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Trampin’ on
The spirit of punk rock lives in Patti Smith

For someone who did as much as anyone to start punk rock, Patti Smith seems far removed from it nowadays. Not that her music has changed all that much: the new Trampin’ (Sony) is no throwback, but it fits in with the rest of her catalogue. It’s more that Smith’s music — like that of her New York contemporaries, Television and Richard Hell — was never that easy to define. Go back to her 1975 debut, Horses (Arista), and you’ll hear punk as a spirit, not just an attitude: There were catchy tunes and there was aggression, but there was also abstract poetry, mysticism, and free improvisation. Later on, there was loss, rebirth, and politics. None of which turns up much in the mainstream version of punk circa 2004.

Reached at her New York home last week, Smith wasn’t inclined to wax rhapsodic about the good old days of CBGB. "I’m proud to have been part of that movement, and to have been associated with groups like Television — but really, it was a short space of time. So if there’s a revival, I’m not interested in jumping on the bandwagon; I’m more interested to see how we can continue in the present. That comes partly from living with Fred Smith [her late husband and the founder of the MC5] for all those years; he never got nostalgic about his former laurels." So she takes it as a compliment of sorts that her new album just got panned in the New York Daily News. "I usually don’t notice reviews, but this one was pretty amusing — the headline was ‘Peacenik Without Punch.’ The whole attitude of the article was pretty revealing; it was written to sound that if you were protesting against the Bush administration, you were doing something laughable."

The headline was accurate in one sense: if "punch" is supposed to mean a big arena-rock sound, you won’t find much of that on Trampin’. Like much of Smith’s recent work (starting with the 1995 Gone Again, on Arista, which was released in the wake of Fred Smith’s death), the new album is steeped in loss, in this case that of her mother. Yet it honors the loss by looking for transcendence instead of sinking into depression. Like most of her albums, it has a celebratory rock opener ("Jubilee" plays like a more subdued, persuasive version of "People Have the Power"), but there are more slow and pretty songs than usual. And though most of her albums have one dense, abstract epic, this one has two: "Gandhi" and "Radio Baghdad," which total 20 minutes. Both suggest that her band — whose line-up includes long-time campadres Lenny Kaye (guitar) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) plus more recent arrivals Oliver Ray (guitar) and Tony Shanahan (bass) — have discovered psychedelic music. Without mentioning the Grateful Dead, I suggest that both tracks have a ’60s San Francisco feel.

"I like that association," Smith responds. "This band has been together eight years, and there’s a lot of wordless trust, the same way there was back in the era when bands jammed a lot. Both of the long songs were improvised in the studio; we made two passes at ‘Gandhi’ and three at ‘Radio Baghdad’ and that was it. I studied a lot about Gandhi, read books he’d written and got my thoughts together, but there were no lyrics written. So I’m especially proud of those. Some of the prettier songs were written for my mother, because she passed away with such dignity. All my siblings were present; it was inspiring. So this record couldn’t be depressing, because my mother was such a fighter. Gung Ho [2000, Arista] was propelled by my father, who was a quiet and modest man, so some of that introspection found its way onto the album. And of course, the Gone Again album reflected Fred. So yes, they’re propelled by loss, but I guess that’s life."

As for the "peacenik" tag, she’ll take it gladly. Still, the new disc’s specific references to the Iraq war come as a minor shock, if only because those have been in such short supply. Save for a handful of flag-waving country songs, the disc’s topical references are among the first to be heard in pop music since the war started a year ago — and maybe the last we’re likely to hear until Steve Earle makes another album. "Anyone who does something in the name of the people is going to get ridiculed, and Ralph Nader is proof of that. But I believe we should always be anti-war. I feel a disappointment in the industry that more people haven’t spoken out or attempted to organize. But everybody has to decide these things for themselves, and I think that September 11 has frightened a number of people. Our present administration has done its best to fill the country with confusion and fear, so a lot of people are acting on their fears instead of their beliefs. Personally, I can’t believe that the American people will let it go on for much longer, or that they want to lose their sons and daughters in a war they don’t understand. I certainly don’t want to see my 21-year old son trapped fighting in Iraq."

Still, Smith’s politics aren’t easy to pigeonhole. She performed for, and even with, Ralph Nader in 2000 (there’s a bootleg of him joining in on "People Have the Power" at Madison Square Garden that suggests he should keep his day job). When she last appeared in town, at the Hatch Shell in the summer of 2002, she offered comforting words about the events of the previous year, reminding people to remember who they were on September 10. Yet she followed that by dedicating a song to John Walker Lindh, a move that brought far less easy applause.

"America needed a scapegoat, and I thought he was a scapegoat for the climate at the time," she now explains. "My concern was that he was an intelligent young man, the same age as my son, who went over to Afghanistan on an intellectual mission. He was dragged into a situation that was very explosive and used as an example — the feeling in America was ‘an eye for an eye,’ but he hadn’t killed anyone. He was captured under duress, treated terribly, and thrown into prison without committing a specific crime. So it [the dedication] wasn’t so much a solidarity gesture, because he had no clear position to feel solidarity with. If anything, I felt solidarity with his parents.

"On the new album, ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ is about Rachel Corey — she was a nice girl from Seattle who went to the Gaza Strip, made human chains in protest, and was run over by the bulldozers. I noticed that Jessica Lynch was hailed as a hero, and I was happy about that, but this other woman also gave her life, and no one seemed to care."

If it sounds as if Smith’s concerns had drifted far from rock and roll, recent live tapes suggest otherwise. She still plays songs from her ’70s albums; lately she’s resurrected "Frederick," a hit single written in her early days with Fred Smith that she’d said was too painful to play. And she’s done some wide-ranging covers including Neil Young’s "Rockin’ in the Free World" and, wait for it, Nirvana’s "Heart-Shaped Box." "I just thought that would be a good one for us to do. A lot of our own songs are demanding; they’re demanding on the people and demanding on us. So we play the covers for release. When you’re having a tough night, people need something they can sing along with."

With the album coming out and a tour about to begin (she plays the Paradise on June 4), Smith has been pursuing a more surprising interest: photography. She’s done a few exhibits in New York, and a long-time friend, local artist/photographer Patti Hudson, is curating a show of her Polaroid photographs that opens this Wednesday at the Art Market Gallery in Jamaica Plain. With their small size and simple images, these Polaroids might be considered a photographic equivalent of lo-fi indie rock. "I started taking them in the ’60s and ’70s to use with collages, but I wound up giving my camera to Robert Mapplethorpe. I started taking them again after Fred died, because I didn’t have a lot of physical energy then. Bu I wanted to create, and the immediacy of a Polaroid was comforting. I take them now because they’re meditative; they have nothing to do with recording or touring. They’re a quiet way for me to assess things that I understand about art and composition."

Mostly inanimate objects, her subjects range from favorite articles of clothing to the Declaration of Independence. "I’ve photographed that a few times, along with things like Mapplethorpe’s slippers, Virginia Woolf’s bed, my father’s coffee cup. Things that are modest but precious. Some of them are objects for meditation and prayer, and I like to think that they might wind up over somebody’s work desk, because that’s where they belong. They’re nice little photographs."

Patti Smith appears at the Paradise Rock Club, 967 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, on June 4; call (617) 562-8800. The Patti Smith exhibit at the Art Market Gallery, 36 South Street in Jamaica Plain, runs May 5 through 30. Hours are Thursday and Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.; call (617) 522-1729.

Issue Date: April 30 - May 6, 2004
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