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Reading Patti Smith
[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 poem“Le 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 .)
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.
Hey, That’s Me: Bruce Springsteen and Audience, Part 1
Last week, I started off the current version of an undergraduate course I’m teaching on song lyrics and popular culture with a four-class unit about Bruce Springsteen. I have tried to use his music as an introductory case study in how popular music works, and in what it can do. One of the things we began to think through was the way in which his songs consistently thematize their own reception, representing both textually and musically a set of relationships between singer and audience. Specifically, I tried to read his songs as invitations not only into an erotic reciprocity – to touch and be touched, to feel each other’s presence – but also into a form of shared community: the nascent and loving democracy his “America” promises to be, even if maybe it can never realize that dream. These songs want to communicate, hopefully.
In what’s really the first essay in 31 Songs(2002), Nick Hornby asserts that his all-time favourite song is Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” That song both addresses and enacts, for him, a durable and enduring moment of love, and it describes the living arc of his own long-term fandom:
I can remember listening to this song and loving it in 1975; I can remember listening to this song and loving it almost as much quite recently, a few months ago.
[. . .] So I’ve loved this song for a quarter of a century now, and I’ve heard it more than anything else, with the possible exception of . . . Who am I kidding? There are no other contenders.
This one song manages, whenever he hears it, to speak to him, for him and about him. I have to say, too, that I know exactly the feeling and exactly the identification that Nick Hornby maps out here, exactly what it is that “Thunder Road,” even despite itself sometimes, makes happen for listeners and for fans every time it plays. Hornby describes his experience of the song as a kind of mimesis, in its perennial capacity to “express who you are, perfectly”: who he is, he must mean, although the second person – in which the bulk of the song is written – is significant. The song itself begins – after a brief descriptive intro – with a series of apostrophes, of interpellations that present themselves as urgent invitations, open doors:
The screen door slams. Mary’s dress waves.
Like a vision she dances across the porch
as the radio plays.
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely,
Hey that’s me, and I want you only.
Don’t turn me home again. I just can’t face
myself alone again.
Don’t run back inside, darlin’ – you know
just what I’m here for.
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that
maybe we ain’t that young anymore.
Show a little faith there’s magic in the night.
You ain’t a beauty but yeah you’re alright.
The shift from the distance of romantic spectacle to something like discursive proximity – close enough to make yourself heard – hinges on another inset moment of audibility, and of interpellation: Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” (echoed in the end rhymes) not only mimes the persona’s desire for Mary, but also hails him into existence, into audible range, as both a listening and a speaking-singing subject: “Hey, that’s me . . . .” Hearing Roy Orbison’s song on Mary’s radio gives him voice, and lets him talk, and also offers him a vocabulary and an idiom through which the rest of his own song can play out.
Professing desire beyond what he’s able or willing to say means for him returning to a literacy, to a kind of “talk,” a cultural field that the soundscape of rock’n’roll provides him with: “Now I got this guitar, and I learned how to make it talk.” Springsteen positions himself both as ventriloquizing fan and as nascent legend to produce a kind of proactive audience, a practice of listening that means trying to learn how to attend to others while still managing to talk for yourself, and to talk yourself up. The song offers an extended invitation to a feminized, idealized other; Springsteen, from somewhere within the heteronormative city limits of an imaginary Freehold, New Jersey, asks his own listeners – on this the opening track of Born to Run – to be like Mary and to get in the front seat of his car and pull out of the deadened space of here with him, to win. That idealization is also both fractured and resisted, even as it’s declaimed as an article of faith, by insistent disavowals and negations (“ain’t . . . ain’t . . .”), and by Mary’s coy but very real refusals. If she seems to be framed merely as an object of his desire, existing “only” for him to overcome his loneliness and affirm his masculine agency, his long cascade of pleas and poetic flattery, of goading and passive aggressive come-ons, also tends to undermine itself from the outset; after all, who in their right mind would accept a date from a man who tells you you’re not beautiful, but just alright? Sure, he’s just being honest, I guess, but the conventional hyperbole inherent in love song lyrics, diffused into something plain and mundane, also loses most of its persuasive tug, its “magic.”
What’s worth noting is that, even if we end up choosing not to go with him somewhere else (and as “Born to Run” puts it, to “get out while we’re young”), or if on the other hand we turn out to be willing to trade in our angelic wings for some very earthbound wheels, what we experience for the five minutes of “Thunder Road” is still a sustained and open invitation, a seemingly one-sided conversation that nonetheless keeps asking us to respond, and that leaves its requests unanswered, those imaginary responses as-yet and always unheard, either from Mary or from us: they’re all potential, all unfulfilled promise. “The door’s open,” we’re told, “but the ride ain’t free.” And the return, that cost, is a commitment to reciprocity. So when Nick Hornby says the song expresses “who you are, perfectly,” what he must mean, what he can only mean, is actually opposite to perfection or to closure; the song’s conversant subject, the “me” who both listens for and sings to Mary, never coheres, but remains unfinished, a figuration of desire.
When I was sixteen, I finished my grade eleven economics exam early, and I couldn’t leave the exam room, so I copied out from memory the lyrics to “Thunder Road” on the back of the exam booklet. It was a young fan’s act of mimicry, though I’m not sure what those lyrics might even have meant to me then, if I understood them or identified myself through them the way I might now, or might not. But what I do recognize in retrospect is that re-writing, transcribing, Springsteen’s words by hand was an initial gesture at that reciprocity. In those few free minutes, I started to write myself into a dialogue – a little like fourteen-year-old Terry Blanchard in Kevin Major’s YA novel Dear Bruce Springsteen – a conversation with whoever it was I’d always want to become. “My love, love, love,” he sings later and elsewhere, “will not let you down.” That’s not to say Springsteen’s songs will tell us who we are, but that they will always keep that reciprocal Eros, that mutuality, live and open, that invitation to join him heading down the road.
Short Take on Paul Muldoon Talking, a Précis
Paul Muldoon was interviewed by John Freeman on stage at the Waterfront Theatre at the Vancouver International Writers Festival this afternoon, and he’ll be reading as one of eight poets at the Poetry Bash tonight at Performance Works on Granville Island. He was asked right off the bat to talk about his collaboration with Warren Zevon, which resulted in a song, “My Ride’s Here,” the title track on Zevon’s last record (and was then covered for a posthumous tribute album by none other than Bruce Springsteen). Mr Muldoon said he “kind of went to school with Warren Zevon,” noting “just how difficult it is to write a song” to make it sound so effortless, and praising Zevon’s genius. He found himself, in composing his lyrics, trying to locate a raw, emotional “angle of entry” into a song. Asked to differentiate between poetry and song, he said: “I suppose at some level the pressure per square inch in that [Muldoon’s lyric, ‘You Say You’re Just Hanging Out . . .’] isn’t quite what it could be in one of the poems.” At the same time, he said how he wants to realize his own desire for directness and clarity, which lyrics can so better “at some level.” He said he was still “struck by Seamus Heaney’s (I think) successful attempts to pick up Yeats’s suggestion that ‘Myself I must remake,'” and also declared that “poems are more evidently (not necessarily more truly) made out of the core of one’s being.” He described the impact of BBC radio on his desire for clarity and “the need to be direct.” At John Freeman’s request, he read “Wind and Tree” from his first collection: “In the way that most of the wind / Happens where there are trees, / Most of the world is centred / About ourselves.” He read from Madoc, noting as well that he was a “big fan of our friend Laurence Sterne” and how he had also derived a “fascination with lists” from Robinson Crusoe, Defoe’s interest in “stuff.” He said he encouraged his students to develop “a sense of the resonances of every word in a poem,” the specificity of language. He read his song-lyric, “Elephant Anthem,” and noted how he used to pore over lyrics printed on lp sleeves.