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The Rockologist: Birdland And My Ongoing Schoolboy Crush On Patti Smith

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Besides the fact that this is a long Memorial Day weekend, here in Seattle we are also celebrating SIFF, which is an abbreviated way of saying that the annual Seattle International Film Festival is upon us. What does any of this have to do with Patti Smith, you ask?

Well, SIFF's opening night featured the world premiere of a film called Battle In Seattle, which is a dramatization about the 1999 WTO riots. The film was directed by Stuart Townsend and stars his girlfriend Charlize Theron, among other notables. This got me to thinking about one of the many Patti Smith shows I've seen over the years, one that took place at about the same time as the riots over the World Trade Organization's conference here.

Never one to downplay her political leanings, Patti used the stage as something of a pulpit at this show, railing against oppression in government, urging the audience to boycott MTV, and in general proclaiming her solidarity with her WTO protesting comrades.

It was classic Patti Smith. In fact, Patti probably could've written a hell of a soundtrack to Battle In Seattle.

From the very first time I heard Patti Smith's brilliant debut album Horses, I instantly fell in love with her. Most of my friends thought I had gone completely nuts as I raved about this album, citing then common complaints about her voice, and the hair under her armpits. But for me, there was simply no denying the beauty of her more often spoken than really sung words, or the hypnotic draw of her stark, minimal sound.

The song from Horses that most grabbed me was "Birdland."

I had absolutely no idea what the words were about at the time — only that her delivery of them had this strangely sacred, yet equally dark and profane beauty about it. Set against a quiet piano, Patti Smith recites the words in a soft, plaintive, and almost childlike voice that builds for the song's nine or so minutes to a thundering crescendo of screeching guitars and feedback. In this particular song, the cadence was everything:

"His father died and left him a little farm in New England.
All the long black funeral cars left the scene
And the boy was just standing there alone
Looking at the shiny red tractor
Him and his daddy used to sit inside
And circle the blue fields and grease the night.
It was if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars
'Cause when he looked up they started to slip.
Then he put his head in the crux of his arm
And he started to drift, drift to the belly of a ship,
Let the ship slide open, and he went inside of it
And saw his daddy 'hind the control board streamin' beads of light,
He saw his daddy 'hind the control board,
And he was very different tonight
'Cause he was not human, he was not human."

As I said, I had no idea at the time what the words were about, except for the fact that despite its title, I was pretty sure it wasn't about Charlie Parker. What draws you in here is simply the dark, descriptive beauty of those words and Patti's brilliant delivery of them. Like I said, it's all about the cadence.

"And then the little boy's face lit up with such naked joy
That the sun burned around his lids and his eyes were like two suns,
White lids, white opals, seeing everything just a little bit too clearly
And he looked around and there was no black ship in sight,
No black funeral cars, nothing except for him the raven
And fell on his knees and looked up and cried out,
“No, daddy, don't leave me here alone,
Take me up, daddy, to the belly of your ship,
Let the ship slide open and I'll go inside of it
Where you're not human, you are not human.”

"Birdland" remains my favorite Patti Smith song to this day, and one of my all-time favorite pieces of music by just about any artist, period. But it was only several years later that I figured out what the song may have been actually about. It would seem to be about any number of things, but chief amongst them would be life, birth, death, and apparently some sort of UFO abduction. (You tell me what else all that stuff about white opals and being carried up into a ship is supposed to mean.)

Horses is an album that only years later would become truly appreciated for the masterpiece that it is. With that album, Patti Smith reset the bar for the role of women in rock, earning her eventual way into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and influencing everyone from Chrissie Hynde to P.J. Harvey along the way.

She then made three others in quick succession, before disappearing for a number of years to become a happily married woman (to punk pioneer Fred "Sonic" Smith, who later died).

The sadly underrated Radio Ethiopia features some of her most off the wall, abstract poetry including the beautifully haunting, yet profane "Pissing In A River." Easter is generally acknowledged as her commercial breakthrough, bringing her an actual hit single in the Springsteen-penned "Because The Night." The Todd Rundgren-produced Wave is regarded by many to be a disappointment, although it does contain one of her best, most often covered songs, "Dancing Barefoot." These four albums — from Horses to Wave — are still thought by most to represent her best, most seminal work.

Patti Smith's output since making her "comeback" in the nineties has been spotty at best, although albums like Gone Again and Trampin' certainly have their moments.

Last year's album Twelve, consisting of cover versions of songs by everyone from the Stones to Nirvana was also surprisingly good. Playing songs by other people not only gave Patti's band — especially longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye — a chance to show their muscle (particularly onstage during the tour supporting the album), it also displayed Patti Smith's unique voice in a newly powerful way. Her phrasing on the cover of "Gimme Shelter" is amazing, and the way she reinvents Kurt Cobain's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is simply something else.

Speaking of live shows, Patti Smith and her band haven't lost a step there either. I doubt that I'll ever be as completely floored as I was when I saw Patti Smith for the first time in 1978 though. Perched behind a huge pulpit, and reading — actually make that screaming — the words "I don't fuck with the past, but I fuck plenty with the future" from the great "Rock And Roll Nigger," Patti came across as a poetic punk sort of goddess to this impressionable twenty-something-year-old.

This was truly the stuff that schoolboy crushes were made of. I honestly thought I could die and marry her at that moment. Ten years later, I would even carry on an intense relationship with a girlfriend who bore an uncanny resemblance to Patti Smith. Even so, that concert remains one of the most amazing and memorable that I've ever seen.

I've also had occasion to meet Patti Smith twice. The first time was back in the seventies. I was hanging out at the backstage door of a Blue Oyster Cult show, when she emerged with B.O.C.'s Alan Lanier, who she was dating at the time. My most lasting memory of that meeting was when she shook my hand. She seemed very shy about it for one thing. But her hand was quite possibly the boniest that I've ever shaken. We're talking skeleton here.

Last year, I also met Patti Smith right on the street in Seattle, a few hours before her concert at the Showbox. I again shook her hand, and it was just as bony as I'd remembered. She was also just as self-effacingly sweet. As she then continued down the street, it suddenly dawned on me that I should have asked her to play "Birdland."

Of all the times I've seen Patti Smith in concert, I've never once seen her perform my all-time favorite song by her. She didn't play it that night either, which had me kicking myself because of the missed opportunity.

Maybe next time.

All I know is that Patti Smith has aged, and continues to do so with a grace rarely found in rock and roll. And that some schoolboy crushes simply refuse to die.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • JC Mosquito

    You and me both, Glen.

    One point I’d make is that I don’t think it was years before people figured out Horses was something special – read the contemporary reviews, and I believe most of them were quite positive.

    Personally, Radio Ethiopia was my fave – heavy metal via White Light/White Heat.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    She was a critics fave from day one Skeet, that much is true. But the general record buying public didn’t start to catch up until Easter, and even then there was skepticism. You have to remember that this was back when rock music was completely polarized into all of these seperate camps…the metalheads vs. the punkers and the like. It took years for Patti to gain respect outside of the critics and the hipsters. To some folks she was just too “out there.” Today, what she did would be considered mainstream.

    -Glen

  • JC Mosquito

    I agree with you Glen, but are you saying she eventually was assimilated into the mainstream? Obviously she got noticed with Easter and Because the Night, but I know lot of people to this day who don’t know who she is other than from the one song.

    Or maybe I’m just hanging with the wrong crowd.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    She’s still what you’d have to call a somewhat fringe artist I suppose. Although Dancing Barefoot has been covered nearly as much as Because the Night has. But even as a fringe artist, she is pretty much universally respected now. You just don’t hear the “she can’t sing” or “her band can’t play” like you did back in the day from some quarters. Bottom line is if you know rock, you know Patti Smith. She’s not so much just a “critics act” anymore.

    As for that crowd you run with…

    -Glen

  • JC Mosquito

    You know, I’d even go so far as to suggest that vocally she’s not only grown in her emotional range, but oddly enough, her technical ability has improved with age. We should all be so lucky. But that’s part of the reason you don’t hear the “she can’t sing” naysayers anymore – just give her last disc a spin for the evidence.

    But you know all that already – as an aside, I wonder if Jimbo Mojo Risin’, one of Patti’s early inspirations, would’ve aged this gracefully.