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Jennifer baumgardner and amy Richards
Dallas Living Wage Coalition holds â€¦
The Second Coming Of Patti â€¦
Pinochet's Trial and Tribulations
The Interactive Commercial, Coming Soon â€¦
Dr. Laura: Moral Dominatrix
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The Second Coming Of Patti Smith
Although rock and roll has never abandoned rebel style and attitude, over the past two decades it has gradually given up its power to inspire utopian dreams. The best of the music still expresses important social and personal concerns. It still frees the spirit and body from earthly woes and inhibitions. But rock and roll, as we enter the 21st century, seldom imagines a world radically beyond what is.
How stunning it is then to hear Patti Smith's furious declarations of love and revolution on her masterful new album Gung Ho (Arista). Confronting sins of the American Empire, commodity culture and greed with no frills, hard rock passion and urging her audience “to take things into your own hands,” Smith, at the age of 53, is resurrecting rock as a music of action and conscience.
When her debut album Horses arrived in 1975, rock was clearly drifting from its grand ambitions of the 1960s. Popular political and cultural movements were collapsing and the music's greatest heroes were either dead (Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix) or floundering for inspiration (Bob Dylan, John Lennon, the Rolling Stones). But with a reckless mix of garage band primitivism, torrents of visionary verse and absolute emotional conviction, Patti Smith stalled the rising tide of complacency.
With the audacious opening line “Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine,” Horses launched listeners into an electrifying and scary struggle between good and evil, life and death. In the coming decade the album would become a beacon to punks and feminists still holding faith in the redemptive power of raw “uncommercial” sound.
A child of postwar working class New Jersey, Smith broke free of blue collar life in the mid-60s. At the age of 20, dropping out of community college and leaving a newborn daughter behind for adoption, she sat out for New York City to become a painter. Soon frustrated with her limits on canvas, she began to find an artistic voice through words.
Emerging from the New York underground of the early 1970s, Smith first stirred attention reading her Beat influenced poetry to small gatherings at St. Mark's Church on the Bowery. But like Bob Dylan, her great early influence, she yearned to fuse language to the accessible power of rock and roll. In 1974, with back-up support from electric guitarist/rock critic Lenny Kaye, Smith released an inflamed autobiographical rant, “Piss Factory,” as an independent label single. By the following year, she had formed the Patti Smith Group and gained a substantial following playing clubs like the punk rock landmark CBGB.
Against a backdrop of riotous guitar riffing, Smith prowled the stage like a possessed, androgynous shaman, pouring forth intensely personal, partially improvised recitations risking erotic fantasies, primal wounds and glorious blasphemy. Rock and roll, made by a woman, had never been so frenzied and extreme before.
Although harnessed and polished by
producer John Cale (formerly of the Velvet Underground), Horses managed
to capture the stark and passionate glory of the Patti Smith Group in its
prime. The 1976 follow-up, Radio Ethiopia, had its moments, but a more
mainstream sound and unfocused experimentation diluted the band's urgency.
On 1978's Easter, Smith found a more cohesive sound yielding
exhilarating anthems such as “Space Monkey” and “Till Victory,” and a
hit single collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, “Because The Night.” But
only a year later, following the release of the disappointing Wave,
Smith retired from the music world; married ex-MC 5 guitarist Fred “Sonic”
Smith and settled down in suburban Detroit to raise two children. Over the
next sixteen years, there would be few public appearances and only one
album--1988's quietly released, mostly uninspiring Dream Of Life.
Despite her public absence and erratic creative output, Smith's artistic stature continued to rise in the 80s and 90s. On the basis of the enduring power of Horses and a few triumphs scattered through her other work, she gradually attained iconic status among two generations of alternative rockers. And, improbable as it may be, since returning to recording and performing in 1995, Patti Smith is making some of the most consistently inspired music of her life.
Following the deaths of her husband, brother and friends Allen Ginsberg and Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith recorded Gone Again, a gripping collection of mortality themed, folk rock arranged songs reflecting her losses and grief. In 1997, Peace And Noise extended the exploration of life's impermanence, but this time adding more electric settings and socially charged tunes decrying the American role in Viet Nam and Chinese repression in Tibet. Now with Gung Ho, she makes a full blown comeback to rock and roll and unbridled rebel rousing.
The strength of Smith's appeal has always derived from her ability to unleash striking imagery while exorcising her fiercest desires. Her ambitions are grand. Commenting on the motivations behind her work in a 1976 interview, she explained, “I'm trying to figure out what happened in the Sixties. I'm working on a link--to keep it going.” A quarter of a century later, she still aims to reveal and redeem life's most profound possibilities.
Given the times, and despite her recent renaissance, it's a surprise to hear Smith so infused with idealism and call-to-arms bravado. But on Gung Ho, more than on any album of a her career, Smith seems intent on rallying resistance to fundamentally alter the dominant order. From the loving unity vision of the album opener “One Voice” to the closing plea of the title track (“Give me one more turn/ One more turn of the wheel/ One more revolution”), Smith serves up anthems, protests, history, myth and harangue in a relentless effort to stir the troops.
In service of the message, producer Gil Norton, best known for work with the Pixies, gives Smith's veteran band a crackling resonance. Restraining solos and all out bashing, song arrangements concentrate mostly on weaving clean, spacious atmospheres suited to Smith's free-styled phrasing. Yet as the occasion demands, the guitars of Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray surge with snarling precision.
The album does offer some quieter moments. On the delicate “China Bird,” the countrified “Libby's Song,” and the acoustic ballad “Grateful” (a tribute to Jerry Garcia), Smith again evokes the pain of loved ones passing. But the bulk of Gung Ho is fueled by other emotions.
In the growling tirade against the market economy, “Glitter In Their Eyes,” Smith snaps sarcastic lines (“They'll trade you up/ They'll trade you down/ Your body a commodity/ Our sacred stage/ Has been defaced/ Replaced to grace/ The marketplace”) that clearly reside beyond the ideological frame of CNN. And later on “New Party,” when she spews a venomous retort to a rosy report on the state of the union (“Why don't you fertilize my lawn with what's running from your mouth?”), there is no doubt she is inviting listeners to share in her contempt for official truth.
Smith's most riveting challenges, however, come on pieces that allow more room for drama and improvisation. On the slow pulsing, eight minute long “Strange Messengers,” Smith bides her time etching the bitter landscape of African-American slavery: I looked upon the book of life Tracing the lines of face after face Looking down at their naked feet Bound in chains bound in chains Chains of Leather chains of gold Men knew it was wrong but they looked away And paraded them down the colonial streets
But as the singer hears the ghosts of slaves calling out for recognition of humanity and suffering, emotions rise with explosive fury. Finally, choking on rage and horror, Smith exits howling “We will be heard, we will be heard.”
Less harrowing, but equally
provocative, is Smith's nearly twelve minute rumination on Ho Chi Minh.
Against a chugging drone of guitars and drums and the hypnotic swirl of
helicopters, “Gung Ho” unfolds the life of a man and a revolution from the
perspective of the oppressed. Methodically recounting the toil, hunger and
injustice seeding discontent, Smith pushes listeners to recognize a common
humanity. Yet as she repeats and lingers over the line “Nothing was more
beautiful than Viet Nam,” she also leaves behind a defiant reminder of
American arrogance and damage done. Z