the Night” (Reprise)

6. Steely Dan: “Katy Lied” (ABC)

7. Roxy Music: “Country Life” (Atco)

8. Bob Marley and the Wailers: “Natty Dread” (Island)

9. The Band: “Northern Lights — Southern Cross” (Capitol)

10. The Who: “The Who by Numbers” (MCA)

— From the December 29, 1975, issue


Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published earlier this year.


These Five Experimental-Theater Festivals Have Never Heard of You, Either

Asked a few years back about what new music she listens to, Patti Smith replied that “the new people are the unknown people,” casting her vote with rock ‘n’ roll not yet created. For this critic, that’s what makes winter the most exciting time in New York’s theatrical season. January, especially, belongs to the local pursuit of the new. Not to carefully developed scripts or ornate revivals of time-honored works. Not to the familiar domestic forms we see all year long. Not to refined craft of acting or dramatic writing. This is the time for unleashing potential for theater’s future: a messy process, full of false starts and disappointments, experiments gone horribly wrong, bad ideas taken too far or not far enough.

Specifically, this takes the form of five festivals (and counting), each spotlighting the latest work from the progressive companies and artists whose innovations are the lifeblood of the city’s live-arts scene. (They also feature new work from elsewhere.) Much of the work is genre-bending — or, in artists’ parlance, “transdisciplinary.” For spectators, the fun lies in the abundance of shows: If you’re seeing three one-hour shows all around town on a Saturday, it doesn’t much matter if one of them tanks; get a drink, do a postmortem with your friends, and move on to the next one.

Two festivals in particular are crucibles of the new. American Realness (Abrons Arts Center, January 8–18, has carved out a distinctive identity by bringing choreography and experimentation into play with powerful cultural commentary. This year’s lineup includes the Bulgarian legend Ivo Dimchev’s sexy curatorial fantasy Fest; Cynthia Hopkins’s artistic autobiography A Living Documentary; Jack Ferver’s Night Light Bright Light (inspired by the oeuvre of dancer and choreographer Fred Herko); and the collective My Barbarian’s remake of Bertolt Brecht’s The Mother. Neal Medlyn’s Pop Star Series will pay tribute to Lionel Richie, Prince, Insane Clown Posse, and other songsters, and the beguiling Dynasty Handbag will offer her neo-Homeric video odyssey Soggy Glasses.

The four-day festival Special Effects (The Wild Project, January 8-11, is artist-driven and -curated, with more of a pop-up vibe. Look for nightly performance parties in the bar, serious critical forums, and walks on the wilder side of live acts. This year will include a radical healing show by Colin Self; Heather Litteer’s performative interviews of downtown female legends; and Asking for It, an undressed evening exposing the culture of rape jokes, by Adrienne Truscott of the Wau Wau Sisters.

The hub of these downtown festivals remains Under the Radar (Public Theater, January 7–18, UTR will launch eight “devised theater” works-in-progress in the festival’s INCOMING! Series. Audiences can also expect rare glimpses of major foreign artists, an area where New York is normally deficient: Iran’s Mehr Theatre Group will look at its members’ lives in Timeloss; Argentina’s Mariano Pensotti directs Cineastas, a filmic Buenos Aires epic; and Brazilian director-playwright Leonardo Moreira explores memory and narrative in O Jardim. Also on the docket: The Birmingham, U.K., company Stan’s Café presents The Cardinals, about evangelicals performing religious history; Daniel Fish lobs directorial tennis balls at David Foster Wallace in A Supposedly Fun Thing…; and Taylor Mac enchants with a marathon performance of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

Not to be overlooked is Prototype (HERE, January 8–17,, the festival of new music-theater works, and Performance Space 122’s COIL festival (P.S.122, January 1–31,, which boasts four theater shows, including Mike Iverson’s dystopian musical Sorry Robot and Temporary Distortion’s six-hour durational performance in a soundproof installation structure (My Voice Has an Echo in It). If all this proves too much to organize, check out the Contemporary Performance Network’s free PFORM app, which helps you keep your theater adventure together.



This is Rockaway, not Redondo. But Patti Smith is here nonetheless. It’s official: The queen of the downtown scene is kicking off MOMA PS1’s much-anticipated Rockaway Arts Fest with a free concert on the beach. It will also mark the re-opening of historic Fort Tilden Park (once home to a disproportionate number of shore-going hipsters and that creepy abandoned UFO-looking Army thing), still flustered but for the most part recovered from Hurricane Sandy. Works from local and nationally acclaimed artists are on display through August, but for now, enjoy this all-day opening ceremony with theater performances, food trucks, and kayaking demonstrations, all capped off by Smith, a proud Rockaways resident herself. If that’s not enough seafaring fun, head a few blocks inland for the after-party at Rockaway Beach Surf Club, the patio bar and restaurant replete with cornhole and kiddie pools.

Sun., June 29, 8 p.m., 2014


Patti Smith+Jesse Paris+Eric Hoegemeyer

“April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain” and snow, as the case may be. T.S. Eliot’s timeless modernist epic, The Waste Land, is particularly apropos this year in the wake of the polar vortex. In homage to this “Sorry not sorry” spring, Patti Smith joins daughter Jesse Paris Smith and Eric Hoegemeyer for an evening of meditations on nature and ephemerality featuring Dickinson, Whitman, Sebald, and other remembrances of things past. Expect a tribute to two of Smith’s former collaborators, Lou Reed and Pete Seeger.

Wed., April 23, 7 p.m., 2014



Secretary of State John Kerry recently named a special coordinator for Tibetan issues, and China — surprise! — is displeased. The longtime standoff between these two cosmically mismatched powers provides the customary backdrop to minimalist composer Philip Glass’s 24th annual benefit for Tibet House, which packs a festival’s worth of dependably eclectic performers into Carnegie Hall for a night of intercultural consciousness raising. Following an invocation by Drepung Gomang monks, this year’s lineup includes New Order, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and members of the National; Tibetan traditionalist Techung; and Glass protégé Nico Muhly. While some of the evening’s more charming moments inevitably arise from Glass’s casual piano accompaniment, expect Smith to bring down the suitably opulent house.

Tue., March 11, 7:30 p.m., 2014



It was in the summer of 1989 when Republican Senator Jesse Helms attacked Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment exhibition for its graphic s/m photos, causing the Corcoran Gallery to back out of its planned show (the 42-year-old Mapple-thorpe had died earlier that year). In honor of the 25th anniversary of that fearless body of work, Sean Kelly Gallery paired 54 of the artist’s black-and-white photos, playing on the theme “Saints and Sinners.” Patti Smith, bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, and Mapplethorpe himself are just a few of the fascinating subjects on display.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. Starts: Dec. 24. Continues through Jan. 25, 2013