Patti Smith Group
at the Riviera Theatre,
By Monica Kendrick
Nympholepsy--the state of violently longing for impossible ideals--is best known in its most sensationalistic form, nymphomania; it's been most commercially viable when it manifests itself as rock 'n' roll. But every poet has it too, and every politician and every preacher--in short, every performer who's ever hankered for a pulpit hopes to hone his or her particular version of the sound of desire. And if Patti Smith's version, her idiosyncratic fusion of rhythmic, linguistic, and phantasmic flights with crude 70s punk-inflected rock, has never quite been perfected, it's always been more than sharp enough to leave me wanting more: nympholepsy can be contagious.
When I first started listening to her insistent voice back in the mid-80s, there were only her four early albums to hear, and every one of them in its own way reflected Smith's tendency to chase impossible desire down any well-traveled street or dark blind alley. As a teenager she had a huge, lusty crush on French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, who died in 1891--as she told Thurston Moore years later in an interview, "If you're 15 or 16 and you can't get the boy you want and you just have to daydream about him all the time, what's the difference if he's a dead poet or a senior?"
But after a while desire wants fulfillment. This is a crisis poets cope with all the time: poetry is a solitary art form that hungers for the communal. Be it Dylan Thomas learning all too well that his musical verse delivered in his Welsh accent led men to offer drinks and women to offer themselves; Allen Ginsberg reveling in the notoriety brought on by his riotous tangle of religious imagery, explicit gay sexuality, and leftist politics at the height of McCarthyism; or San Francisco Renaissance poet Jack Spicer basing a book around poems written explicitly for magazines he knew would reject them; 20th-century bards have a long tradition of simultaneously courting and sparring with the very notion of audience.
Smith has known forever how to light a fire under a crowd, and so when her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5, died in 1994, she found her way back into the arms of her first love--all its thousands of arms, upraised all the way up to the top of the balcony. But she did it not like Mick Jagger--not like a mere million-selling entertainer. She did it like the poet she is, with no less ambivalence toward the relationship than Thomas or Ginsberg or Spicer. At the Harold Washington Library Center, where she read from and signed her new book, Complete (Doubleday), three days before the concert, she seemed by turns chummy, nervous, and downright hostile as audience members lined up at a mike for an interminable question-and-answer session. They pumped her for thoughts on everything from reincarnation to censorship, offering both pleasant surprises (Ojibwe poet Mark Turcotte, who dedicated his The Feathered Heart to Smith, brought traditional greetings from his ancestors and testified that her band once saved his life) and awkward moments (a too-knowledgeable fan grilled her about costarring with her friend Robert Mapplethorpe in the aptly titled 1970 film Robert Having His Nipple Pierced). She seemed most at ease reading her lyrics as poems or playing acoustic songs with guitarist Oliver Ray: during stripped-down renditions of "Dancing Barefoot" (1979) and "Beneath the Southern Cross" (1996), as her phrasing of the familiar words shifted and morphed, she got that familiar glassy-eyed look that hints that a poet is receiving messages from what Spicer called the "Outside" (or sometimes the "Martians") and has managed to push the conscious self--not to mention other conscious selves--aside and let the poem come through.
A performer who appears transported, transfixed, or tuned into psychic broadcasts from Mars is hard to look away from--particularly when she's welding the transmissions to lovably sloppy rock. Smith has written more than a few great rock songs; some of them, like her first single, "Piss Factory" (1975), about the unattained desires of working-class life, also appear to be poems. It was a shrewd opener for her first concert in her hometown in 20 years, the sound of Smith psyching herself up from her very roots, and it seemed to carry her for a little while--"Dead City," from last year's Peace and Noise, has never quite worked as the balls-out rocker it wants to be, and "Redondo Beach" (1975) sounded perfunctory at best. It's hard not to be moved by "Dancing Barefoot," though, and as Smith removed her boots and whirled, the literalness of the gesture woke her up in time for Peace and Noise's "Spell," in which guitarist Lenny Kaye plays a droning spiral while Smith intones the holy holy holies of Ginsberg's "Footnote to 'Howl'" and climaxes by free-screeching on her clarinet. After that the upraised arms never wavered again.
Smith's 90s work, on record, is drastically different in tone from her better known (and better loved) 70s output: more contemplative and somber and less prone to wild, rickety flights. But live she integrated the two periods reasonably well: "About a Boy," (1996) an elegy for Kurt Cobain, wound up as a long rhythmic litany about Blind Lemon Jefferson, who bore the name of the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence but never got around to freeing his slaves, freezing to death in a Chicago snowstorm. "Summer Cannibals" (1996), which appears to address the vampiric backlash possibilities in too much fan love, featured fans chanting, "Eat, eat," into the outstretched microphone as they feasted; many of those fans also filled in the words to "Free Money" (1975) with the same gusto. Smith rendered the rather dubious "People Have the Power" (from her very dubious 1988 album Dream of Life) as a breathless a cappella recitation, which somewhat mitigated its preachiness--then undercut her own subtlety with a full-throttle version of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World," a hamfisted bit of post-Live Aid bitterness that, strangely enough, is always good for a feel-good fist-pump. But Smith's always been a true believer, and when a nympholeptic has had her dreams of escape from the factory, artistic success, stardom, and true love come true already, what else is there to lust for but world peace and crowd control?
None of this prepared me for the encore, though: first "Pissing in a River," which addresses a lover and God at once as though they're one and the same (as they often are in Smith's poetics). Then Smith put on her glasses, grabbed a book, and read, "When in the course of human events...." Looking like a commanding history teacher, she recited the entire Declaration of Independence while the band slowly built a beat behind her, and the crowd was screaming, and when the whole impossibly utopian document was done and drowned out in rock 'n' roll chugging, Smith's voice harshened and tore into "Rock n Roll Nigger"--"Baby was a black sheep, baby was a whore" with the same spine-chilling intensity she does on 1978's Easter.
Smith's liberal use of Rimbaud's conception of "nigger" as "artist/outcast" seems more than a little misguided these days, and I always wonder who in the audience yelling "Outside of society that's where I wanna be" has any concept of what that might really mean. But it's long been Smith's own declaration of independence, and dammit, she's sticking to it. In the end, the song cuts through its own bullshit and becomes the rousing misfit anthem she means it to be, perhaps because with all its contradictions it fits right into her idea of utopia, which is as much noise as peace. I can't say the same for her recent "political" work, or her inarguably righteous but dull-as-dirt commentaries on everything from Tibet to child rearing. Transmissions from the Outside never come through without static and interruptions, and one shouldn't trust a poet--or a politician or a preacher--who never stumbles. But a quixotic quest to redeem a promise that was never kept or a word that was never hers, flying high even while she's falling on her face: that's a vision of desire I can touch.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marty Perez.