Some Words Inspired By Last Night's Patti Smith Concert

Fri Mar 10 2017

I promise if you read this drivel for long enough, it will eventually be mostly about Patti Smith.  My understanding when I got into punk rock as a teenager was that it was about destroying the past, and that never quite sat well with me. The setup was perfect: I was brought up on classic rock and country and folk, then drifted into prog while becoming aware of contemporary FM pop, and should’ve been just about ready to kill my idols with my raging hormonal frustration and growing disillusionment with small-town life, but I could never fully commit. Screeching Weasel, my first punk crush, had a song called “I Hate Led Zeppelin”, and I was like ‘yeah great song but…come on, Led Zeppelin is awesome’. 

I’ve spent a good chunk of adulthood spouting disdain for the town Paul Ryan and I grew up in, but I’m starting to wonder if that sheltered whitebread upbringing kept me grounded in a way I was never able to appreciate until just now. I eventually gave in to the punk ethos in terms of lifestyle and attitude, fancying myself quite the iconoclast for a few years. And maybe the distaste for decorum and polite society was perfectly healthy, but the appetite for self-destruction certainly wasn’t. I’m grateful to still be alive and pretty far removed from my last stay behind bars, I’ll say that much. Meanwhile, in between Boris The Sprinkler shows and bouts of wanton violence I was getting into Phish. Something was gonna have to give, right?

But why, exactly, was that? I could never wrap my head around it. I’d sit around with my punk friends and get wasted and make fun of hippies all night, then go see Phish the next night, and it all seemed perfectly tenable to me, but God knows those crews didn’t see eye to eye. It must’ve been simpler before punk, when counterculture was counterculture and all the freaks were united.

Uh-oh, is he gonna start talking about monoculture? That was a superhip buzzword a decade or so ago, around the time music critics started thinkpiecing themselves right out of cultural relevance. The general population, they thought, needed to know that people were not in fact ever all of one mind. “YES! WE ARE ALL INDIVIDUALS!” cried the Pitchfork disciples in unison. These schools of thought, of course, are cyclical, and some day all the microsplinter factions of hipsterdom will pine for the days when they were all devoted to the One True Editorial Board and they’ll start reciting the original review of OK Computer to begin their morning prayer meetings.

If you’re catching perhaps a whiff of sarcasm, of mockery even, allow me to let you in on a little secret: that’s rhetoric. Rhetoric needn’t bear any resemblance to my actual opinion. It’s something that all artists utilize, but writers in particular—if you strip us of rhetoric and make us try to tell the unadorned truth, we have nothing. In other forms of art you can get away with just truth, because you’re not a slave to words. Now Patti Smith, she’s a living, breathing truth entity, because over the course of 70 years she has made language her slave. Here in an age of unprecedented obsession over terminology, she doesn’t get hung up on words because when they come from her, they mean whatever she wants them to mean.

For most of us in the modern age, intentions don’t mean a damn thing. If you say the wrong thing and make someone feel bad, it doesn’t matter what your intentions were; what matters is you made them feel bad. For Patti Smith, intention is everything. You might argue that she’s earned respect and that gives her the right to say whatever she wants, but I think that’s missing the point. I would argue that it’s about clarity of intention—of energy, if you will. When she speaks, when she sings, you know what she’s getting at regardless of the words.

Consider the word ‘punk’. Smith has been called the godmother of this genre. If that’s the case then her godchildren lost the thread pretty quickly. This morning I listened to a show she played in 1976 and the way she talks, she honestly sounds like she could’ve just walked out of Woodstock. Last night she paid tribute to, among many others, Jim Morrison, a guy who’s been reduced over time to clown status by the cycle of pervading critical thought. Can you imagine anyone associated with punk rock doing anything but spitting at the mention of Jim Morrison? Wasn’t he the epitome of the rock-star excess punk was supposedly railing against? 

Maybe that whole rejection of the past was purely a figment of machismo. Sure, there is intelligent, progressive-minded, even (gasp) sophisticated punk rock, but the vast majority of the stuff has been barfed up by immature cretins, mostly male. That’s its charm and its power in most cases, a means of exorcising aggression that might otherwise be grievously misdirected. I doubt Patti Smith was ever a cretin. I doubt she ever put any countercultural labels on herself, but she also never seemed to feel the need to reject them. Whereas the young, loud and snotty kids set about tearing down the past, Smith spent last night paying tribute to it. I half expected her to shout out Jerry Garcia during “Elegie”. It was all about respect and solidarity where her artistic predecessors were concerned, regardless of philosophy or any question of merit. And here I was, feeling like an idiot for having slipped into rockcrit hangups about Jim Morrison. I used to worship that guy. But everyone I knew in my little town did. I’m supposed to be an INDIVIDUAL now. 

Look, I’m not trying to argue that you have to love everything, nor that Jim Morrison is worthy of idolatry, nor that Patti Smith is. My point is that pervading attitudes and movements are as limiting as words themselves, and their meanings are transient by nature. If you get hung up on them you’re only handicapping yourself. I think we need to work towards imperviousness to terminology. With patience, and without judgment, as much as possible. At this point it certainly feels to me like we’re speeding in the opposite direction as a society. We should be trying to flip the paradigm of offense, looking into people’s eyes when they speak and trying to glean their intentions rather than looking for reasons to get more angry. You never know what’s going to open someone’s eyes to your own point of view, but fortifying ourselves within our own stereotypes probably isn’t the way.

Maybe at one point, Patti Smith was a card-carrying member of some artistic category; I’m no expert on her life story. Last night at the Milwaukee Theater, my impression was that the only movement she subscribes to is rock and roll. Remember that shit? Of course you don’t. Okay, I suppose there’s a chance that a baby boomer or two will read this, and they’ll probably recall that for quite a few years, rock and roll was a spirit of defiance as well as a kind of music. It’s neither of those things now. My generation just calls the music ‘rock’ and as written and played today it is the least rebellious thing possible. You see Patti Smith onstage, gyrating and thrashing around and busting the strings off her guitar one by one, this woman is playing rock AND ROLL and she’s got more fire and defiance in her pinky finger than anyone my age. So seriously, fuck punk rock. I think Patti’s more like the eternal diety of rock and roll than the anything of punk, but what do I know.

The cool part is you don’t have to be a slave to your generation, either, and I’m trying like hell to get that through my head these days ‘cause it feels like my generation has been hiding under a rock for the past twenty years. Yeah, there was political vitriol throughout the night from Smith, but there was also heartfelt gratitude about playing in li’lwaukee (side note: infinite gratitude to Peter Jest for making this happen) and about the mayoral proclamation of yesterday as Patti Smith Day. She was talking about love and compassion—not very punk eh. She was pleading with us to stay strong and resist but also to remember to enjoy life. Who are we to argue with this wisdom? “We thought we were gonna change the fuckin’ world!” Patti yelled during the “My Generation” encore, while acknowledging that she’s the same age as Donald Trump. Could two human beings possibly be more different? But the truth is we’re all changing the world, right now, unavoidably, irrevocably, with every breath. Most of us, nowhere near to the degree that Patti Smith has, but ya never know, do ya? 

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