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Music: Say Yeah!

4 minute read

Wearing a black gabardine jacket, jeans and black ballet slippers, she gyrates around the stage like a Jagger in drag, hips pumping and fists punching the air. “We’re gonna have a real good time together!” she cries. “We’re gonna talk and shout and shoot together!”

The shouting comes from Patti Smith, 29, an intriguing newcomer on the rock-music scene whose first album, Horses (Arista), has been climbing fast since its release in November. A few months ago, she was just another aspiring singer on Manhattan’s underground nightspot circuit. Grafted to primitive three-chord rock, Smith’s raw soprano and often menacing lyrics emerge in an effect that is curiously vulnerable. With her fame spreading almost as suddenly as the sales of her album, some music executives see Smith as a potential Janis Joplin. Bob Dylan has paid a benedictory visit to her act in Manhattan. Now Patti is beginning a three-month tour that will take her music to a dozen cities across the country.

She is not really another Joplin. Janis was big and blowsy; Patti is a somewhat haunted-looking waif who stands 5 ft. 5 in. and weighs all of 95 Ibs. Janis liked to stretch her whisky-hoarse voice into a shredding scream now and then; Patti’s vivid soprano has power to spare, but she often prefers to communicate in a throaty, low chant. What she does have in common with Joplin is a throbbing emotionality and naked intensity. Says Smith: “I want every faggot, grandmother, five-year-old and Chinaman to be able to hear my music and say YEAH!”

Many of Patti’s lyrics are in fact scarcely intelligible fairy tales about serpents, old rock heroes and violence. Her talk, like her lyrics, bristles with imagery that is sometimes startling, sometimes merely peculiar. “Experience piles,” she says. “You go through so much pain and pleasure, and pleasure and pain again, that you learn to gauge yourself like the ocean.”

Open Pores. She grew up in a small, rural community in southern New Jersey named Pitman, as a working-class kid in a family that devoured books and quoted the Bible. While her mother waited tables and her father worked in a factory, Patti kept two younger sisters and a brother occupied with fantasies of Martians and ancient Egypt.

At school she felt trapped. “My whole body felt like it was on fire, like every pore was open and there was glass tubing in it.” She listened to Coltrane and Sinatra, and invented daydreams about Arthur Rimbaud, the French mystical poet, whose portrait reminded her of Dylan. For several years she was a Jehovah’s Witness; later she dipped into Oriental religions. As a teenager, she drew furiously, then turned to calligraphy and finally to poetry. Says she: “Art takes the primitive and pumps it up real high from the heart to the intellect. Those who are illuminated can transform sensation into something that everybody can taste.”

When she went to Manhattan eight years ago, she tried acting and writing for rock magazines, then published two books of poems and worked on a play. Eventually she gave poetry readings, accompanied by a guitarist. The readings became singings, and she added a bassist, a drummer and a piano player.

Listeners often squirm at Smith’s more explicit songs. In the title track of her Horses album, which is an incantation of violence and brutal sexuality, she sings of “white, shining silver studs with their noses in flames” and of a suicidal lover who “picked up a blade, and pressed it against his smooth throat.” Redondo Beach, set against a catchy reggae beat, tells of lesbian love. Other Smith songs like the hard rocker Free Money are easier to take. In surrealistic blues like Birdland, her mordant fragments of verse can be evocative:

Little boy’s face lit up with such naked joy

That the sun burned around his lids

And his eyes were like two suns

White lids, white opals seeing everything just a little bit too clearly.

It is not high art, but it is an often successful blend of rock and poetry.

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