It usually starts with a comment like this: “Man, she has hair under her arms. I can’t take that!”
That was the summer of 1978, and Patti Smith’s ‘Easter’ had just been released. One song got tremendous airplay, even on the FM stations in The City of Understanding, Birmingham, Alabama. “Because the Night” was co-written with Bruce Springsteen, and there are various stories of who contributed what. What was unmistakable, though, was Patti’s voice, rising in passion, proclaiming victory ”Because the night belongs to lovers. Because the night belongs to us.”
Even my mainstream friends back then got that song, but not many bought or wanted to buy the album. Maybe it was the music; songs like “Till Victory” and “Space Monkey” and “We Three” couldn’t compete with the smooth edges of Steely Dan or the white blues of Little Feat. But before my friends could have given Patti’s other songs a chance, they would have had to get past the album cover: the one where Patti, in a white, tank-top undershirt, dog tags dangling, raises her arms—seductively I think—over her head, exposing wisps of brown hair under those slender arms.
Now, I wasn’t the only guy in Birmingham to love Patti. My friend Jimbo exposed me to Horses a few years before. But that was when a cover photo by an artist named Robert Mapplethorpe meant as much as a cover drawing by Uriah Heep’s “artist.”
It’s funny and sad and strange—all that has happened to American culture since that time. If you want to keep up with a small bit of that sad and strange and strangely heroic cultural shift, read Patti’s memoir, Just Kids.
I did, and then I had my American Literature students read it last year. I played them cuts from Patti’s history, and I can’t really tell you what their faces said back to me. Some looked like I was offering 3 days leftover dining hall food. Others appeared to want a shower. But when I played “Because the Night,” they seemed alert, and I could be wrong, but one young woman sitting in the front, bobbed her head to the music, just a little.
Of course, one male student sitting near the front window gazed out as if he were having a vision. He would.
You can’t force anyone to like Patti Smith, although God knows I would if I could. At 66, she’s endured and thrived in ways that define the American spirit of wandering and seeking what’s new and dangerous and fulfilling. She saw Jimi Hendrix, talked to him, just before he got on a plane to Europe where he was destined to OD. She cradled Mapplethorpe through his battle against AIDS, lost her own husband, musician Fred Smith, to another kind of death, raised her children well, and has continued writing and performing and advocating for freedom of expression.
For freedom of Art and Life.
And last year she recorded my album of the year: Banga.
First, anyone who names a song and an album after Pontius Pilate’s dog has my attention, if not love. The record is that complex and more.
On the record’s first track, “Amerigo,” [You DO know your Western History, right?] the narrative voice asks: “Where are you going, and are you going anywhere? / Where are you going / Send me a letter if you go, at all.” The persona being addressed, Amerigo, then imagines, weeks later, this impression, this response, if only he could send it: “Tracing the circles / Moving across my eyes / Lying on a ship / And gazing at the western skies / Tracing lazy circles in the sky.”
I love the idea and the reality of people being brave enough to journey to places they can’t conceive. I love even more when they tell us their dreams along the way or describe, as this spirit does, a reflection of their own time—the time the spirit spends doing nothing but waiting, thinking, expecting this new world. A world he’ll try to honor.
In “April Fool,” she invokes those with imagination to “…burn all of our poems / Add to God’s debris / We’ll pray to all of our saints / Icons of mystery.” And in “Fuji-San,” Lenny Kaye’s guitar draws us “into the blue, into the great mist, into the bright, into your light.” The “mountain of our eyes” might “hear our cries,” or might not. But “we’re calling,” always calling, to live, to create, and to recreate from all that we discard or burn, or try to forget.
“Night is a mongrel, believe or explode.” So ends the title track, which also claims that “Loyalty lives and we don’t know why, and his paws are pressed to the spine of the sky.” Maybe it helps here to have read The Master and Margarita; still, I think Patti Smith has always been loyal to those in her life, and maybe there were times for her where this made about as much sense as being Pilate’s dog. Of course, what is loyalty anyway, if you get to pick only those things that are pleasant and acceptable? Or cleanly shaven?
‘Banga’s’ eight other tracks might test our loyalty to Patti, though I recommend “Mosaic,” “Maria,” and the ten-minute plus “Constantine’s Dream” for repeated listening. These songs make us think about ourselves, our history, what we love, what we’re ashamed of, and what we can’t begin to understand about this life and these many centuries that helped to bring us here, now.
And for a surprise at the end, she covers Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” another song I couldn’t get most of my friends to listen to back in the 1970’s.
Patti Smith doesn’t write about one night anymore. She has no hits. God, I can’t even find her on Sirius-XMU, the “independent” alternative rock station, and I thought they played everything new and adventurous. You’d think she had some sort of plague about her. You’d think they had a picture of her in their studio with her arms raised over her head.
Like the one I’ve kept all these years to remind me of what I love about music and art and my life. And about “tracing lazy circles in the sky.”