Patti Smith—still performing after four decades in the music industry. Photo by Beni Köhler.
Forty years after the release of her ground-breaking album Horses, Patti Smith is back on touring. The iconic singer, songwriter, and poet is touring the West Coast and Europe for her record, Banga.
Looking back on Patti Smith’s recent show at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon, I am still struck by her sincerity, her unabashed, risk-taking lyrics, and her incomparable ability to create atmosphere the moment she walks onstage with arms wide open. Horses came out long before I was born and this was the first time I had gotten to see the legend perform. While I truly enjoyed Smith’s energy live, the politics behind some of her songs felt jarringly dated.
In her live show, Smith is somehow familiar and comforting despite her fame. Her banter with the audience covered everything from how she spend the afternoon eating cheese grits at a diner, to her love for television (she is currently obsessed with Little House on the Prairie), to her thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft. Smith, hailed as Godmother of Punk, writer, visual artist, and activist continues to provoke critical thought and emotional response from her audience. Patti Smith has recorded 11 studio albums, vocalized her anti-war views and support for the Green Party, had a brief cameo in Jean-Luc Goddard’s Film Socialisme, collected some honorary degrees from Rowan University and the Pratt Institute, and won the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids. While she still often plays hit music written decades ago, much of her work is as fresh as ever.
In 2012, Smith released Banga, a truly peculiar album which includes covers, ballads, and elegies. Somewhat lacking on Banga are Smith’s classic freeform songwriting and composition, yet an affinity towards the mythic, historical, and personal remains. On “Constantine’s Dream” Smith shifts naturally between singing and spoken word, delving into a swirling underworld of discovery and erratic guitars. Backed by a four-piece band (which includes longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye), the setup is relatively simple, emphasizing Smith’s poetic lyrics. Between songs at her recent show, Smith was completely at ease, a magnetic figure onstage with her long silver hair and trademark Ann Demeulemeester black jacket. As I listened to “This is the Girl,” an elegy for Amy Winehouse, I realized the rarity of an artist like Patti Smith. Avoiding cliché and too much sentimentality are traits of a good writer, but through all her, Smith’s voice remains the core of her sound. She sings as a poet, emphasizing all the right syllables and engaging with words in a way that ebbs and flows just enough to surprise and tantalize listeners while striking some thought provoking chords. Even on the banjo-propelled cover of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” (released on Twelve) Smith finds was to make the old new again with a poetic interlude.
While Smith is a great performer, writer, and activist in many ways, some moments of the concert felt out-of-touch. While performing “Gandhi” from Trampin’, a song largely about global environmental and social crises, Smith breaks into a poetic interlude and eventually cries out, “Gandhi isn’t a person, it’s an idea!” This song, which I was surprised to learn was released in 2004, bothers me less for its melodrama and more for it’s appropriation of Gandhi as an object on which Smith can impose her own political agenda. Unfortunately this wasn’t the only cringe-worthy aspect of the show, as Smith closed out the show wither “Rock n Roll N*****” off her 1978 release, Easter. Many condemn Smith, a white woman, for her self-identification as a racial epithet and the deeply problematic appropriation of black culture for the sake of her own self-expression. While certain counter arguments suggest Smith is continuing Norman Mailer’s idea of the “white negro” and therefore her use of the n-word is acceptable, it certainly felt awkward to be at a concert hall full of a predominantly white audience singing along to the song by shouting “n*****” eleven times in a row. Within these songs, Smith’s lyrics make little to no reference to her own privilege in her ability to adopt certain people and language for her own artistic means.
Sometimes musicians say or do problematic things, and while we cannot ignore what is sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or in this case, racist, it is possible to like problematic things. Here is a resource I find useful from the social justice league.
While Patti Smith remains an engaging performer and adept lyricist, she is not without flaw and has every opportunity to critically examine her work (no matter what decade it was written) and to critically engage with her own identity in relation to the identities of others. Smith’s Banga shows a fascinating, modern addition to Smith’s discography while her live performance left something to be desired.
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Miriam W. Karraker is a student, music nerd, creative nonfiction writer and poet living in Portland, Oregon.