MARCH 14, 2019
PATTI SMITH RECALLS her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, the guitarist and songwriter best known for his years with the underrated rock band MC5, walking into their kitchen with the command, “People have the power. Write it.” Drawing on inspirations as diverse as the contemporary environmental movement and Biblical verse, Smith exercised her poetic power to compose the verses of the standout song on her 1988 record, Dream of Life, while she was also completing the most mundane of tasks — peeling potatoes. Fred Smith wrote the music and the melody line.
On the newly released Patti Smith at the Minetta Lane, a recording of a recent live performance combining extemporaneous storytelling, recitation from her National Book Award–winning memoir Just Kids, and raucous renditions of some of her best songs, the rock-’n’-roll poet returns to the stage for the only encore, a full-band version of “People Have the Power.” As the rapid-fire drum opening collapses into the familiar guitar riff, Smith shouts, “Let’s peel some fuckin’ potatoes.”
The moment is charming, not least because “People Have the Power” is arguably the most electrifying protest anthem of the past 35 years.
When U2 returned to Paris to perform their first concert following the terrorist attack on an Eagles of Death Metal show in 2015 and the cancellation of their own show set for the same week, they wisely chose not to close with one of their own songs, but to invite Patti Smith on stage for a rousing and defiant “People Have the Power.” The performance, profoundly moving given the context, illustrates the power and enduring relevance of Smith’s songwriting.
But the guest appearance with U2 featured Patti Smith in an all-too-familiar role — upstaging men, but receiving little attention. Patti Smith’s prolific and innovative output, throughout five decades and over 11 studio records, demonstrates that she is worthy of classification in the rock-’n’-roll elite, alongside Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and the musical brethren whose names populate the top-10 greatest songwriter rankings. The conspicuous absence of her name from the increasingly redundant “greatest songwriter” conversation is more instructive, and damning, for the aging fraternity of rock critics than it is for Patti Smith.
Rock ’n’ roll — and mainstream music more broadly — suffers from a bias that advantages men, and as a consequence, lowers the volume, or even mutes, the contribution of women. The discriminatory arrangement is not only the result of an almost exclusively male establishment of music critics, but an extension of sexist assumptions that also poison politics, economics, and the entirety of pop culture.
Jessica Hopper recently published an excellent anthology of essays with the agenda pushing “fuck-you” title, to use her own words, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Robert Christgau, the self-appointed dean of rock writers, conceded that Hopper’s title was truth in advertising. The outsized critical influence of Christgau, Dave Marsh, and Greil Marcus demonstrates how the disproportionately male occupation of positions of authority simultaneously creates and evaluates a canon — largely after its own image.
There are notable exceptions. Marcus, to his credit, has been a lifetime proponent of Sleater-Kinney, and other women-led punk bands, but even he works within an industry troubled by a culture of “sexist hell,” to quote Penny Anderson. An artist and writer for the Guardian, Anderson recently recalled that as an A&R scout and music critic she “witnessed so much appalling behaviour by male musicians, writers and other music biz types that I often felt as if I had wandered into the gents by mistake.”
Even a cursory review of the obligatory songwriter rankings reveals a striking pattern. The women who tend to rank high in songwriter esteem — Joni Mitchell, Carole King — are brilliant and certainly deserving, but also conventionally feminine in voice and aesthetic. It is also difficult to classify either Mitchell or King as practitioners of rock ’n’ roll. Patti Smith, vastly different in appearance and performance style, has always aspired to create a musical and literary hybrid out of poetry and rock guitar. With everything from the opening lines of “Gloria” to her epic grunge tribute to Kurt Cobain, “About a Boy,” Smith injects a poetic sensibility into rock ’n’ roll with rage, aggression, and an artistic idiom of combat. Pat Peterson, a backup singer in John Mellencamp’s band for nearly 30 years, once told me that “rock and roll was always a boy’s club.” With her crass erudition, Beat poet assertiveness, and eschewal of any trace of effeminate sex appeal, Patti Smith is an interloper — a singer and songwriter who threatens to subvert the phallic order of rock-’n’-roll expression.
Mary Beard, the classicist, argues in her “manifesto,” Women & Power, that there is a historical energy — spanning everything from classical literature to misogynistic threats on social media — that serves to police the territory of male authority. “[It] is about,” Beard writes, “keeping, or getting, women out of man’s talk.” Even the qualities that most people associate with effective public oratory, Beard explains, have a masculine bias. Throughout antiquity, “[p]ublic speech was a — if not the — defining attribute of maleness.” If discriminatory biases are deeply embedded in prevailing perception of rhetorical command and charisma, it is not too great a leap in logic to consider how those sexist assumptions and standards subvert the critical assessment of women in rock ’n’ roll.
In his review of Horses, Greil Marcus criticizes Smith’s “shtick” of the “New York avant-garde […] beatnik hipster pose, the dark night of the street punk soul,” concluding that her “posture seems an end in itself.” It is difficult to find similar denunciation of Lou Reed, another New York avant-garde rock-’n’-roll poet, even though Reed would often confess to inventing his persona. As he said on the live record Live: Take No Prisoners, “I do Lou Reed better than anybody.”
Dave Marsh, who was an early champion of Smith and subsequently has given her mixed reviews, has praised Smith’s inventiveness and ambition, but also ridiculed her vulgarity and obnoxiousness. Can anyone imagine a rock critic lambasting Mick Jagger or Jim Morrison on those terms?
Marsh is most famous as a biographer and booster of Bruce Springsteen who shares a co-writing credit on Patti Smith’s biggest — and perhaps only — hit single, “Because the Night.” A comparison of Smith and Springsteen’s respective versions demonstrates that she was more than capable of competing with The Boss:
In the second verse Springsteen sings,
What I got I have earned
What I’m not I have learned
Desire and hunger is the fire I breathe
Just stay in my bed till the morning comes
The grandeur of Smith’s poetry makes for a more powerful and colorful depiction of one lost in the hypnotic spell of love:
Have I doubt when I’m alone
Love is a ring, the telephone
Love is an angel disguised as lust
Here in our bed until the morning comes
The two artists recently found themselves staying in the same room again. Near the end of Springsteen’s run on Broadway, Patti Smith also combined spoken word and song for the aforementioned Patti Smith at the Minetta Lane.
The Springsteen show is possibly the greatest thing that he has ever done — a magnificent presentation of the full glory and tragedy of human life in which his experiences and stories come to take on profound universality. The show also benefits from Springsteen’s meticulous craftsmanship. By his own admission, he carefully calculated every syllable and note of the performance. Patti Smith at the Minetta Lane, by contrast, feels improvised, more dangerous, and as a result, sometimes sloppy and disoriented. Juxtaposed with Springsteen’s excellent, but somewhat safer prose, Smith’s words seem more magical and elevated, somehow taking flight. The vast majority of critical coverage, however, offered Springsteen the endless accolades and praise. That Smith’s performance barely registered is further illustration of a critical standard in need of demolition.
“1959,” from Patti Smith’s 1997 record, Peace and Noise, brilliantly contrasts the peak of American prosperity before the tumult of the 1960s with the violent revolt of Tibet in the same year. It manages to pull into view an entire delineation of historical inequality and divergence within a four-minute pop song. Ralph Nader adopted her raucous and optimistic 2000 song “New Party” as the theme for his presidential campaign. Together, “1959” and “New Party” demonstrate a uniquely gifted artist confronting the sociopolitical reality of her world with insight and unmerciful jaggedness. Age has not softened her.
Smith’s most recent record of original compositions, Banga, is one of the most versatile and inspired of her entire career. “Constantine’s Dream,” a 10-minute, slow-burning exercise in rock minimalism, features Smith improvising a narrative poem, and in the process, presenting questions of eternal profundity: What is the role of the artist in society? Is it delusional to believe that art can help suffering people around the world?
“Maria,” a beautiful ballad paying tribute to French actress Maria Schneider, cannot quiet the inquiries of “Constantine’s Dream,” but it does measure the indelible emotional impact art can leave on one human life.
These songs barely form the foot of a mountain in Patti Smith’s musical and literary life — a life that searches, perhaps in vain, but with beauty and courage and avidity for the salvation Smith believed she could find through the vitality of rock-’n’-roll expression. Neil Young rightfully enjoys his status as “godfather of grunge,” but Smith, whose “Dancing Barefoot” precedes and anticipates the wave of women’s alternative rock that would engulf radio in the 1990s, rarely receives such credit. It’s time she received her due as one of rock ’n’ roll’s most important artists.
In Just Kids, Smith tells a story about Allen Ginsberg buying her a sandwich and cup of coffee when she did not have enough money to pay the bill. The rock-’n’-roll songstress and great Beat poet eventually formed a friendship, but Ginsberg had different intentions with his charitable gesture: “I took you for a very pretty boy,” he said with some audible disappointment.
Critics, too, for reasons that are not as simple, seem to share Ginsberg’s wish that Patti Smith were a man.
David Masciotra (www.davidmasciotra.com) is the author of four books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing, 2017).