Space Monkey

The new year officially starts now. For most people it stated two weeks ago, but we run on our own schedule. I made the same resolution I make every year: to be more productive, creative, and inspired, in thought and action, every day. As far as inspiration goes, it’s hard to find a better example of a life well lived than Patti Smith. Talk about living the artist’s life, beyond expectations, on her own set of rules. Smith really exploded the boundaries of her time, with the way she chose to live, the way she dressed, the way she wrote and performed. As with most iconoclasts, it was probably less a conscious desire to be iconoclastic, than a helpless inability to be anything else. It was break boundaries, or die or go insane butting up against them. Living fearlessly and being yourself are the kind of cliches that you find on a throw pillow, but those ideas haven’t always been monetized. They used to be real ideas that galvanized people into doing crazy things. That’s the kind of real life inspiration I’m looking for.

Pumping (My Heart)

Despite my admiration for Patti Smith, I have to admit that I’m not much of an expert on her. I mostly listen to the Land collection aka the hits. Smith is a difficult artist, though. Her highs are fierce, without doubt, but her more boundary pushing material can be more unpleasant than interesting, and she’s overly fond of sad dirges. I can’t remember the last time I’ve sat and listened to her divisive Radio Ethiopia. Heck, maybe I never really have. It’s a not-fun album to listen to, at least according to a lot of critics. Or it’s uniquely challenging and rewarding, according to others. Either way, this song is a highlight. It’s got that feral energy that Smith became famed for, the combination of hidden soul and aggressive loudness.

People Have the Power

Patti Smith is the poet laureate of the punk movement, on this we’re pretty much agreed. As such, and inevitably, she has to have written the kind of an anthem that brings stadiums of people to their feet. Though she is, of course, all of the superlatives, and has risen out of the league of cesspool dive bars, she is not an artist who fills stadiums. She is too much of a ink-stained witch to have that many people like her. Her anthem, however, has a life of its own. This song, apparently, has been adopted by U2 as their big entrance song on their big stadium tours. This is somewhat gross, because there’s something inherently mawkish and cheap about U2’s desire to make people pump their fists en masse. There’s is also the itchier problem of just how does a man of Bono’s stature get off trying to be a voice for the underdogs. The authenticity gap between the self-satisfied millionaire and outsider artist is wide and uncomfortable. None of which is Patti Smith’s problem, of course. She may even relish how the song she wrote to deliver in basements has grown far beyond her own reach.

Gloria

G L O R I A

A song that comes in many incarnations. Though originally Van Morrison’s baby, Gloria has escaped from him and his recordings of it are far from the most renowned. I’ll admit I’m not much of a fan of Van Morrison; in his solo career he’s too often wasted his vocal gifts on mawkish, subpar material. But in the early days with Them, he approximated American blues more convincingly than anyone in swinging England with the possible exception of Eric Burdon. Gloria was only a minor hit, but it caught on for being catchy and easy to play. Them’s version was a driving, bluesy showcase for their frontman’s vocals, but it was the three-chord simplicity of the tune itself that made every aspiring garage rocker to jump all over it. It’s become a staple of guitar-101 setlists. The list of cover versions is far stretching and includes guitarists ranging in mastery from Jimi Hendrix to Bill Murray.

The original was, like many a pop song, an ode to a hot chick, though the lyrics were the least important item on the menu. That shortcoming has lead to some inspired ad-libbing. The Doors made Gloria a concert staple, and the live recording became a hit for them. Jim Morrison’s rendition is a lascivious fantasy about a naughty schoolgirl. Morrison was known for interrupting otherwise concise songs with hazy rants about mystical ancient snakes, but  there’s nothing mystical about the verses he inserted into Gloria. It’s probably the most erotically charged moment of his, or anyone’s, oeuvre. It’s downright dirty, and not a little bit creepy for making it clear that little Gloria is a schoolgirl whose parents aren’t home.

Songs by men about lusting for young girls are rock music’s bread and butter. So many men have sang about screwing Gloria that the song had soon picked up the misogynistic tang of a gang-bang video. Man, that Gloria must be a real slut! Clearly, Gloria needed rescuing from mindless iterations by all-male garage bands, and Patti Smith was the one to do it. Smith took a classic example what I’ll call a ‘male-gaze song’, chucked everything but the chorus, wrote new words and made it the most definitive rendition of Gloria. She started with the now iconic line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”, asserting her own rebellious view before launching boldly into the famous chorus – “Make her mine, make her mine!” It was a ballsy rewrite. Smith took the traditional hungry, lewd male-gaze perspective and made it her own. She wants Gloria too, but for her own reasons. She made it mean more than just desire, though her version is as sexy as anyone’s. It’s a post-gendered howl of empowerment, breaking free of the confines of both religious dogma and boring parties, asserting her responsibly for her own actions, her own desires. Smith took a song that would almost be sexist if it weren’t so dumb, turned it inside out and came back with an anthem I would call feminist if it weren’t so universal.

Ghost Dance

She’s a shaman, she’s a witch. Patti Smith is lucky to have been born in 1946. A few centuries off, and she’d have got herself hanged, or worse. Even a few decades off and she’d have been an unhappy camper, stuck with no outlet for her gifts and charisma. It wasn’t that long ago that society had no place at all for a woman too intelligent and too gifted to put her head down and bend to conformity. We really need to stop complaining and appreciate that we’ve got the freedom to self-create like never before. Some people complain that young girls today don’t have enough role models, not enough women who represent self-expression and strength, but again we need to step back and count our blessings. Patti Smith is still here, if anyone needs her. Which we desperately do, always.

Frederick

Patti Smith has an image as a scary, no-bullshit, hellraising ‘godmother of punk’, an honorary one-of-the-boys, a poet and an intellectual who wears black boots and doesn’t comb her hair because she’s above caring  about such superficial aspects of appearance. That’s a great image, an influential and inspiring one. But just listen to how girlish she sounds singing the first lines of Frederick, a song she wrote for her future husband (coyly referred to in liner notes as ‘my clarinet teacher’). She’s the godmother of punk, and she’s the little girl who stole an encyclopedia from the general store. Like any girl would, she spent her first substantial paycheck on a fur coat. She’s been known to contribute essays to Vogue about the charm of matching hats and purses. She’s the godmother of punk who chose to leave the open road to get married and live in the suburbs. She didn’t resume her career until widowhood left her broke and stranded in suburbia without a driver’s license. As usual, the person is more interesting than the icon.

hi hello wake from thy sleep
God has given your soul to keep
all of the power that burns in the flame
ignites the light in a single name

Frederick name of care
fast asleep in a room somewhere
guardian angels [line a bed]
shed their light on my sleepy head

I am a threshold yearning to sing
down with the the dancers having one last fling
here’s to the moment when you said hello
come on my spirit are you ready let’s go

hi hi hey hey
maybe I will come back some day now
but tonight on the wings of a dove
up above to the land of love

……….

now I lay me down to sleep
pray the Lord my soul to keep
kiss to kiss breath to breath
my soul surrenders astonished to death

night of wonder for us to keep
set our sails channel [out] deep
after the rapture two hearts meet
mine entwined in a single beat

Frederick you’re the one
as we journey from sun to sun
all the dreams I waited so long for
fly tonight so long so long

bye bye hey hey
maybe we will come back some day now
but tonight on the wings of a dove
up above to the land of love

Frederick name of care
high above in sky that’s clear
all the things I’ve been dreamin’ of
are expressed in this name of love

bye bye hey hey
maybe we will come back some day now
but tonight on the wings of a dove
up above . . .

This is dedicated to my clarinet teacher
Fred Sonic Smith

Dead City

When Patti Smith says “Motor City”, that’s Detroit, right? Which is, by all accounts, dead or at least dead-ish from the decline of the formerly glorious American motor industry. She’s a Jersey girl herself, so what her connection to Detroit is, I’m not sure, or rather, her son Jackson did marry a nice Detroit girl, Meg White, but that was last year, so what the connection was in 1997 I don’t rightly know.