Patti Smith Group


Two meditations on Patti Smith.

1. The meaning of “wave.” The key to Wave seems to be the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” far and away the album’s best cut and the opening number for Patti Smith’s show a week ago at the Orpheum. Free association reigns: Patti, the first star of new wave, which – because no one can say with any finality what exactly this is – gets shortened to wave (fill in your own prefix – new? no? next? permanent?); “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” a blast from the past as well as a lesson learned through Sid Vicious (“But you play for your riches and fame/Well, it’s all a vicious game”). On the collage-insert that comes with the album, Smith says that when she first hear the song she didn’t like it because “It seemed to say that in this field of honor, sooner or later everybody gets hurt and I just didn’t believe it.” Apparently she believes it now, because above the caption is the picture of her brother, Todd, showing the stitches where he got hurt by Sid Vicious. Wavers all over got hurt by Sid Vicious, lastly and saddestly Sid Vicious. So the song is a topical recognition of this…wave, this generation of rock musicians and fans. “Don’t forget who you are,” Patti reminds herself, among others, “you’re a rock ‘n’ roll star,” an instruction that recognizes the temptation to do the exact opposite.

But by the end of the album and the show, “wave” means something else. The album cut “Wave” is Patti poetic, Patti precious, Patti private – a little girl with a Band-Aid over her scraped knee walking along the each talking to…God? Bob Dylan? Her father? The sea? You hear the water, the wave is water, but the wave is also, she says, music and light – images of nature and spirituality maybe from a child’s garden of verse. By contrast, the concert started with the mythology, the heroism, the bravado of “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” (closely followed by “Set Me Free”) and ended with a song by Manfred Mann called “American Handshake” (aka “5-4-3-2-1”), which Lenny Kaye and Ivan Kral sang with Patti joining in on the chorus with the appropriate countdown hand gestures on “5-4-3-2-1-wave!” Of course! Wave: a simple, friendly action that means hi, bye, okay, don’t bug me – and everyone can do it, which is what happens. Patti waves to the audience. The audience waves to Patti. Patti and the audience are waving to each other. You know, Patti and the audience are each other.

2. Patti’s debris. Except for the stage floor (which she conscientiously has kept clear since her accident two years ago), Patti Smith is surrounded by debris – scattered fragments of media hype, rock history, personal legend, rumors, feuds, literary pretensions and allusions, books of poetry, sexual ambiguity (not so much anymore), American history, mass-market consumerist-culture, etc. Some of this is fascinating and fruitful, and some of it is distracting and inane. I thought Wave was depressingly bad until I realized that Patti Smith’s records are only part of the debris and not the pinnacle of her achievement. Horses was and is brilliant, and most of Easter inspired; most of Radio Ethiopia and Wave is unlistenable. Big deal. So what if the Rilke epigraph about love is 10 times more affecting that the album’s major love song, “Frederick” (aka “Because ‘Because the Night’ Was a Hit, We’ll Sing It Again Under a Different Name”)? Who cares what Modigliani’s mistress and Albino Luciani (Pope John Paul I) have to do with the disappearance of Jim Morrison? It’s all grist for the mill and mist for the gril, I mean, girl. Onstage is the only place where the diva can be distinguished from the debris. In an act of pure make-believe, she acknowledges the bullshit and makes you believe it, anyway. Songs that are impossibly logy and maddeningly murky on the album (“Revenge,” “Seven Ways of Going,” the curiously patriotic “Citizen Ship”) work, in concert, as part of Patti Smith’s anarchic, contradiction-juggling routine. The picture of Patti huddled at Ivan’s feet – authority as supplicant – shouting, “What’s your name, son?” with Lenny answering, “Ivan!” (“Citizen Ship”); the ending of “Seven Ways of Going” that diminished into Patti’s wild clarinet solo, which was as private and non-climactic as the song’s lyric; her easy, maybe unconscious alternation of personae, from authoritative rock star to aisle-stalking rock fan; the wide range of her raps (from Paul Revere to Captain Kirk to Olivia Hussey to tooth-decay commercials); the illogical pacing of the sets – the combination of all these gave me the (ridiculous, but why not?) idea of likening Patti Smith to Bette Midler and Sun Ra, both spectacular performers who have their own sort of debris. Patti Smith’s daredevil free-associating, like Midler’s tragic-comic chanteuse shtick and Ra’s cosmic jive, is the essential, elusive X factor that you can’t expect to come across on record.

Boston Phoenix, 1979