Wednesday, January 31, 2007


I've seen Patti Smith twice in the Seventies, once at a student-run music club called the Back Door at San Diego University, and then about two years later at the Civic Theatre in the Downtown. A shock was what it was, like sex for the first time, scraping guitar, rudimentary drums, one-note bass lines, and Smith's incantations, yowlings, caterwauling, and proclamations, channeling Jim Morrison and Blake. It was static, feedback and backbeat fused with Smith's flailing rag doll dancing and howling, hardly refined but completely sublime. I told my date in the middle of the Civic Theatre concert that I wanted to climb on stage and fuck Smith. My date, a demure young woman at the time, had a look in her eye and whispered in my ear "So do I..."Patti Smith may be many things, but she is not a phony, and neither was Allan Ginsberg. Full of themselves, perhaps, and a shade pretentious at times, but this is what it takes to an artist in America. Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, Kate Braverman, Ann Waldman, Truman Capote, and John Irving are no less fixed in their public identities and self-images of being people with words that will not be denied. Writing is not for modest people; but none of us have to live with these folks, just read their books and find what value there is to be had. Real emotion, insight, poetry, things that resonate with you despite the writer's quarrelsome personality. That's why you read them. Patti Smith I think is a fair to mediocre poet, but she was an excellent rock and roll artist; I have a firm rock and roll aesthetic and consider her best work to be on record and on the stage, in front of a band, and it is here where I think she actually taps into something larger than herself. But again, whatever she is, she's not a phony, whether you like her or not. I just happen to like some of what she has done and I admire her gutsiness to invade a male bastion and make rock and roll something women can find a primary place in as well. For Ginsberg, I would say he stopped writing good poems thirty-five years ago, abandoning his Blakean visions for a Buddhist practice of direct transcription of his thought processes--no editing, "first thought, best thought". The result has been an awful lot of wasted paper. Still, when all is said about by professors, acolytes, and sycophants, there remain the great poems he did write back in the day, not the least of which is "Howl", a certifiable masterpiece. There are a number of other Ginsberg poems and volumes that likewise ascend to the sublime, and when it all is said that there is to say about him, the writing that is actually good is what I return to, again and again. I worked a poetry reading he gave eleven years ago, and he was a bit of a crab, but he was also a man in a hurry; he knew he was dying and was dead about nine months later. So I will forgive his affectations and will be grateful that he lived long enough to write a handful of the best poems written by a post-war American writer.I wouldn't say that Ginsberg is a great poet, only that he has written some great poems. A great poet remains great, I think, over a longer stretch of their career than AG did; he effectively ceased being a poet and became instead a celebrity. His great work, though, remains great, and that, for me, mitigates somewhat the ensuring mediocrity and cult of personality he cultivated. I would say Smith's arrogance, as such, is precisely what her rock and roll performance style require, and I found it exciting when I've seen her in full throttle. Personally, I don't mind arrogance in an artist if there's something there to back it up. I admire writers Norman Mailer and Camille Paglia, two strong personalities who back up their bluster with strong and eloquent word-smithing. The distinction between the gifted egotist and the blustering pretender would be that the gifted egotist's personality receded after awhile and a reader confronts their assertions at face value. The pretender's disguise merely dissolves like spun sugar against a wet tongue. Smith, in a more limited sense, is akin to the aforementioned two; she is not a writer, really, but a performer tapping into energies made real by her immodest assertions. In a rock and roll context, I think it's riveting, and there is a strong DIY appeal here. She's marshaled her limit assets as singer and musician, and even as a poet and transformed everything into a perfect rock and roll concept, where rough-hewed elements and qualities of the self-taught are deathless assets. Of course, if arrogance and extreme self-confidence are, of themselves, qualities one objects to regardless of the work produced, there's nothing I can say to change your mind.

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