POWELL RIVER, B.C. Sept. 11, 2016/ Troy Media/ – It would be difficult to find an icon of the early 1970s punk rock scene in New York, Paris and London who was more legitimately its artist’s muse than Patti Smith.
A young woman from the swamps of New Jersey strayed to New York and found countless friendships and sometimes romance with the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Fred “Sonic” Smith, Sam Shepard, and Allen Ginsberg, while finding herself and starving in style in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel.
Still a creative force in her 60s now, she is a combination songwriter, poet, award-winning author and friend for life (and sometimes biographer) to the many who have worked alongside her.
A magnificently well-researched biography of these times ([popup url=”http://amzn.to/2cmmyp8″ height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”1″]Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story: 2016[/popup]) and this woman has been recently written by Dave Thompson, a rock journalist of considerable fame himself. Thompson’s previous music biographies detail the lives of David Bowie and Curt Cobain, as well as Cream, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and U2.
His coverage of Smith’s life, from teenager to the current artist in her 60s, is scholarly and is uniquely written from Smith’s perspective. It has a supremely detailed appendix, covering books and anthologies, articles and reviews, singles, albums, compilations and sound tracks, spoken-word recordings, and even selected bootleg releases prior to 1980 and the Internet. There isn’t much about Smith’s creative output that Thompson hasn’t reviewed with a critical but kind eye.
For me, the point of all this is the intellectual X-ray it provides of one of the most intensely creative periods in New York’s (Paris and London play very secondary roles) creative history, during the evolution of the punk era. It draws heavily on the history of rock ‘n’ roll, the rise of the Mersey beat, and the poetic, dramatic and musical opposition to the U.S.’s war in Vietnam.
As such, it is a magnificent insight into ‘hippie thought,’ viewed through the lens of art, and the life and work of one of the key muses of the era. In these combinations it provides the foundations from which many current trends have grown, and a means of critiquing them.
During her 1995 performing tour that saw Bob Dylan come on stage to sing with her at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston (and famously say, “A lot of girls have come along since Patti started, but Patti is still the best, you know.”), Smith began to speak out on the changing role of music and all of the arts in society. She saw the growing trend to commercialization as bastardization of the one force that youth had to make things different.
“That’s why I don’t like MTV. Music Television is all about the media-oriented version of what it is to be a rock star, it’s not about what Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix were about – which included great images, sure, but they had spiritual and political and revolutionary content, too.
“I believe their early goal was to do something utterly and truly great, or nothing at all. All of them insisted on the primacy of the work – the art, not the artist. This emphasis on style that we have today – the image, the video, the stylist, the game plan – that’s not rock ‘n’ roll at all. That’s careerism (2016: 217).”
It’s hard not to read these words without thinking of how so many contemporary artists, so-called spiritual leaders, and politicians have strayed into careerism and away from the revolutionary values that many of them began with. It’s also hard not to mourn the loss of the original, true spirit of rock ‘n’ roll – the raw, rocking opposition to so much in the affluent society of the U.S.’s new post-war middle class.
As Smith notes, too many later careers became self-satisfied trips to “pick up their lifetime achievement awards.” She abhorred the existence of a hall of fame of rock music, seeing it as just another sellout to money.
Smith still believes that artists have the power to fundamentally change society, but the growing focus on image, skilfully aided and abetted by social media, is a big detour away from reality.
The degree to which Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube play to market powers and imagery, rather than to social change and progressive values in this respect, is worthy of close examination. That examination may be Patti Smith’s most important and enduring contribution.
Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum, and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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