Sunday, December 17, 2017

Preserve, Protect, and Project

"Patti Smith, NYC, 1976." Photo by Frank Stefanko
Near the end of her absorbing, achingly affecting memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith writes that among the lessons she learned from her lifelong friend Robert Mapplethorpe was that "often contradiction is the clearest way to truth.” She was reflecting on Mapplethorpe's bisexuality—that he'd been "chided for denying his homosexuality," and that she and Mapplethorpe "were accused of not being a real couple"—but the discovery at the heart of that lesson glossed Smith's burgeoning performance style, also. A lifelong fan of rock and roll, Smith understood and dug the sensual, rhythmic pulse in danceable music, but also wished to expand the parameters of that music with poetry and spoken word, pushing rock and roll toward something more expressionistic and avant-garde, fluid and dynamic while still pumping a rocking groove and being very, very sexy. Contradictions: she'd blend the bone-simple workout "Land of 1,000 Dances" with a surreal noir, or sing Them's three-chord classic "Gloria" and use it as a basis for a long, formless-inside-shape exploration of identity, rebellion, and sex:
Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine...
People say "beware!"
But I don't care
The words are just
Rules and regulations to me
“In the beginning it was just Lenny and I, and then we brought in a piano player, who was Richard Sohl,” Smith said in 2006. “So it was just the three of us… and we did very simple songs, because the configuration was so simple. We just chose songs that were basically three chords, so I could improvise over them.” She'd take the template of a two-minute, verse-verse-bridge-chorus song and stretch it until it accommodated, willingly or not, a surreal and poetic narrative. Rock and roll as prose poem, or the other way around, maybe. The mid-1970s Bowery rock and roll scene in which she was an early presence was pointed with contradictions, many of the early, epochal-making artists (Richard Hell, Television, Mink DeVille, Talking Heads, et al) turning radio rock and roll and pop music on its head in similar ways to Smith (who was joined on guitar by Lenny Kaye, who knew a thing or two about rock and roll forms). Sustainable subversion was the anthem of the day (and night).

I'm always eager to read eye-level accounts of the liberating punk and street rock zeitgeist in lower Manhattan from this era, and Smith delivers in Just Kids. "We imagined ourselves as the Sons of Liberty with a mission to preserve, protect, and project the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll," she writes.
We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity. We would call forth in our minds the image of Paul Revere, riding through the American night, petitioning the people to wake up, to take up arms. We too would take up arms, the arms of our generation, the electric guitar and the microphone.

CBGB was the ideal place to sound a clarion call. It was a club on the street of the downtrodden that drew a strange breed who welcomed artists yet unsung. The only thing Hilly Krystal required from those who played there was to be new.

From the dead of winter through the renewal of spring, we grappled and prevailed until we found our stride. As we played, the songs took on a life of their own, often reflecting the energy of the people, the atmosphere, our growing confidence, and events that occurred in our immediate terrain.

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