There's a consistent thread through every Patti Smith album. It
is a theme that is even more present in those that she has released
since her first child was born. That thread is spun from strands
of hope and the belief in the possibilities of change. It is most
obvious in songs like her anthem "People Have the Power"
and the homage to the revolutionary spirit of Vietnam's Ho Chi
Minh, "Gung Ho," but is also apparent in the songs of
a more personal nature that appear on all of these albums. Her
latest album, Trampin', continues this trend.
first work to be released on Columbia, Trampin' is another collection
of imagistic poems set to a music that is sometimes reminiscent
of the rhythms of the musicians of Jajouka (first brought to modern
western ears by Beat icon Brian Gysin) and at other times evocative
of a devotional moment in a Gregorian monastery. Yet, there are
many musical moments where Patti and her band still rock as hard
as her band in its Radio Ethiopia days.
Always able to control her pitch, whether it was at its most feverish
in a song like "Break It Up" or "Rock and Roll
Nigger" from her signature album Horses and her third work
Easter, respectively, or its most reflective as in "Paths
That Cross" from her 1988 work "Dream of Life, "
Patti continues to maintain that control - lifting her voice in
chant when the music demands it and dropping it to a whisper when
the song insists. Then, occasionally, raising it to a decibel
level that the music and its lyric require. All the while, her
band remains faithful to its muse.
pick up that thread of hope and change, let's go back to Trampin'.
The song from this album that expresses it best might very well
be the piece titled "Gandhi." This is a long song that
begins with a dream about Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a dream
that Patti admits is a trespass, but quickly becomes a story about
the man who was one of Mr. King's inspirations: Mahatma Gandhi.
As the guitars and rhythm section rise and fall like the breaths
of a sleeping body, Patti's words recall and reinvigorate the
meaning of Gandhi's life and work. Then the guitars really begin
to sing, just as Patti calls on us all to:
from your slumber
And get 'em with the numbers
Get 'em with the numbers
Long live revolution
why? Why is there any need to awake, you might wonder. One answer
lies in another song. A song that holds nothing back. Anger and
loss. Death and destruction. Bigotry and ignorance. That song
is "Radio Baghdad" and, yes, it's about that dirty little
war. The anger of old, when Patti used to give shows where she
ripped into the duplicity and stupidity of the rulers and their
minions and laid it out for all to see with the fearlessness of
her mentor Bob Dylan and the anger of the Weather Underground,
is present and accounted for right here in this song. It begins
with an incantation to the land of the Tigris and Euphrates and
the civilization that it birthed. The perfect number, zero, that
was discovered by its scholars, is where Patti begins. Slowly
the incantation rises, enveloping the listener's soul. The band
invented the zero
And we mean nothing to you
Our children run through
And you sent your flames
Your shooting stars
Shock and awe
drowns the devotional sounds in a replica of that shock and awe,
that horrifying bombardment. This anger is a good thing. Revolutionary
change is not possible without anger that is justified. Nor is
it possible without hope and love. Patti reminds us of this, too,
as she ends this song about Baghdad and America's war on its people:
The paralysis of your neighbor
But extend your hand
Such paralysis of which she sings is often brought about through
despair. The despair born of hopelessness and fear. The fear and
the feeling that you cannot make a difference. That everything
is resolved before you have a say. Or, even worse, left unresolved
forever. Fear not, sings Patti in her song "My Blakean Year."
all that you fear
For joy will conquer all despair
In our Blakean year.
Patti Smith has always had the ability to create joy from despair
and hope from fear. One imagines this is what brought her to rock
and roll. Isn't it the music of joy and celebration in the midst
of chaos and despair? Indeed, doesn't it take that very chaos
and despair and turn it into something you can dance to?
Smith does this in the stories and impressions that make up so
much of her work and she does it with the heroes whose stories
she tells. Her homage to Ho Chi Minh mentioned earlier is a perfect
example of the latter. Therein she reflects on Ho's meaning to
the Vietnamese people and their desires to be free of colonial
and imperial powers. In words of poetry backed by the sound of
US choppers bent on destroying their land and their vision, Ho
and the Vietnamese rose above and defeated their oppressor. The
dichotomy of the choppers ugly, ominous rhythm and the beauty
of Patti's words delivered in a soulful, uplifting chant illustrates
Smith's ability to create beauty from humanity's ugliest act -
war. It is this creative ability that allows her vision of unbounding
hope and joy to unfold in song.
a rap that Patti used to begin her performance of "Rock and
Roll Nigger" with. "I haven't fucked much with the past,"
it begins. "But I've fucked plenty with the future."
This is what a good deal of her early work was about. She threw
her lot in with the revolutionaries - cultural and political -
and helped birth a new world that is still struggling to survive
as the old one grabs on to whatever it can to keep itself alive.
War and corruption. Censorship and prison. Reactionary religions
and vacuous entertainment. Yet the future is still up for grabs.
Patti Smith and her band aren't just fucking with it, their recent
works are providing us with the hope and the inspiration (tempered
with a wisdom that only time can bring) we're going to need to
insure that that future is worth living.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the
Weather Underground, which is being republished by Verso.
can be reached at: [email protected]
The above is also available at