The Street Symbolist Finds Her Ark


SHE is a symbolist, working in an age of symbols. The imposing and inculating role symbols play in our lives--all the flags in the world, cigarette brands, fast-food chains and supermarkets, groupies, cliques and teams and fetishes and Brooks Brothers and every manner of damned patriotism--has sprung forth a new kind of cynicism.

What's wrong with these kids, these kids who wantonly scrawl their names all over newly-constructed, immaculate subway stations, who are proud to be sadists and masochists, who make too much noise and don't take advantage of their opportunities, who never seem to smile except in ther own discontent?

Perhaps this is an ontological question, in which case you and I have something to settle. I'm sick of my social security number and political arguments. I can't make it into Studio 54 and meet Bianca Jagger. I need some shelter, some cleavage.

You may think that Patti Smith has much cleavage, but think on it. Patti Smith is something of a genius. Five years ago she took tired ole rock muzak and pumped out "Gloria," "Horses," "Set Me Free," a re-done "My Generation," "Break It Up," "Piss Factory," a re-done "Hey Joe," "Redondo Beach," and a host of refurbished Lou Reed songs. She took a pickaxe and buried it deep into the "new apathy," re-defined the ME generation.

"My sins they only belong to ME"


Along with Lou Reed and Blondie and eventually The Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello--plus a whole new wave of bands from The Ramones to The Clash--Patti Smith brought home a new message, and it had nothing to do with war or the draft.

"UmmmmmUm...I think, I have always had things to bitch about in this country; it's like, the war was one thing, staying out too late is another, and they don't look similar but they are. This world is so controlled that everything happening has some effect on your life. And I think that when it seems that everyone's runnin' your life, you have to scream. You know? Scream to hear you're there," she said in a high, quiet, somewhat squeamish voice. She was talking mostly about punk, about her first album, "Horses," and the musical movement with which her music has evolved.

SHE ONCE described punk as the scream of a newborn baby, and sooner or later, the baby must learn to talk. Patti has a terrible voice. But the rock instinct in this wiry, imp of a person has made that voice quite a tool, a very arousing and expressive voice so honest in what it is saying and how it is cowling that suddenly, you find cleavage. Besides, no one ever seriously suggested that a rock and roll star had to sing like Frank Sinatra. People like that belong at discos and behind TVs. Got tell Robert Zimmerman.

"Jim Morrison was a poet, but he didn't live out his vison," she said. "I always had the idea that poetry and music were partners, you know, and it's really true that one implies the other. Youyouyou you can't read three stanzas of poetry without setting a musical pattern of some kind, and any kind of music makes you feel a certain way, you know, a certain way you can describe in words."

And all Rolling Stone can say about this woman is that she masturbates to her own photograph.

The media has treated the punk kind like a troupe of naughty, hyperactive children, with reports of trends and fads and strange costumes and ultimately, it all boils down to social satire and pure rock fun. But there is something more to punk--and the broader genre of rock known as new wave--than release. It is the angst itself. You won't feel it in a record store or even at concert, but at the cheap bars where you can hear the music in its own native setting, it's more than fun.

A woman approaches me at The Rat. She is small and comely, her thin black dress, cut in strips that hang from her waist, revealing in a flash. Saucy red lipstick and a flower painted on her cheek, she is a smiler, coming right up to me and asking if she can illustrate my entire body. She is a body illustrator. Her name is Cretin Hop. At home she gives me cleavage, shows me a giant watercolor illustration of Patti Smith--slightly smudged by sweat--marked painstakingly beneath the knap of a breast.

"Id like to think that I'm turning you on, you know. It's a good thing that "Because the Night" sold well and got on the radio because I was able to make more people happy that way, you know...and um...get them...involved in the rest of my music, "Patti says.

"Becaus0e the Night" marked the end of Patti Punk, a performer whose appeal was strong but limited. It marked the end of her raw scream-and-simmer tactics at the microphone too, because smooth, technosyncratic, polished albums mean similar concerts. The days when you could see Patti Smith wail out with Lenny Kaye at The Rat or The Bottom Line are gone. She was known to spit at her audiences, to jump on tables and kick drinks into the abyss. Patti Smith is now banned from The Bottom Line.

It would be easy to conclude that Patti Smith is being produced and retouched by the invisible, massive forces of the record industry. And it is true that mastermind technician Todd Rundgren produced her newly-released album, Wave. But it still isn't Boston, and that is because of the angst.

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