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The Mother Courage of Rock

Judy Linn
Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel, 1970

In the “Notice” at the beginning of Wītt, Smith wrote: “These ravings, observations, etc. come from one who, beyond vows, is without mother, gender, or country who attempts to bleed from the word a system, a space base.”

The system Smith bled from language was an oracular nonstop cavalcade of words hurled like sixteenth notes, powered by a rhythm imposed by force of will. While she engaged with prosody and songcraft a bit in her early years—“Death comes sweeping through the hallway like a lady’s dress/Death comes riding down the highway in its Sunday best” (“Fire of Unknown Origin”)—by the time she fronted a full band she seemed less interested in singing lyrics, preferring to chant simple refrains or to deploy her words as a discordant, wild-card instrument, a version of what the critic Lester Bangs called “skronk.” She made capital use of jukebox slang at first, but increasingly she sought biblical allusions and cadences, echoed the incantatory Rastafarian style of Jamaican talk-over artists such as Tappa Zukie, and she favored the orientalism in Rimbaud (whose father after all translated the Koran).

The sexual tension in her work naturally strove toward orgasm, the musical tension ached for release, and the punk style she helped initiate was, thanks to the Sex Pistols and others, becoming increasingly confrontational and even violent in its stance. It followed that she would be ever more inclined toward making things go boom. In song after song, yearning for transcendence, she found satisfaction in accelerating tempos and flurries of highly charged verbiage that mimed conflagration. Robert Christgau, reviewing Horses, termed her style “apocalyptic romanticism.”

Among the consequences of this ascendant style were that she lost her humor bit by bit and took herself more seriously with every succeeding record. On the other hand, she manifestly believed in her mission as much as anyone who had ever picked up a microphone, and that belief was contagious. By 1977 or so she had become a performer so electric and charismatic that critique simply withered in the heat she exuded onstage. Her band, charmingly erratic at first, perfected their chops with constant touring; her songs were more than the sum of their parts; she rode a crest of momentum for three more albums after Horses. Then, in 1980, she did the unthinkable: at or near the height of her powers she married Fred “Sonic” Smith, late of the MC5, and retired from recording and performance to move to a Detroit suburb and become a housewife and mother.

Although she made one record with her husband in 1988, she didn’t fully emerge from her seclusion until the mid-1990s. By that time he was dead, and so were her brother; her keyboard player, Richard Sohl; and her best friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. An air of mourning unavoidably colored her writing and performance and contributed to a truly formidable gravitas—she became at once rock’s Mater Dolorosa and its Mother Courage. By now she is an institution, and it is hard to remember the air of goofy, inspired amateurism she wore for much of her first decade in the public eye—the notion that she was just like anyone else in the audience, but daring enough to mount the stage, was her crucial contribution to the punk ethos. She remains a galvanizing performer whose passion and commitment and utter lack of showbiz cynicism allow her to play every show as if it were her last. By now almost everything in her repertoire sounds like either an anthem or a hymn, and while catharsis may come cheap in rock and roll, the effect she has on her audience gives every impression of having been earned.

This has not preserved her music from a certain lugubriousness; its religiose affectations can be especially wearing on listeners at home. Then again, her written work has acquired a greater range over the years. Woolgathering, which was originally published in 1992 in Raymond Foye’s palm-size Hanuman collection, is a delightfully rambling mix of childhood memories and dream sequences, the latter with the hashish-trance lucidity of some of Paul Bowles’s stories, such as “He of the Assembly.” Rimbaud inevitably shows his face, too:

I dreamed of being a painter, but I let the image slide into a vat of pigment and pastry-foam while I bounded from temple to junkyard in pursuit of the word. A solitary shepherdess gathering bits of wool plucked by the hand of the wind from the belly of a lamb. A noun. A nun. A red. O blue.

Her most recent book of poems, Auguries of Innocence (2005, revised 2008), is rueful and sober in a way that is new for her. There are poems for her children and for Diane Arbus, a meditation on the bombing of Baghdad that drifts away for a while to consider the suicide of Virginia Woolf, a poem that eerily seems to anticipate the fall of Qaddafi (“Soon the sun will ascend over Libya./Can it matter? We have bombed/Benghazi. A dazed warhead struck/the compound of our foe lying alive,/his eyes white, black rimmed.”), and an ambitious settling of accounts with Rimbaud:

Everyone wears a corpse about their wrist. Just a bit of twine, but a corpse all the same. A dead thing proclaiming I have you and you. I snip all these things and hurl all rings in the urinal you knelt in. Your tears made it overflow. All the sewage covered the station and made you shudder. This was as close to a laugh as you could get. The image of a shit-covered wagon. You stood clad in white, trembling.

Her memoir Just Kids (2010), the account of her friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, has been justly celebrated. It is delicate and affectionate as it tells of their adventures in a New York City bohemia that now seems a century removed, of the endurance of their relationship despite his realization that he was gay, of their separate pursuits of fame, of his illness and death. It is almost too literary for its own good, since her choices of word and phrase always come down on the genteel side of the ledger: “perhaps” rather than “maybe,” “rise” rather than “stand,” “yet” rather than “but,” “one” rather than “you.” There’s hardly a contraction, outside the dialogue, in the entire book. But despite the fact that this sort of talk is patently not the way she expressed herself at the time, and that it sounds more effortful than natural on the page, it does cover the book with an appropriate hush—it sounds like someone tiptoeing through a sickroom.

An earthier and less reverent but equally glamorous view of their life together can be seen in the photographs by Judy Linn collected in Patti Smith 1969–1976. Looking rather like stills from an unknown New Wave film, the pictures cover Smith from her early hippie days in New York to the first year or two of her fame with a remarkable consistency, displaying various ratty lofts, misguided hairstyles, improvised fashion choices, and a lot of winning and unforced self-display, the Hollywood poses of a girl who didn’t think she was beautiful. Mapplethorpe may have taken the most famous of her portraits, but many of these appeared on the covers of books and records early on, and they helped construct her image just as much. The fact that the in-between shots are included—the ones where she is out of focus or has her back turned or is squinting from cigarette smoke—contributes powerfully to the sense that the book represents a narrative and not simply a collection. It is a beautifully realized long-term project, an exquisite collaboration between photographer and subject.

Smith’s rise from gawky poet and associate scenemaker to rock star is documented and lavishly contextualized in Will Hermes’s Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, in which her early career is viewed alongside those of Bruce Springsteen, Philip Glass, Grandmaster Flash, the New York Dolls, Anthony Braxton, and dozens of others who made music in New York in the impossibly fecund 1970s and somehow wound up influencing one another, wittingly or not. Despite the broad canvas, Smith cuts an indelible figure, more vibrant than any other character surveyed. And Hermes is uninterested in genteel revisionism; you see Smith spitting, cursing, and telling an early audience: “Don’t be afraid of me. I’m just a nice little girl.”

Smith’s most recent production, Camera Solo, is an exhibition and catalog of her black-and-white Polaroids. It is not her first outing as a photographer—a similar collection, Land 250, was published in a pricey edition by the Fondation Cartier in 2008. Taken singly the pictures are unremarkable; viewed strictly as photographs they are ordinary, and sometimes blurred or oddly framed in unilluminating ways. But they are not art objects as much as they are talismans, and so they follow the line of her character and her work as established early on. Several of the pictures in Linn’s book show her walls: pictures of Dylan, Mayakovsky, Jean Genet, Blaise Cendrars, James Dean, Hank Williams, and Camus sharing space with beads and gris-gris sacs and toys and walking sticks.

On the first page of Just Kids she records her movements while Robert Mapplethorpe lay dying many miles away: “I quietly straightened my things…. The cobalt inkwell that had been his. My Persian cup, my purple heart, a tray of baby teeth.” Her photos likewise show Robert Graves’s hat, Roberto Bolaño’s chair, the Rimbaud family atlas, the beds of John Keats, Victor Hugo, and Virginia Woolf, the graves of Blake, Shelley, Whitman, Brancusi, and Modigliani.

Each picture represents some kind of transmission from the dead, and their blurriness and graininess assist in giving them the air of nineteenth-century spirit photos. It is an intensely personal collection, almost like a tour of her desk drawers, but it isn’t idle. She has obtained something from each of those figures, and by photographing their leavings she is passing along the spark. Somewhere down the line a young fan will pick up the trace. She did as much for me long ago, after all.

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