a diatribe against patti

[from "On the Town," by Robert L. Weinter, After Dark, March 1976]

Is Patti Smith media hype or Rimbaud reincarnated? Rock critics claim that this blend of poetry and rock is the stuff of which stars are made. However, some more skeptical audiences are questioning her onstage persona as well as talent.

The emergence of "rock poetess" Patti Smith as a potential superstar is the greatest hoax perpetrated on the American public since Andy Warhol's soup cans and Patricia Hearst's kidnapping.

Encouraging her to disseminate her minimal art is like encouraging the local garbage man to go onstage to clang garbage-can tops.

I never have been enamored of her onstage persona. Approximately two years ago, when I first caught her act at Max's Kansas City, I wrote in a review that she should remain in her living room to entertain her coterie of admirers.

Naturally, she didn't take my advice, and she is now out selling her amateur performances on discs, in clubs, and on concert stages. Nothing that she is doing now sways me from my original opinion -- in fact, if it is possible, I like her music less.

Not since the Bruce Springsteen (Bruce who?) media hype has such puffery come out of the felt-tipped pens of major and minor rock writers. John Rockwell, pop-ballet-opera-soul-salsa critic for The New York Times, has single-handedly promulgated the journalistic alchemy of making lead seem like platinum.

Who is Patti Smith and why has all this commotion been raised about her? New York's Gotham Book Mart carries volumes of her poetic work, complete with autographs ("Witt," "Seventh Heaven," "Kodak"), squeezed between the outpourings of William Burroughs, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Allen Ginsberg.

As a rock singer, she brings her empty words and flat singing to the height of absurd entertainment. Her backup band, which includes rock writer Lenny Kaye, sounds like any of the out-of-tune, nonrhythmic New York cult rock bands currently on the scene. She seems to be consciously playing at being nutty and decadent when, in fact, there seems to be a shrewd, contrived attempt at being loose and amateurish.

This appeals to the New York pop press, which always wants to discover the next Dylan or Springsteen -- in fact, she has been called a female version of the aforementioned gentlemen.

Some think she is sexy. I personally find her unfeminine and almost neuter. Thin, bedraggled, with taut facial muscles, she is thought by many in the press to be deep, cultural, and even a social phenomenon. In interviews she has been compared to Iggy Stone, Verlaine, Rimbaud, the Doors' Jim Morrison, and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

Some pop writers have suggested that masturbation and love-making can be performed while listening to her Arista album, Horses. This album, produced by former Velvet Underground member John Cale, at least attempts to be professional. Cale has a knack (almost a genius) for making the third-rate sound passable -- for instance, Iggy and the Stooges. However, the band's incompetence and Patti's declamation of lyrics concerning lesbian suicide, homosexual rape, cocaine, outer-space beings, and the death of Jimi Hendrix are ultimately ludicrous. Arista's knowledgeable president, Clive Davis, admits that "l don't think she will be everybody's cup of tea."

So what do we have? We have an alleged "rock poetess" (please tell me what the words are she is singing?) who scratches her blue-jeaned crotch onstage and who babbles and rambles incoherently during her opening act. She is messy, with straggly unkempt hair, and desperately in need of an overhaul by Elizabeth Arden (with some help by Clinique).

The morning after I suffered through Patti's performance at the Bottom Line, I heard a WNEW-FM disc jockey actually say: "The band was so bad it was good. I went down to see Patti Smith, not thinking that I would like her. I didn't understand a word she said, but I loved her."

Patti Smith is a performer (and that word is also used for seals) of dubious, widespread commercial acceptance. She is rank amateur with no vocal instrument, no stage presence and a hype campaign that cannot be stopped. In fact, nothing can stop Patti Smith -- except talent, which is sorely lacking.

Copyright © Robert L. Weiner 1976

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