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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.


What We Do Is Secret: Your Guide to the Post-Whatever

OVER A DECADE ago, the punk movement tried to harness all the discon­tent in rock into an explosion, and failed. Instead, it institutionalized the edge. The marginal music of today is any number of second thoughts removed from punk’s ini­tial headlong impulse. The audience for it mainly consists of kids to whom 1977 and all that is somebody else’s distant past.

What most limits bands now is that whatever they do, it can’t ever be entirely new. The punk era’s improvised network of small clubs, indie labels, and college radio has become a sort of permanent infrastructure, like Taiwan or the folk cir­cuit. That makes for one kind of predict­ability, but the real gridlock is in the concepts. The current scene comes up with all sorts of moves, but all of them end up as just one more convolution of a radicalism that’s become a genre, dealing in extremes that have become constants.

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Punk, reacting against the ’60s, actual­ly tried to extend them, by reclaiming rock itself as an insurrectionary force. What’s happened instead is that the scene has become the repository for a set of concepts — “subversion,” “rebellion,” “counterculture,” “underground,” even “youth” — that no longer plausibly apply to rock or pop culture in general. The link between those formulas is that they all depend on a certain dynamic of opposi­tion. They don’t make any sense when they get abstracted — isolated as values for their own sake. In pop, ideas usually get downgraded to being avant-garde only after they’ve stopped having any popular currency. By now, the scene’s insistence that rock matters can’t register as any­thing more than an anachronism.

Rock and roll’s assimilation into the cultural norm was inevitable, but one side effect of the Reagan era has been that popular culture in general is also now establishment culture. You can’t associate pop with any sort of disenfranchisement when its headquarters is the White House. It’s grown increasingly difficult to pretend that rock now functions in this society any differently than movies or TV or Broad­way do. That hardly means that the form’s sewed up, but even at its most earnest or bravura or plain clever — Springsteen or Prince or Madonna — it’s mature show­biz, and that’s all. If one characteristic of the ’80s has been the inability of any alternative to Reaganism to build up any get-go, that’s partly because the places where we traditionally look for expres­sions of opposition have all been ab­sorbed — not coopted; don’t be silly — into the status quo. John Cougar Mellencamp may have thought that the White House had misunderstood “Pink Houses” when they wanted to use it as a Reagan cam­paign jingle. In some ways they knew better than he did.

But the Reagan homogenization has left those who still identify with rock-as-rebel­lion curiously bereft. Even they know that their rebellion isn’t going anywhere­ — their music isn’t ever going to reach an audience any larger than the one it has now. Punk conceived of itself as speaking to a mass audience: it meant to incite the millions. Hardcore signaled the end of that daydream — it self-destructed from the paradox of being militant about resig­nation. Hardcore was punk’s first total dead end, and therefore noteworthy: the dead end as milestone.

In almost every way, the scene has been stuck ever since then. What’s curi­ous is that the audience, which listens to this music like it was the blues, seems willing to accept that. But the bands aren’t. They keep on trying to come up with new formal solutions to what’s basi­cally a problem of content — as if finding more complicated ways of offending or disturbing or challenging will somehow get them around the fact that the very ideas of offensiveness, disturbance, and challenge have grown corny. Too many of them keep flailing away at a brick wall as if sheer dint of effort and restatement will turn it back into the open door it used to at least seem. The most interesting bands flail away too, but more as though there weren’t any important differences be­tween open doors and closed ones, be­cause mattering doesn’t matter.

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Which bring us, more or less, to Sonic Youth.

They formed in ’81, in other words at just about the minute it became obvious that all the most revelatory possibilities in their kind of music had been pretty thor­oughly exhausted. There may never have been another band that’s stayed together for so long while remaining fundamentally confused about what it is they want their music to do, and made a style out of the confusion. I also just love the fuck out of them, but you probably knew that. They answer my question — “Why on earth would anybody still be trying to milk something out of an attitude/sound so obviously hackneyed, used up, etc., etc.” — with a better one: “What on earth are we supposed to be doing instead?”

Sonic Youth aren’t the only ones, of course. Over the past few years, a whole slew of bands have been crawling up in search of a First Principle like so many chiggers. Some of what they share is for­mal — no-swing rhythms used either to make spaces for stray noise, or else front and center as the noise itself. Other links are historical: the hardcore scene as an example to be rued, rethought, or ig­nored, and more generally punk itself as (unwanted) tradition and legacy. But what connects them most is that they’re all defined by the absurdity of trying to make an insurrection out of legacy — of contriv­ing rebel rock at all at this late stage of the game.

I still think that Sonic Youth stands apart, because they’ve gone the furthest toward redefining the post-everything im­passe so that it’s not constraining. Also because they’re just plain better — which is interesting, because in this context, that never used to be a deciding criterion. But let’s look at the impasse first.

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PUSSY GALORE was originally based in D.C., where the dropout option of choice among affluent white kids has never been “I wanna be black,” but to become imitation white trash. The loca­tion also meant that they germinated un­der the sway of the most high-minded ascetic the hardcore scene ever pro­duced — Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye, whose idealism impelled him to winnow false values from the hardcore ethic until, to his apparently quite genuine despair, the integrity he was left with consisted of nothing. but strictures. (One late commu­nique, from an ’86 letter in Boston’s Forced Exposure: “I suspect we’re all fooling each other.”)

The austerity’s what the men and wom­en in PG reacted against. With “Fuck Ian MacKaye” as an early slogan, they set about turning the music back into irre­sponsible crap again. The image their rec­ords call to mind is a kid shuffling around with his pants down sloppy around his ankles — which pretty much sums up not only their sound but the band’s subject matter, theme, and concept of Nirvana.

Musically, they’re really good. And that’s very funny, because their records really sound lousy. So far as chops go, Jon Spencer may be even more of a prim­itive than he wants to be, which is saying a lot. What PG assert is the right to be not just punk-amateurish but pointless­ — mulching the most available collective-­unconscious roots riffs into a sometimes dawdling, sometimes hectic lurch, es­chewing conventional rock drumming for garbage-can clanks and bangs. When you hear the stumblebum vocals on a Pussy Galore tune that don’t match up with the tempos for shit, or slabs of my-first-guitar noise going nowhere in all directions, chopped together, or left dangling, you’re hearing a sound that knows it can’t mean what it once did but can’t find anything else to mean.

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What you notice especially with PG, since they like clutter but revile subtlety, is how indiscriminate post-everything punk is about its sources. Elvis, Black Sabbath at their ‘lude-rock worst, the Dead, TV themes, and punk’s own earlier noise/beat aggro formulations all get strung out/along with equal affectless­ness, not as “Let’s-reclaim-rock-by-fuck­ing-with-it,” but, “We’re fucked up, and all this junk’s already here anyway, and so what?”

The “so what?” is — as always — the best thing about this stuff. Its emergence suggests a long-overdue acceptance of marginality. After so much ideologically correct self-denial, “so what?” allows re­combinations and rediscoveries ranging from any number of grungy splatter bands getting back into the stately delights of ’60s slow-burn guitar baroque to, at the benign-poppy end, Jad Fair carrying ado­lescent swoon-mooniness to heights of mewling delirium Gordon Gano never dreamed of.

The scene’s predictably at its worst when it doesn’t accept marginality — that is, when it tries to represent what by now can only be a more or less oddball prefer­ence as if it’s still, or anyway ought to be, a cultural imperative. That “ought to,” after all, is the real, old folkie fallacy: asserting that this is the authentic sound of youth rebellion is as spurious as insist­ing that folk music is the true music of the people.

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Pussy Galore indulge this. They also dramatize its contradictions, maybe more than they mean to. They cancel them­selves out. PG used to be famous for their rude vocabulary — their championing of it enshrined on their Groovy Hate Fuck LP, with examples like “Teen Pussy Power” and “Cunt Tease” shouldering aside more familiar hardcore-style plainspeech, e.g., “Kill Yourself.” I heard PG’s-fuck-fuck liturgy as a great rip on the lowest-of-the-­low indignities of teenage sexuality­ — namely, how much, when sex is mostly just the words, you gotta howl them. But also as a typically snarled up punk acting­out of longing/envy/frustration at Big Daddy ’60s (punk brought Freud into rock and roll like nobody’s business), mimicking the let-it-all-hang-out of sexual liberation with a fury that undermined it as anything but rhetoric: a joke that re­sented being a joke. It wanted to be a revolution.

The band expanded its purview (past “fuck,” I mean), and made its garbled call to an already-fucked new countercul­ture a whole lot harder to miss, on Pussy Galore, Right Now! Here, the collapse of youth revolt into revolting youth makes for just about irresistible post-everything noise; on “New Breed,” while the band pumps out its rattletrap shorthand for one of those classic garage-rock misunder­standings of a blues progression, verses of scurrilous-sounding gibberish got capped by Spencer’s slurred, self-satisfied decla­ration, “That’s what the new breed say.”

PG’s music still keeps faith with the belief in rock as the music of youth rebel­lion that their wreckage of it acknowl­edges, and perversely celebrates, as ter­minally lame. Bottoming out in the dregs of rock and roll, obsessed by the aware­ness that their most subversive feelings only make sense as burlesques, the most compelling clatter they make evokes not the nonexistent abyss they’d probably all race each other to jump into, but simply the refutation of their own reason for being. (New board game: let’s play Find-the-Edge.) Where Pussy Galore end up is parodying subversiveness itself — which would be no problem for them or their audience if either was just in it for the yocks. And they aren’t.

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One fallacy that PG are hardly immune to — and it’s how a lot of post-everything saves itself from sounding outright post­humous — is a mystification of rock, and/or youth, that would probably send John­ny Rotten crawling off in search of a grave to turn over in. The Cramps were the first punk-era band to explicitly cater to this hyperbolic version of alienation, hallowing their rockabilly primitivism as innately primal, and teen culture as the welling-up of eternal forces persecuted by society. Now, not only does the same sort of rhetoric keep surfacing as a defense of marginality, but the shock/shlock routines that both spoofed and reinforced the Cramps’ dumbest pretensions are being updated, to the same end but with no discernible improvement, by several post-­everything bands, notably Madison’s Kill­dozer — although Killdozer’s music, clanky guitar drone that sounds spacy and hostile at once, deserves better.

It’s a way of making the music seem more forbidden than it actually is: if we can’t be popular, we’ll be cabalistic. (Old Germs album title: What We Do ls Secret.) A sort of midnight-movie Jacobinism is the de rigueur tone in the current fanzines. “Seems like there’s some sort of conspiracy out there against real rock and roll,” one zealot wrote in Forced Exposure a while back — although Conflict‘s Gerard Cosloy, whose ‘zine is usually more sensi­ble if no less absolutist, did snort at that one in his next issue. The yahooing only ended up raising a more serious problem­ — as far as this stuff does still have somethi­ng to say to the larger culture so obliviou­sly swaddling it, it’s reactionary.

From the moment Joey Ramone first held up the “Gabba Gabba Hey” sign, one theme of Stateside punk was a reinvention of white culture as a minority culture. Which had the advantage, mainly, of being mind-blowing — any notion that unlikely was bound to open up new connections, metaphorical leaps, and risks. Even so, the punk hunt for a white way of being downtrodden has turned out like a lot of visionary jolts — great wakeup call, lousy habit. Especially now that its parti­sans aren’t breaking out but digging in.

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Punks were rightly wary of the me-tooism in white hipsters’ borrowings from black and other minority cultures. The point was to find something belonging only to them. But what you hear instead by now, in something like the deliberately immobile clanking of Big Black’s Songs About Fucking LP, is a sound whose only point is the exclusion of other cultures’ music. Such know-nothingism hardly puts boosters as much at odds as they suppose with Reaganism, which among other things has been the WASP establishment’s last slab at preserving its cul­tural dominance. Reagan himself has also derived his style from the code and em­blems of white hipster cool. The man asking “whaddya got?” is now the voice of authority. Many of us who used to find our own alienation expressed in that code have grown alienated from the code itself.

Calling that attitude radical has cut the scene off from every alternative to Rea­ganism — alternatives that have also, ironically, achieved a lot more pop authority than punk ever did. Hip hop is so much in the swim of things that it can supply the beats for McDonald’s commercials and still sound like fighting words on the air­waves — where its provocativeness has the added benefit of reaching people who are actually provoked by it.

Big Black was the brainchild of Steve Albini, frequent ‘zine polemicist and one­-man scene think tank. As a polemicist on vinyl, he scored brilliantly at least once­, on Big Black’s reworking of Kraftwerk’s “The Model” backed with Cheap Trick’s “He’s a Whore.” Not only did you hear the two as white-roots brothers-in-arms; you heard both as adumbrations of the Sex Pistols. But once he declared “this is our music,” he apparently couldn’t find anything much for said music to express.

Albini isn’t stupid, but doing it cleverly only makes you more aware of just how ad hominem his whole agenda is. Among other things, Songs About Fucking has to rank as one of the great misnomers of all time; the end of punk’s old antisex jitters has been more than welcome, but sex, like youth, is purely a rhetorical quantity. (I know a shoe fetishist who cried because he had no shoes, until he saw a foot fetishist who had no feet.) At least the rhetoricians in Pussy Galore also revel in infantilism for its own sake; the worst thing about Albini is that even his wee­-wee is ideological. I got pretty heavily into the yawn-stifling stage once I heard the name of his new project: Rapeman.

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Post-everything splinters rock in search of a form that can contain unimaginable antipodes of urgency and knowingness, at once acknowledging that everything’s lame and plowing the shards into a new charge. But in these wised-up times, even in cultural circles less convoluted than the one Pussy Galore chase their tails in, too much knowingness might flat-out preclude subversion — even when subversion’s the goal. And that’s still nothing compared to how burned-out post-everything looks when knowingness is the goal. Redd Kross are like a PG-rated version of PG, which means they mostly don’t sound the least bit like them. They really rock, ap­plying a seemingly inexhaustible battery of Ramones formalisms to revitalize Woodstock-era shlock the same way their predecessors revitalized Herman’s Her­mits. The difference is that this time it stays shlock, and it’s meant to; the themes that fester in PG’s graffiti — how to relate to a future that’s become a past, and that you’ve already seen through anyway — get smoothed out, slicked up, played for sim­pers. And that really does sound like the end of the line.

And isn’t, quite. Noodling around the scene, somewhere past the “so what?,” are intimations of what inevitably has to come after post-everything — artlessness, or innocence. There’s Dinosaur Jr.­ — whose music has more than a few points of similarity with Redd Kross. But while formally aware and resourceful, they aren’t formally self-conscious; they’re just trusting the sound to communicate what­ever they want it to. Beyond that, there’s Seattle’s Soundgarden — who came out of this scene without even noticing how ter­minal it was, and set about reinventing a post-everything metal as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Sound­garden may even qualify as genuine music-of-youth; Led Zep ripped to shreds is the formal move, but they’re so earnest they’re like Grand Funk with talent.

But even the fucked-up stuff has more going for it than you’d expect. Sure it’s in crisis; it wears itself out obsessing over bankrupt ideas when it isn’t just being truculent about them. And that makes its contortions real involving — like watching Houdini going into the river, inside a safe and six pairs of handcuffs, and trying to figure out how to breathe down there. But past that, there’s the unavoidable truth that all this jammed-up slop, no matter how hung up on over-convoluted formal problems it seems from the sidelines, is to its fans simply descriptive of their own real-life crisis. To them it doesn’t sound theoretical at all. It’s not impossible that this music could someday achieve some kind of equanimity, most likely by aban­doning its fixation on progress and set­tling down to being, if not rock and roll as anybody knew it, then some bizarre sort of terminal postrock blues. But even if it just goes on grabbing for more no­where — well, hey, welcome to the wacky world of high culture. Where were you al the end of the century?

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IN SOME ways, I feel more affinity with these bands than I do with Sonic Youth. The other post-everythings work off of attitudes that I think of as more or less indigenous — that is, mainly deriving from rock, with few if any precedents further afield, and mainly relating to the audience rock invented. SY unmistakably partake of an artier avant-garde tendency that I always instinctively, usually pejora­tively label as European — even though I know that as a pretension it can be as home-grown as those great sad sacks the Doors, and can also feed into music as great as that of those European sons the Velvets.

And yet what screws up so many other post-everything bands is wrestling with the illusion that their chosen form, or anyway their slant on it, can be indige­nous to anybody but themselves. By con­trast, because SY evoke a more highfalu­tin’ genealogy even when they’re indulging their Madonna and Iggy fixa­tions, everything they do sounds perfectly natural — even down-home. Maybe they could be described as the most unpreten­tious pretentious band in the world.

Which didn’t stop them from seeming, at the outset, like the most limiting sort of avant-garde band. Being on the cusp be­tween the last of the no-wave scene and the frankly snobbish downtown hybrids that replaced it gave SY — guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore, guitarist Lee Ran­aldo, bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon, and Bob Bert (now of Pussy Galore, and re­placed in SY by Steve Shelley) on drums — a raft of suspect associations. Glenn Branca and Lydia Lunch — my. They weren’t coming to rock from the outside as Branca did, but they did sound as if they related to the form almost as abstractly. And while they weren’t ever the pain in the ass that Lydia found so many innovative ways of being, they did sound almost as taken with the arty angst that caterwauls about alienation just be­cause it’s so cool. The combination can be deadly, and it’s still what you hear on SY’s ’83 Kill Yr Idols EP: cut-and-dried howls of impeccably discordant anguish.

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I can’t explain exactly why it’s different now, because the band’s music hasn’t changed drastically since then. Their sig­nature remains guitar buildups and con­vergences that choke in frustration before they can ever become rave-ups. But it’s got something to do with SY gaining enough self-assurance to be uncertain. Over time, their own ambivalence about using those same old signifiers for alien­ation made their music heartfelt. They stayed avant-garde, but without the fatal signature of avant-gardism: that slowly-I-­turned framing noise, audible in every­body from the Swans to Henry Rollins, which continually announces that you’ve never heard such sinister and terrible truths before. On SY’s later records, when the band thrashes around with one more of Moore’s stymied impulses toward violence, or Gordon yowls or murmurs her way through another of her Nico-ish self-as-object dissociations, they know it’s not news. It’s mundane — they’re weary.

From another angle, that means that SY relate to avant-gardism as if it were the frowsy pop junk of their formative years — which of course for them, as for so many of us, is exactly what it is. The more clashing and disjunct a song of theirs is, the more they play it as if it were snaggly, scruffy garage-rock. Their satu­ration in the most forbidding noise goes so deep that all difficulty dissolves, replaced on one hand by matter-of-factness, and on the other by an almost goofy romanticism — boy, how they love being in this band. And at the same time, they’re willing now to express their affinities with more familiar, less forbidding noise. Cov­ering the Ramones on the B-side of their recent “Master = Dik” 12-inch showed just how at ease they’ve become — it was the scene’s first-ever acknowledgment of punk as its oldies music.

SY comes at you all in pieces, and maybe they have to. The scattered effect is partly due to the LP format seeming vaguely ill-suited to their sensibility. Of their last three albums, only last year’s Sister — preceded by Bad Moon Rising in ’85, and Evol (love backwards, also evolve cut short: their best title) a year later — doesn’t feel incomplete. They’ve never put out any official vinyl that matches the amazing live double-LP boot­leg This Time, The Last Time, and Here’s to the Next Time — which melts down the distinctions between avant-gardism and pure rock fury to the benefit of both, and also gives you continuum like you’d never believe.

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On one level, SY’s outlook is daunt­ingly narrow. But on another, what’s most striking about them is that their work amounts to a virtual summation, and recapitulation, and reaffirmation, of all the concerns that have obsessed the self-con­scious fringe of rock since well before 1977. Here, once again, not exalted but simply dealt with, are all those old dual­ities of anomie and self-dramatization, hostility and longing, that search for one kind of insanity as a means of staving off another. Here also, jumbled as attic bric­a-brac, is the whole formal tool kit of put-ons, assaultive ironies, cross-references, crossed-circuits, and short-circuits instantly inherited by anyone who decides that rock is everything and inadequate simultaneously.

So who should they remind you of? Darned if I know, but after playing This Time and Live ’69 back-to-back one night, this scene’s equivalent of Dylan comparisons — “to be avoided whenever humanly possible,” Christgau used to say — became impossible to avoid. Still, I don’t particularly mean the Velvets-as-­music, much less the Velvets-as-pinnacle. When the influence does show up in Sonic Youth’s sound, it’s unmistakably derivative, because it’s a tradition now — so many of their songs shudder, stutter, and veer off from turning into the last two minutes of “Sister Ray.” Almost as often as they veer off from turning into each other — and as usual, the band knows it. The link I mean is the act of making a kind of music so unfashionable that the unfashionability becomes freedom. It’s so far removed from anyone else’s moment that it can’t do anything but create one for itself.

What SY ultimately do with the tradi­tion is to make it, of all things, wholesome. Which sounds strange, I know, but consider their voices first off. No matter how artily outre or chaotically near-psy­chotic or fierce their songs get, the people singing them sound steadfast, almost artless; not in a way that contradicts their material; but one that affirms their loyalty to it — as if the dopiest thing they could do would be to exaggerate its abnormality, make it sound more unprecedented than it actually is. When Moore sings the line “We’re gonna kill all the California girls,” in “Expressway to Yr. Skull” (a great move on Evol, a great song on This Time), he neither simply plays the Man­sonism straight, nor tips it as a crazy put-on. He does both, but he’s wistful.

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The band’s latest record, Daydream Nation, both extends this synthesis and makes it more explicit than you’d expect. The album’s a tidy compendium of SY’s familiar obsessions and equally familiar double takes on those obsessions, along with more relaxed acknowledgments of (i.e., borrowings from) the efforts of their companion bands out there in the post­-everything nothingness than you’d have thought them capable of. The oddest thing, though, is that with no loss in astringency they now sound almost … pop­py: the guitars head straight into that vortex of brittle drone where punk, HM, Branca, and the Surfaris all become utter­ly, unutterably indistinguishable, while even Gordon’s my-voice-chopping-against-the-beat dirges now sound as if they have actual hooks, even if the real hook is that voice’s suddenly reassuring familiarity. I’m not sure they were even trying to be accommodating, but there’s no way for them to be difficult anymore. Here’s a slogan for the ’90s: in the future, everyone will be ahead of their time for 15 minutes.

Which is a kind of answer to the post-­everything predicament — most likely not a final one, but certainly the one that makes the most sense right now. This form really is used up, that’s all. There aren’t going to be any more discoveries along this line, and neither is there much point in playing all manner of formal games to try to make what’s now old sound new, or what’s now familiar sound forbidden. But even if revelation is out of the question, this music can still go on speaking to its minority audience like the tradition it is, just as mature showbiz speaks to the majority — as a constant if not an upheaval, and as a dialogue instead of a challenge. And if nothing else, as our old friend art for art’s sake — even if that ends up as the biggest difference between it and rock and roll. ♦


Lou Reed Rising

Naked Lunch Becomes TV Dinner: The Rise of Punk Rock

No “legendary” rock band of the 1960s has proven more legendary than the Velvet Underground. The name alone (before it was abbreviated by fans into “the Velvets”) carried a special resonance, evoking Genet decadence, whip-and-leather s&m, Warhol chic, and European ennui. And even though other urban bands (the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Rascals) were more commercially successful at the time, the best songs of the Velvets (“Sweet Jane,” “Candy Says,” “Waiting for the Man,” “Beginning to See the Light”) have an emotional texture and a sharply defined drive which propel the songs beyond the time in which they were written.

Yet when one tries to think of the Velvet Underground photographically, one draws a grainy blur. The great rock stars of the ’60s live vividly in our memories through their photos; one thinks of the Beatles first in their suit-uniforms, then in their glossy Sgt. Pepper outfits, of Hendrix in his black-nimbus Afro and layers of scarves, of countless shots of Jagger pouting and preening and hip-thrusting. Yet the Velvets, except for the imperially lovely Nico, seemed not to occupy visual space at all. Even when one listens to their live albums now, it’s impossible to imagine what they looked like playing their instruments — they don’t come into focus. This shadowiness makes the power of their music all the more provocative since it means that not theatricality but its absence is what gives that music its current urgency. The Velvets didn’t have a strong stud-star at center stage (as did the Stones and the Doors) and didn’t provide a good-vibes community atmosphere (as did the Dead and the Airplane) and didn’t attempt to stagger the audience with histrionics (as did Alice Cooper and just about everybody else). What makes the Velvets vital now is not only what they had but what they lacked: stylishness, ornamentation, politics, and a hedonistic ethos.

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I first heard the Velvet Underground in the record library of Frostburg State College in western Maryland; the album, their first (with a jacket painting by Warhol), was the only rock album in the entire collection, and that distinction intrigued me. Yet, except for their chanteuse, Nico, and her ghostfloating vocals on “Sunday Morning” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” except for Reed’s quirky phrasing and John Cale’s merciless viola on “Black Angel’s Death Song,” the music was unenthralling. The liner-note quotes about “three-ring psychosis” and “Warhol’s brutal assemblage” described a realm of experience that was for me as faraway and nocturnally exotic as Apollinaire’s Paris, or Brecht’s Berlin. At a time when the most popular bands on campus were corporate entities like Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, it was difficult to connect with a band that dedicated songs to Delmore Schwartz. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Velvet Underground had already disbanded, that they had left behind not one studio album but four; only when I came to New York and discovered a dingy copy of White Light/White Heat in a Canal Street 99¢ bin did the music of the Velvets hit me with its careening bloodrushing force.

Now, three years later, their music is even more compelling. And though the Velvets were either ignored or denounced in their prime — they go undiscussed in Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City and Carl Belz’s The Story of Rock, and even in Stephen Koch’s vertiginously brilliant book about Warhol their music is described as “the hideous ‘acid’ maundering … of insufferable navel-gazing guitars” — it’s clear now that they were the supreme American avant-garde band. With the Warhol affiliation no longer impinging upon their aesthetic, the music can be freshly heard and appreciated for its radical primitivism. “Sister Ray” is still throbbingly dissonant, a river of electronic fever, and the best of Loaded is as vibrantly alive as if it had been recorded last week at C.B.G.B. by white-shirted kids with virginal Stratocasters. This is true precisely because the music of the Velvet Underground was in no way formally innovative. The Beatles, the Mothers of Invention, the Grateful Dead — all were more experimental, eclectic, and orchestrally inventive, yet there’s something wanly dated about their music now … it’s as pale and faded as old Peter Max posters, or discarded copies of the EVO. Once the values and sentiments of the psychedelicized counterculture lost their sway, the audaciousness of the music seemed sheer pretentiousness — intricate toys being passed off as sacerdotal gifts. The desire for community was so fervent, and the reverence for pop stars so fanatically intense, that when John Lennon sang, “I don’t believe in Elvis … don’t believe in Beatles,” people reacted as if he had said something shattering, something revolutionary. If someone next week sang, “I don’t be-Aretha … don’t believe in Roxy,” he’d earn a tempest of derisive laughter. And rightly so.

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Well, the Velvets never fell for the platitudes of transcendence (via acid) and community (via rock) which distance us from so much of the Sgt. Pepper era rock. The dynamics of the Velvets’ music — its disorderliness, loneliness, melancholy, abrupt joyfulness, claustrophobia (contrasted with the wide blue vistas of much post-Woodstock rock), chiaroscuro shadings (contrasted with the Peppery psychedelicized rainbows), antihedonism, and druggy wistfulness — are consonant with the tensions of the Ford era. Though there’s a pull of litany in their songs, the Velvets were never purveyors of salvation — they were always too thoughtful, too tentative. Their modest expectations, their distrust of charisma (both political and cultural), and their disdain for grand gestures are attitudes congruent with the apolitical politics of Jerry Brown. (Is this why Alexander Cockburn plays “Sister Ray” at least five times a day?) It’s a leaderless time, and the Velvets never believed in leaders; their music always stressed survival over community. Even their most beautiful love songs (“Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror”) were about the distances between people — about the inability to penetrate the mystery of the other. The drug they sang about was not a vision-inducing agent like acid, or a partytime pass-it-around substance like pot, but the drug that most completely isolates one from others: heroin. The Velvets’ music was about nihilism, the nihilism of the street, and this barely bridled energy — what John Cale called “controlled distortion” — is expressed cinematically by Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah novelistically by William Burroughs, musically by post-Velvet rockers like Patti Smith (who sings “Pale Blue Eyes” more passionately than Lou Reed ever did), Roxy Music, David Bowie, the Dolls, Talking Heads, and Television.

The Heads and Television may even be more commercially successful than the Velvets originally were because both are more melodic, more visible (unobscured by multimedia effects), and more photogenic. The Heads look like a still from a Godard movie (“La Chinoise,” maybe) and Tom Verlaine looks like Artaud from Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” But since they’re as yet unsigned, the underground-rock breakthrough which is most precipitous is embodied in a wonky little wacker named Jonathan Richman, the auteur-alumnus of a Velvet-influenced band called the Modern Lovers.

This Jonathan Richman, a feral child of Rocky and Bullwinkle, will soon be shuffling his way across the FM dial and into America’s bruised bosom. Richman has already received moderate airplay and modest notoriety with his soupy contributions to Beserkley Chartbusters, Vol. 1, particularly his witty celebration of highway life called “Roadrunner,” which offers a fine antidote to Springy’s overripe imagery. An album of keen documentary interest has just been released which may make Jonathan Richman a household name in every household in which Mary Hartman is the smiling madonna. It’s called Modern Lovers and it’s a demo tape produced by ex-Velvet John Cale for a Warner Bros. album which was never made. The Velvet influence is reflected not only in the music (the organ work, for example, is strongly reminiscent of “Sister Ray”) but in the expression of angst.

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Fascinating is the contrast between the New York of Loaded and the Boston of Modern Lovers. Where the cityscape of the Velvet Underground is cluttered yet lonely, Richman’s ironic rhapsodies about Boston conjure up a city which is somnolently empty, a city visually and aurally impoverished.

I’m in love with the modern world
Massachusetts when it’s late at night
And the neon when it’s cold outside
I got the radio on
Just like a roadrunner

(“Roadrunner”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan’s Music)

And here is Richman faced with the mysteries of amour at his local bank:

There’s only three in the other lines
In my line, well, I count eleven
Well, that’s fine cause I’m in heaven
I got a crush on the new bank teller
She looks at me and she knows

(“The New Teller”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan Music)

Small wonder Joni Mitchell is having sleepless nights …

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Yet when Susan Sontag wrote that new art is painful because it hurts having your sensorium stretched, she was anticipating Richman’s effect. For he has an unforgettable voice: off-key, off-pitch, so achingly widehorizonly flat that it makes a Rothko painting resemble a lunar landscape by comparison. When he performed last year at C.B.G.B., he lazily strummed his acoustic guitar and yammered mindlessly on about Love, wonderful Love, and how wonderful it is to have a girlfriend to share Love in the Modern World with, strum strum strum, and after the audience gave him exaggerated bravos, he performed his special version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for the third or fourth time.

Wedded to such an instrument of torture, Richman’s Weltschmerz-pose could make him a sui generis rock star, though we’ll have to wait until his first solo album is completed for Beserkley Records before we’ll know if he can stretch himself, or if he’s just a dandy with a gift for punky pinched irony.

Punk humor, a healthy parody of rock machismo, can be found in the music of the Dictators (who sing: “The best part of growing up/Is when I’m sick and throwing up/It’s the dues you got to pay/For eating burgers every day … “) and the leather-jacketed Ramones, in the Daffy Duckery of Patti Smith, in magazines like Punk and Creem, and in television heroes like Fonzie and Eddie Haskell. It’s a style of humor which reverses banality, thrives upon it, and enjoys juxtaposing it with high culture references in order to create a comically surreal effect.

Of course, the rock-and-roll regent of punkish irony is ex-Velvet Lou Reed whose solo albums include Transformer (with Reed’s most popular song, “Walk on the Wild Side), two live collections, Sally Can’t Dance, Berlin (my favorite Reed work, a misery-drenched masterwork: sunless, spiteful, and cold-bloodedly cruel), and Metal Machine Music, a two-record set of such triumphant unlistenability that it crowned Reed’s reputation as a master of psychopathic insolence. What Reed learned from Warhol (though he could have learned it equally well from Mailer or Capote) is careermanship: making yourself such a commanding media figure that even when your latest work is a pathetic package of retread riffs and coffee-grind lyrics, people will still be intrigued by the strategy behind it.

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In the forging of an emblematic identity, Reed not only turned himself into a clown but into a cartoon. When he played with the Velvets, he looked like a bright brooding college kid in sweater and slacks; now, in the premiere issue of Punk magazine, a hilarious interview with him is interpolated with cartoons showing him grumbling, sneering, wrecking television sets — transformed from Joe College into a metamphetamine W. C. Fields. The diva of American rock critics, Lester Bangs, has described the decline of Reed’s artistry thusly: “Lou Reed is the guy who gave dignity and poetry and rock ‘n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a monumental bad joke … ” Bangs sees Reed’s post-Velvet career as one long graveyard stroll, noting that after the breakup of the Velvets, “People kept expecting him to die.”

Instead, he became a death-artist, a performer in pursuit of ultimate separateness (a pursuit very much like Warhol’s futile quest for perfect pristine stillness), and after absorbing chemical cannonades which left his brain as battered as Charles Bukowski’s face, Lou Reed survived and parodied Death on the Installment Plan. “Heroin,” for example, was a song which was dropped from the Velvets repertoire for a while because too many people embraced it as being pro-smack, when in fact Reed intended the song as a sort of exorcism. Yet only a few years later Reed would not only perform “Heroin” in his solo act but would take out a syringe, wrap the microphone cord around his arm, pretend to shoot up, and hand the syringe to someone in the audience. When Cher said that the music of the Velvet Underground would replace nothing except suicide, she was unknowingly anticipating the rue-morgue antics of Lou Reed and his progeny. Just last week I heard one of New York’s underground bands, the Miamis, do a song glamorizing the La Guardia bombing incident, and at one point the lead singer proclaimed, “There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander!” Maybe he and Reed should take a ride in De Niro’s taxi …

Where Lou Reed used to stare death down (particularly in the black-blooded Berlin), he now christens random violence. Small wonder, then, that his conversation ripples with offhanded brutality: though he probably couldn’t open a package of Twinkies without his hands trembling, he enjoys babbling threats of violence. One night, when a girl at C.B.G.B. clapped loudly (and out of beat) to a Television song, Reed threatened to knock “the cunt’s head off”; she blithely ignored him, and he finally got up and left. No one takes his bluster seriously; I even know women who find his steely bitterness sexy.

After dumping all this dirt, I have to confess that this walking crystallization of cankerous cynicism possesses such legendary anticharisma that there’s something princely about him, something perversely impressive. There’s a certain rectitude in Lou Reed’s total lack of rectitude: one can imagine him sharing a piss with Celine in some smoky subterranean chamber, the two of them chuckling over each other’s lies.

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In the absence of Celine, it’s encouraging news that Reed and John Cale may soon team up again, for Cale could force Reed to exert himself, and Reed’s presence could help raise Cale’s visibility. Though Cale is currently touring with the Patti Smith Group, doing a rambunctious miniset along with the encore numbers, he’s still a tiny figure in the rock tapestry. The post-Velvet career of the classically trained Cale (he studied with Aaron Copland) has been stormy, flamboyant, and fueled by alcohol. But his output has been prolific: Vintage Violence, Church of Anthrax (with avant-garde composer Terry Riley), Fear, Slow Dazzle, and, most recently, Helen of Troy. Where Reed did his deathwalk by looking like an emaciated survivor out of The Night Porter, Cale went the rock-Dada route — performing cunnilingus on a mannequin during a concert, playing guitar in a goalie’s mask, lurching around with Frankensteinian menace. Like Reed, Cale has been treated as a joke yet, unlike Reed, his latest work is worthy of serious attention — Helen of Troy is a classic of drunken genius. The album lacks the stylishness of his earlier work and at first listen, everything seems askew — the mixing is odd (the bass dominates, the vocals seem distanced), the pacing seems muscle-pulled, the lyrics offhand then arrowy — and then the sloppiness shapes itself into force and beauty. Island Records has not yet decided whether or not to release Helen of Troy in America. Which is indecision bordering on criminal negligence. In the meantime, seek out the album through stores which deal in English imports and see if it doesn’t haunt your nights like a reeling somnambulist from the cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Indeed, the Velvets and their progeny are all children of Dr. Caligari — pale-skinned adventurers of shadowy city streets. Richard Robinson, author of The Video Primer, has a video tape which shows Lou Reed and John Cale rehearsing for a concert to be performed in Paris with Nico. After Reed runthroughs “Candy Says,” they perform “Heroin” together: Reed’s monochromatic voice, Cale’s mournful viola, the dirgeful lyrics (“heroin … be the death of me …”), the colorless bleakness of the video image … a casual rehearsal had become a drama of luminous melancholia. What was blurry before became indelibly vivid, and the Reed/Cale harlequinade melted away so that one could truly feel their power as prodigies of transfiguration. For them — as for Patti Smith, Eno, Talking Heads, and Television — electricity is the force which captures the fevers, heats, and dreamily violent rhythms of city life, expressing urban disconnectedness and transcending it. Electricity becomes the highest form of heroin … listening to the Velvets, you may have been alone, but you were never stranded.



Parquet Courts’ Andrew Savage announces his ambitions (or lack thereof) on Light Up Gold’s first track, “Master of My Craft,” claiming he “didn’t come here to dream or teach the world things.” But on, say, his band’s second best track, “You’ve Got Me Wonderin’ Now,” he still passes on nuggets of wisdom (“Toothache’s better than heartache, baby”). Their best, meanwhile, is “Stoned and Starving,” on which a bodega run gets existential and guitars get freaky à la Velvet Underground, rambling out even farther from home. Tonight, they play Acheron with Amanda X and Household.

Tue., Jan. 14, 8 p.m., 2014