Apart from probably randomly and unconsciously hearing “Because the Night” on the radio, I think my first genuine encounter with the music of Patti Smith in the late 70’s came via my grade school classmate I’ll refer to here as Butch.
Prior to this arguably ignominious event, we’d been united by a mutual allegiance to KISS, but for one reason or another, Butch ended up renouncing those much-maligned grease-painted heroes and started getting into insipid bullshit like the Eagles. How someone could have gone from “Detroit Rock City” to “Peaceful Easy Feeling” made absolutely zero sense to me, but I overlooked it — hoping his senseless detour was just a dalliance.
Turns out it was. Evidently not as loyal to his favorite acts as I (by a considerably long shot), Butch quickly dropped his fleeting, inexplicable Eagles fixation in favor of a newfound appreciation for this woman named Patti Smith. Around the same time, I was gradually being hipped to newer bands — ensembles like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Blondie and Devo — by some other friends, friends’ older brothers and classmates, but Butch’s way into all things Punk Rock came via someone hipping him to Patti Smith.
I have to say, I didn’t get it.
Those other bands — as bracingly different from what we’d all been weaned on as they were — more or less made sense to me. As frankly alien and intimidating as the Ramones seemed, I totally understood why people latched onto them. Devo circa `79 (still in their yellow suits) were disarmingly freaky, but their music was completely new and infectious. It certainly wasn’t for everybody, but that only made it cooler.
Patti Smith, however, just didn’t have that effect on me.
I found her voice sort of cloying, and the delivery of her — to my mind — overwrought poetry felt so labored. Here she was being associated with this crop of new music, but to my ears, she just sounded like kind of a messier version of Meat Loaf. The Clash’s songs were taut, fiery and urgent. Patti’s songs seemed ponderous, melodramatic and overproduced.
About a month later, Butch cooled on Patti Smith and started getting excited about The Knack and The Cars, but by that point, I’d kinda stopped listening to him anyway.
But that was really the foundation of my disdain for Patti Smith. What little I’d heard failed to impress me, and I pretty much closed the case.
Over the years, I’d express my lack of affinity for Patti’s music, and fellow music geeks would gasp as if I’d stubbed out a cigarette on the Shroud of Turin. That didn’t endear me to her either. I struggled with the seemingly ubiquitous perception that the appreciation of Horses by Patti Smith was both an unspoken universal understanding and entirely mandatory.
And I tried to appreciate it. I really did. I dutifully picked up a used copy of the LP sometime during my college years and tried to glean why so many of my peers and heroes alike placed it on such a high pedestal. By this point, I knew (or imagined I knew) the fundamentals of her back story, and totally respected her deserved place in the history of NYC punk, but I still just didn’t hear the same brand of intoxicating otherness that I’d found in records by peers like the Dead Boys or Talking Heads.
In the summer of 1988, I remember checking out her comeback album, Dream of Life, but it, too, failed to bridge the gap for me. I mean, “People Have the Power” was well-intentioned and perfectly fine, but in no way was it especially exciting. Or not to me, anyway.
I actually went to see her perform a reading at the Central Park Summerstage sometime after that. Suffice to say, it did precious little to change my opinion.
So that was that. I was not a Patti Smith fan. There’s no shame in that.
The problem, however, is that I lazily became a sort of cartoonish Patti Smith detractor.
As detailed on this ancient post, in the fall of 2002, I was in Munich, Germany and introduced to this rock writer named Sky Nonhoff. His wife and mine were publishing colleagues and the couple very nicely had us over one evening shortly after the Frankfurt Book Fair.
We walked into Sky’s apartment and upon seeing the countless shelves of meticulously alphabetized compact discs and LPs, I recognized him as a kindred soul. We became fast friends, spending the rest of the evening pouring over his enviable collection of obscure vinyl.
At the time, Sky was putting together a book, and asked if I’d like to contribute to it. The thrust of the project — called “Don’t Believe the Hype” — was essentially the toppling of sacred cows, with each chapter dedicated to giving canonical albums a skeptical — if not flat-out barbed — second opinion.
Never one to pass up the chance to opine on such things, I ended up writing two chapters to Sky’s book — one based on cutting Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction down to size (a redressing I feel absolutely zero regrets about) and the other a withering dissection of Horses by Patti Smith, rife with lots of nasty adjectives and not just a little needless character assassination.
As any rock hack can tell you, it’s way easier (and, frankly, more fun) to compose a negative review of something than a positive one. And, given the nature of this collection of essays Sky was compiling, I dutifully amplified the dismissive vitriol for (arguably) comedic effect.
The book eventually came out — albeit only in Germany. I have a copy, but being that I don’t speak a lick of German, I haven’t the foggiest clue if the translated text mirrors my original words. That said, you can read my merciless account of Horses in needlessly overwritten English on this link.
As time has gone on, certain folks have read that review of mine — out of context from the rest of Sky’s book — and gotten upset. It’s not like I was taking a potshot at some hair metal drivel like Poison — Patti Smith means a great deal to a lot of people. I don’t know if it’s burned any bridges, but in some instances, it hasn’t done me any favors.
Years later, Patti Smith published “Just Kids,” an award-winning memoir of her days as a nascent New York resident and aspiring artist alongside her muse Robert Mapplethorpe. Given my by-then established feelings about Patti Smith, I didn’t exactly sprint off to the Strand for my copy.
By this point, candidly speaking, I was growing embarrassed by the stuff I’d written about her. It’s not that the greater outside world gave the slightest goddamn about what I had to say about Patti Smith, but I managed to genuinely irritate and/or alienate a few new friends and colleagues with my opinionated bluster. No, I didn’t really dig her records, but it’s not like I had any genuine ill will for the woman.
Given my preoccupation with New York City and music, countless friends and associates of mine were incredulous that I hadn’t read “Just Kids.” How could I not? It seemed tailored specifically to my sensibilities. In such instances, I’d have to sheepishly confess to not being a fan, and that would sometimes lead to that chapter in Sky’s book and blah blah blah. I’d come off looking like a vindictive, opinionated dick.
Cut to Summer 2015. Bereft of fresh reading material while sequestered out at my mom’s place in Long Island, I repaired to the seemingly lone book shop in the Quogue/Westhampton area (that being Books & Books on Main Street). Having just sped through a selection of great rock reads (see that list here), I settled on Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” (entertaining, but not exactly a heavy lift) and somewhat hesitantly sprang for the paperback edition of “Just Kids.”
I was basically done with Billy’s book in two days. Again, amusing, but not exactly “Catcher in the Rye.”
Sheepishly, I cracked the binding on “Just Kids,” fully expecting a failure to engage.
Here’s the thing, though. It was excellent.
Quite unlike my presumptuous characterization of Patti as some sort of self-absorbed opportunist, she comes across as a strikingly thoughtful, eloquent, and deeply humble soul. She writes beautifully, unspooling intimate details of her life, insights and surroundings in a candid, conversational manner that belies her cultivated, tough exterior.
The story of her relationship with Mapplethorpe is richly detailed and brimming with warmth, humanity and emotional conflict. In regards to her gradual metamorphosis from bedraggled poet to nascent rock star, she is often her own harshest critic. No ego trips here.
While I doubt I’ll be able to listen to Horses again with an entirely fresh pair of ears, I believe it’s totally fair to say that “Just Kids” completely decimated my earlier sentiments about Patti Smith. Her book confirmed what I’d secretly been suspecting (i.e. that I was being a completely misinformed jerk), and fostered a new level of respect for the great lady.
To all of those folks pissed off at me for shitty things I’ve said about Patti Smith, I respectfully apologize. I spoke out of turn and without having done enough of my homework.
For the most part, I was wrong about Patti Smith
… although “Redondo Beach” remains pretty goddamn unlistenable.