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Music Review: Patti Smith – Outside Society

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From the time of her debut album Horses with the Patti Smith Group in 1975 to the release of Wave in 1979, it can be argued that working class New Jersey girl Patti Smith was the greatest rock star in the world. Not just a “punk rock” star, as she is so often classified, but a rock star on the level of the Bowies and Jaggers and Springsteens of the rock world.

Smith may have found her artistic feet during the punk rock era in New York’s seedy CBGBs nightclub, but to call her a punk is too simplistic and reductive: her musical idols were people like Jim Morrison and Johnny Winter, and she drew upon sources as diverse as beat poetry, hippie idealism, and yes, punk anger, and rolled all those subcultures into one within her fiery onstage persona. Her concerts during this fertile period were much more than just dry recitations of album tracks, often becoming rowdy, shamanistic journeys into the unknown.

The new Smith compilation Outside Society provides a good introduction to that exciting era, before she followed the lead of her poetic idol Arthur Rimbaud and walked away from her career. From her transcendent revision of Them’s garage-rock staple “Gloria” (from Horses) to the reggaefied mysticism of Radio Ethiopia’s “Ain’t It Strange” to the pop rock strains of Easter’s “Because The Night” (co-written with Springsteen), Smith’s musical journey shows that a good punk does whatever she wants to do, not what some rigid subcultural ideology tells her to do.  That spirit includes writing a rebellious song called “Rock and Roll Nigger,” from which the album borrows its title. 

Smith walked away from it all after 1979’s Wave–which features the underrated classic “Dancing Barefoot,” also found here–to find domestic bliss (that’s the official storyline; the truth, as usual, is far more complex) with former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith in Michigan. Outside Society’s second half features songs from their 1988 joint effort Dream Of Life, which includes the catchy populist sloganeering “People Have The Power,” and from the five solo albums Smith has made following her return to the music business in 1996 after her husband’s death.

While Smith was obviously never going to recapture the primal yet poetic fury that energized her career’s first chapter, the songs chosen here from Patti Smith Part II nevertheless stand with her best work in a complimentary fashion.  “Beneath The Southern Cross” from Gone Again is a fine hymn to human mortality, and Gung Ho’s “Glitter In Their Eyes” sparkles with the energy of her earlier work. A word must be said for the stellar, consistent contributions of Smith’s loyal bandmates, especially guitarist Lenny Kaye, who has been at Smith’s side since her early days and remains there today.

Overall, Outside Society is a fine introduction to Smith’s music, and stands in contrast to the pitifully inferior work of today’s superficial pop divas. Here’s hoping that someday, someone out there is courageous enough to follow in her giant artistic footsteps.

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