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Reading Patti Smith

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[This essay, focusing on Patti Smith’s early songs, emerges from teaching and writing I’m doing around an undergraduate course on the poetics of song lyrics and pop culture studies.]
Patti Smith Complete 1975-2006 is more than an anthology of lyrics, and it’s also hardly complete. Patti Smith’s writing – along with her music and photography – is marked and informed by an essential contrariety, by a conflictedness suggested ironically in the book’s blandly generic title, which gestures, I’d say, toward an admixture of excess and fragmentation, of spontaneous overflow and fraught insufficiency that drives her thinking around the making of poems and songs and around her performance style.  She frames this set of contradictions, her sense of voice and of self as embodied contradictions, in the snippets of memoir and reflection scattered throughout the book; commenting on the lyrics for “Birdland,” a track for Horses spontaneously and collectively realized by her and her band in the recording studio, she says that the “concept of improvisation” – and it’s worth nothing that she says concept, rather than practice – “has long repelled and excited me, for it contains the possibilities of humiliation and illumination,” that is, both of the degrading and the vatic. “Sha da do wop da shaman do way sha da do wop da shaman do way,” she sings at the close of her extemporaneous soliloquy; song, as contingent melody, emerges (as in “Land”) off-and-on in the piece from passages of loosely narrative spoken word; the final gently looping chorus blurs doo-wop girl-group nonsense syllables into a vestigial chant of the word “shaman,” and it’s as a kind of nascent and androgynous rock’n’roll shaman that Smith wants here, at the outset of her singing career, to position herself. In a New York Times review of her 1978 collection Babel, a precursor to the “complete” collection we’re now reading in our course on song lyrics and popular culture, Jonathan Cott nicely encapsulates the contradictions that inhere in Smith’s stagy shamanism as he traces out the complexities of her performance persona, of her onstage self-fashioning:
Patti Smith has taken this magic amalgam and manifested it in what she calls “3 chord rock merged with the power of the word,” claiming that rock-and-roll is “the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel).” . . . [B]y adopting a paradoxical theatrical stance – one that confuses male and female roles and that combines the acoustic magic of Rimbaud and the Ronettes – Patti Smith has been able to develop, explore and create a certain shamanistic presence that has eluded many aspiring rock-and-roll seers and heroes.
Counterpointing bits of scripture with caustic fragments of French symbolist poetry, her performative “magic” emerges as an uneasy blend of what she calls – ventriloquizing Jean Genet’s poemLe Condamné à mort” on the back cover of her 1979 album Wave – a doubling of menace into prayer, of prayer as menace.  (In the pages of her Complete, the crux of the line – “Use menace, use prayer.” – becomes an epigraph to the section reproducing the lyrics for Easter [90].)
The infamous first line of “Gloria” – the first track and the first single from her first album, Horses – combines the liturgical and the blasphemous along this same trajectory: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” As an opening gambit, her declaration doesn’t simply articulate what sounds like a resiliently agnostic, existential individualism, but also voices an entitlement – hers, “mine” – to her own deliberate marginality. Her rock-and-roll “magic,” understood as a gestural negation, isn’t so much about belief and shared redemption as it is about disturbance, about a faith – a belief both in and as resistance – that wants uncompromisingly to test its limits and to refuse any vestiges of comfort or assurance. While never quite rejecting Christian iconology and aesthetics (especially the ritual of Roman Catholicism, as the tone poem “Wave,” for example, makes abundantly clear, as well as a very recent photograph of her meeting Pope Francis) Patti Smith describes her Jesus, in the wake of viewing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Matthew, as a  “revolutionary figure”: “I began to see him in another light – a teacher, a fighter, a guerrilla” (96). Her Easter is closer to an Easter uprising, a rebirth in turmoil that implicates her in an uncompromised, if not violent, self-remaking. As she appropriates and repurposes the glorified masculine desire that informs Van Morrison’s (as one of Them) original 1963 single “Gloria” (“And oh, she looks so good. Oh she looks so fine / And I got this crazy feeling that I’m gonna make her mine”), the subject position that defines itself in a tirade of possessives (“And I’ve got to tell the world that I made her mine made her mine / Made her mine made her mine made her mine made her mine”) degenerates into a repetitive chant that pulverizes poeisis, making, and diegesis, telling, into thudding particulate phonemes: her voice, the “I” that sings and by singing both hails and possesses its feminine other, becomes drumming, becomes unclosed, brutal and primeval rhythm, a beating. Liturgical responsorial from the Latin mass – gloria in excelsis deo– is both secularized into an erotic object and pulled apart, as she intones each letter of Gloria’s name, into the molecular fragments. The song at once catalyzes into insistent, thetic syllables and disintegrates into undifferentiated verbal noise: pronouncing and dismantling a beloved name that, through the poetic agency of the lyric itself, becomes simultaneously both mine and not-mine, supplement and other.
This double move is, I think, characteristic of many of Patti Smith’s lyrics, which often assert a confidently singular subject while gesturing to the iterative, collaborative and unsettled character of that voice, of her voice. The sexual ambiguity of “Gloria,” for example, as Patti Smith’s lyrics overtake and then fall into a cover-version, a repetition with difference, of Van Morrison’s original (sung, as the lyrics claim, to “twenty thousand girls” at an imaginary stadium concert), disturbs any clear sense of the erotic narrative in the song: Is this a woman ventriloquizing heterosexual desire? Does the song become a queer paean to same-sex desire? The indeterminate androgyny of Patti Smith’s stage persona unknits any normalizing of the dynamics between man and woman, suitor and ingénue. “Because the Night” (from Easter, two or three years later) thematizes desire as belonging, assembling want and succor into an amalgam of contrarieties that becomes more a testament to faith than its deconstruction: “Because the night belongs to lovers / Because the night belongs to us.” Notably, that belonging is shared, ours instead of mine. Smith describes herself as reluctant to listen to a demo cassette of an early version of the song, supplied through producer/engineer Jimmy Iovine from its composer, Bruce Springsteen. Taken by what she describes as its “anthemic quality,” she finishes the lyrics and “somewhat begrudgingly” presents it to her band to record (100). The resulting hit song, she says, is a “testament to Jimmy Iovine’s vision and the co-writer’s New Jersey heritage,” which is also close to her own. As with “Gloria,” what emerges on record isn’t so much a cover or a version of someone else’s song as much as it is a collaborative mix of voices and articulations. For instance, one line that I take to be closer to Smith’s idiom than Springsteen’s (though who can tell or separate them out?) offers in an archly poetic inversion a strong disavowal of the imperious first-person singular: “Have I doubt when I’m alone.” While such a declaration might easily be taken as an avocation of conquest (and assertions in the lyric about “the way I feel under your command” would likely only reinforce such a reading), it seems to me that what we also hear – given the ambiguity and even absence of gender markers for example – is an unsettled and androgynous collaboration, an affirmation that belonging consists in shared desires rather than in their satisfaction through erotic subjugation. When the song asks us to feel and to heal through touch, to “touch me now” in its performative moment, subject and object are inverted in the imperative form, as “I” becomes “me.” Demand and uncertainty produce a temporary hiatus, an almost: contact suspended in the looping repetitions of the refrain. For me, as a listener, this persistence of desire sounds itself in the rhythmic phase-shift of the chorus; because of where it’s placed metrically, “becáuse” becomes “bécause”, and the song gently but persistently jostles against its own formal limits.
Smith’s songs, though, are hardly ever so gentle. (There is nothing, nothing gentle about “Rock n Roll N****r,” an in-your-face provocation that offers a sort of blasphemous flipside to “Because the Night.” [The actual b-side on the 45 was “God Speed.”] I can’t bring myself to type the word without self-censoring: to me, it’s unredeemable and ugly, a verbal violence out of which Smith draws an insurmountable and irresolute alterity, a brutal vocal enactment of Rimbaud’s grammatically fraught claim that “Je est un autre.” There is a good discussion of much of the background to Smith’s reappropriation of the term n****r here.)
The sequence “Land” (also on Horses) begins with a spoken-word piece “Horses” that builds from rubato free-form narrative to four-on-the-floor incantatory, blistering rock. “Horses” sketches a tale of Johnny and his mirror-image, a nameless boy, who confront each other in an unspecified hallway. This doubling is also echoed, literalized, in the restrained overdubbing of another vocal track by Smith, out-of-synch with the lead, her words softly clashing and crashing into each other, as her delivery becomes more emphatic. As the boy approaches, “a rhythm was generating” the song tells us. Johnny is penetrated by the boy as he’s pushed against a locker. (Is this a high school hallway?) The boy disappears, but Johnny starts crashing his own head against the locker, a violence that seems to produce either delusion or vision, concussion or transcendence: either way, the “rhythm” Johnny now sees and hears with increasing intensity in his head, in his ears, sounds like the hoofbeats of fire breathing horses, a pounding verbalized in a chant-like repetition – similar to the chorus in “Gloria” – of a single word: “He saw horses horses horses / horses horses horses horses horses.” The surging drums and guitars behind Smith’s vocal reach a vatic climax – these are versions of the horses of the Christian apocalypse – only to find release into a high velocity version of “Land of a Thousand Dances.”
As with “Gloria,“ the group inhabits in the fierce present tense of their performances a dynamic trajectory through rock’n’roll history. The apocalyptic horses transform, in the first line of Wilson Pickett’s top 40 hit, into one of a set of teenage dance crazes: “Do you know how to pony like bony maroney” Smith wails. Whoever her Johnny might have been, as a representative disaffected teenager, he now appears to find a moment of catharsis and of shared vitality in the song’s hypnotic repetitions: it’s an old song recovered and made new, and it also asserts an insistently driven 4/4 rhythm in which you can’t help getting caught up and pulled to your feet – “Got to lose control and then you take control [. . .] Do you like it like that like it like that.” Spontaneity and self-control collide and smash; what you (not I and not even we, but the vocalist’s externalized other, her audience) . . . what you get to like in this music – liking taken both as likeness, as in the mirrorings and identifications inherent in popular music, and as Eros, as liking what you feel – what you get to like in this music are the conflicted pleasures of its own creative unmaking, its audible gristle. 

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