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Review: Patti Smith, “Outside Society”

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The calling came early for Patti Smith.  At twelve years of age, a family excursion to the Museum of Art in Philadelphia brought the young Smith in contact with Modigliani, Sargent and Picasso, the latter affecting her with his “brutal confidence.”  It was with a similar confidence that Smith, not even in her teenage years, concluded that “to be an artist was to see what others could not.”  Smith was steadfast in her determination to make her mark in the turbulent art world of New York in the 1970s, a story chronicled with both romance and realism in her 2010 memoir Just Kids (soon to be a major motion picture co-written by Smith and John Logan of the play Red and films Gladiator and Sweeney Todd).  She pressed then-companion, collage artist Robert Mapplethorpe, to take his own photographs as he pressed her to read her poetry aloud.  Soon, the two denizens of the “eccentric and damned” Chelsea Hotel (Smith’s own, apt description) were artistically in the ascendant.

Yet Smith’s eventual success as a progenitor of punk and art rock was hardly pre-ordained.  Though she repeatedly played “Strawberry Fields Forever” alongside records by Nina Simone and John Coltrane, Smith didn’t initially seek a career as a performer or envision herself as a rock star of any sort.  She was a poet, influenced by Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), and a music journalist who sought to follow in the lofty footsteps of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) who made major contributions to art criticism.  In her song “Pissing in a River,” Smith wonders in a primal howl:  Should I pursue a path so twisted?/Should I crawl defeated and gifted ?/Should I go the length of a river/The royal, the throne, the ‘cry me a river’?”  We know, though, the path Patti Smith indeed chose to pursue despite the bumps in the road, and her now-legendary career is being celebrated with its first-ever single disc retrospective, Outside Society (Arista/Columbia/Legacy  88697 94315 2).

Over 18 tracks, Outside Society presents a full view of an uncompromising artist who learned to follow her own muse even as she functioned as one for Mapplethorpe: “He saw more in me than I could see in myself.  Whenever he peeled the image from the Polaroid negative, he would say, ‘With you, I can’t miss,’” Smith writes in Just Kids.  Smith literally retraced Rimbaud’s footsteps one autumn in France, using the experience as a further channel into music when she gave a “Rock and Rimbaud” performance incorporating poetry, Kurt Weill and Hank Ballard into a unique program.  Do great minds think alike?  Smith – a visual artist as well as a performing artist and a musician – formed a rock trio with guitarist/bassist (and original Nuggets curator!) Lenny Kaye and keyboardist Richard Sohl (“three chords merged with the power of the word”) and added drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and guitarist/bassist Ivan Kral for her 1975 debut Horses.  That album opened with an adaptation of Van Morrison’s rock anthem “Gloria.”  A later Morrison anthem paid homage to the same man who so inspired Smith, the libertine poet who was outside the conventions of both poetry and society.  Morrison’s song was entitled “Tore Down a la Rimbaud.”

What does Outside Society have to offer?  Hit the jump to find out!

The gritty, quintessential garage rocker “Gloria” opens Outside Society as well, and Horses is also represented by “Free Money,” the first pure rock and roll song co-written by Smith and Lenny Kaye.  And so begins a chronological tour through all ten of the artist’s studio albums.  Jack Douglas replaced Horses’ John Cale for 1976’s Radio Ethiopia, from which “Pissing in a River” and “Ain’t It Strange” are taken.  Smith’s ragged, growled vocals are married to chunky rock chords, grandly expressive and visceral over the barrage of words in “Ain’t It Strange.”  The track retains its primal power and makes it easy to hear why Smith is often considered the godmother of punk.

Clearly aware that a rolling stone gathers no moss, Smith took another path when she teamed with Jimmy Iovine for 1978’s Easter.  That album produced what is perhaps her most enduring composition, co-written with Bruce Springsteen.  “Because the Night” is marked by Springsteen’s pop song construction and unerring sense of melody but also Smith’s added lyric contributions, written for her future husband and collaborator Fred “Sonic” Smith and imbued with great passion in her earthy vocals.  The title of this compilation also comes from Easter and its track “Rock N Roll Nigger.”  Even today, a song with that title would raise eyebrows in certain quarters, let alone when it’s repeated multiple times in a big sing-along chorus.  The song is filled with bold declarations: “Jimi Hendrix was a nigger/Jesus Christ and Grandma, too/Jackson Pollock was a nigger/Nigger, nigger, nigger….” Smith was bravely attempting to deflate the word as a pejorative and re-establish it as a badge of honor for those outside the mainstream: “Outside of society/Is where I want to be.”  If Smith didn’t quite succeed in changing the nature of the subject word or the controversy attached with it, “Rock N Roll Nigger” potently demonstrates her powers as a musician interested in transforming, and transcending, art and even language.

Despite the tough subject matter, Iovine lent a pop sheen to the thrash of Easter and the more commercial sound continued with the Todd Rundgren-produced Wave.  “Frederick” is highlighted by Richard Sohl’s fluid piano playing, and the melody of this ode to Fred “Sonic” Smith is lovely.  Rundgren’s glistening production boasts strong background vocals and a real pop pulse, but he and Smith hadn’t gone soft.  They reinvented The Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock N Roll Star” with a ferocity that leaps from the speakers.  But after Wave, Smith was gone.

Any reader of Just Kids won’t be surprised that Smith disappeared from the music business between 1979 and 1988.  Her interests were simply too diverse to follow a strict career path as a hitmaking recording artist.  The jump in time period is a little jarring on Outside Society when Smith’s story picks up with 1988’s “People Have the Power” from Dream of Life.  The voice was a little deeper but just as resonant and authoritative, and the song features a big eighties drum sound courtesy of Daugherty and returning producer Iovine.  Though she only records sporadically, Smith has never abandoned exploration of her favorite topics, from art (“Summer Cannibals”) to religion (“Lo and Beholden.”)  The former is full-throttle rock with memorably disturbing cries of “Eat, eat, eat!” as she contemplates an artist’s responsibility to a (literally) hungry public.

Outside Society, like Smith’s career to date, comes full circle with two cover versions.  “Smells Like Teen Spirit” could be “Gloria,” redux, with Smith paying homage to another visionary.  Her fiery take on the Nirvana song (heard in its radio edit) recalls the angst, drama and pain of Kurt Cobain’s original while (accurately) being sung by an older, wiser soul.  Smith’s poetry slam-styled lyrical improvisation only enhances the song.  “Trampin’,” on the other hand, is a spiritual sung with pure tenderness as the singer’s “tryin’ to make a heaven my home.”

Smith provides concise but illuminating track-by-track notes in a skinny 8-page booklet which sometimes offer background on a song’s creation and other times delve into a song’s meaning.  (Having found her greatest sources of inspiration in poetry, it’s no surprise that Smith’s songs here are open to interpretation, part of the reason her lyrics have endured so long.)  The full-color booklet contains the cover artwork for all of Smith’s represented albums, including the iconic Mapplethorpe image that adorned Horses.  Sterling Sound’s Greg Calbi has remastered each track crisply.

Outside Society is a perfect soundtrack to Just Kids, which ends its main text in 1979 and picks up a few years later only to address the tragically young passing of Mapplethorpe.  The songs that shaped those crucial years of the 1970s are here, and the disc also brings Smith’s story up to the present day.  Primal, aggressive forces of punk rock are at play, but with rare intelligence and great compassion.  2002’s double-disc anthology Land does offer more, but ends before the 2004 and 2007 cuts, naturally, and might be too comprehensive for those listeners first discovering Patti Smith (presumably the target audience for this or any single-disc compilation).  Chances are if you’ve ever felt “outside society” yourself – and who among us hasn’t? – you’ll find much to offer here.

Written by Joe Marchese

August 24, 2011 at 12:17

Posted in Features, News, Patti Smith, Reissues, Reviews

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