People have the power
Rock ’n’ roll poet Patti Smith still speaks truth to power, on one of this year’s finest records
Paris Hilton is making a record.
We live in interesting times, as an old Chinese curse might put it. And while the every utterance of the latest spokesmodel is archived for the ages, other voices go crying in the wilderness. Meanwhile, there’s a war on.
One of those other voices belongs to Patti Smith, who is the same age as a certain weightlifter turned governor. Smith was a published poet before she was one of the first artists signed to Arista Records—after that company was refashioned by Clive Davis from the ashes of a defunct bubblegum label named Bell in 1975. She enjoyed a long career at the label, where she released eight albums, beginning with Horses in 1975 and finishing with Gung Ho 25 years later. Then Davis, Smith’s longtime patron, got replaced at Arista, and Smith re-emerged this year on Columbia with a new album.
It’s no stretch to say that Trampin’ is one of the finest albums anyone will release in 2004. Smith is still working with guitarist Lenny Kaye, the onetime rock critic who began backing her in the early 1970s at New York poetry readings and then stayed on when those readings metamorphosed into a full-time band. Original drummer Jay Dee Daugherty still plays with the band, too. Guitarist Oliver Ray and bassist Tony Shanahan are newer additions.
What makes Trampin’ so compelling is its well-rounded blend of personal and political concerns. On one hand, there are gorgeous songs like “Mother Rose,” an elegy to her mother, who passed away recently. The song evokes the Brill Building songwriter pop of Smith’s youth. Most of the great New York artists that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s—Smith, the Velvet Underground, the Ramones and the New York Dolls—owe a huge debt to Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and other Brill Building songwriting teams. On the other hand, Trampin’ has plenty of political statements. The album is bookended by two gospel tunes. The opening track, the Smith-, Kaye- and Daugherty-penned “Jubilee,” is gospel re-imagined for a secular world: “We will never fade away / Doves shall multiply / Yet I see hawks circling the sky / With debt and despair / What good hour / Will restore our troubled air?” And the closing, title track is an old black spiritual. In between are two centerpieces—a nine-minute track, “Gandhi,” and a 16-minute track, “Radio Baghdad.”
“Certainly, when we recorded Trampin’,” Smith said via phone, in a voice weathered by jet lag (she’d just returned from the European leg of her current tour), “there were a lot of certain concerns. A humanistic concern for the people of Baghdad. There is a concern for our own country with a song like ‘Jubilee’—the need to register and vote. And all of these concerns are within our record, as well as a song for my mother and a song for my daughter. One uses their work to express personal things. And on one end, our record is deeply personal, and on the other, it addresses political issues.”
And though “Radio Baghdad” may not be the strongest track on Trampin’, its Old Testament prophesying—worthy of Jim Morrison at his most electrifying—is classic Smith, blending the personal with the political. “It’s the point of view of a mother who is protecting her child as her home is being bombed,” Smith explained, “and she’s trying to remind her children of their heritage—she’s trying to protect them. It’s a humanistic song; it’s not a political song. That mother in ‘Radio Baghdad’ is no different than the mother crawling in the rubble in Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ with her child.”
Smith, who opposed the bombing of Iraq from the beginning, is glad that other artists finally are speaking out, although she’s heartbroken that more didn’t speak out earlier—or perhaps they did, but the media ignored their voices until now. For her, Picasso painting “Guernica” to protest the Spanish Civil War provides an inspiration to stand against conflict. “He brought war to put it right in people’s faces, in a very intimate and stirring way,” she said. “Y’know, Picasso often said that art can be an instrument against war.”