by Fred Mills
When Patti Smith swaggered onto a Chapel Hill, N.C., stage in January of 1977 to broadcast live over Radio Free Ethiopia at least one kid in the audience was terminally scarred — not just by her androgynously sensual Keith Richards / Marlene Dietrich prowl, and not just by her band’s outrageous punk / garage / glam / psych viscosity, but by something deeper, less quantifiable. Nowadays, of course, the Patti Smith Group’s alchemy has been duly noted by historians. But back then, to encounter a musical-philosophical agenda wherein everything from Nuggets, Rastaman Vibration and Exile on Main Street to Coltrane, Ginsberg and Rimbaud suddenly appeared as points on a rock ’n’ roll continuum, and not as isolated phenomenae, was about as mind-blowing as uncovering my first tentative bedsheet stains at age 12 and grasping instinctively that, man, there ain’t gonna be no looking back now.
As an artist, Smith wasn’t much concerned with fucking with the past either — just with the future, and plenty of that. Still, given the opportunity by Arista to assemble a selected overview of her recorded legacy, she jumped right in. Land 1975-2002 offers one disc each of released and unreleased material; fans and friends got a say in the former selection, voting on their fave “hits,” while the latter was clearly assembled with an eye toward showcasing the PSG’s more experimental side.
Lacking any significant chart action aside from “Because the Night,” Smith, guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty enjoyed a unique freedom as compilers. They opted to eschew chronological sequencing, instead going for sonic consistency and vibe. Meaning that on disc one you get such delicious juxtapositions as the triumphant Who-style closing power chord of 1975’s “Free Money” colliding with the equally exultant opening drum roll of “People Have the Power” (from ’88), or the trancelike shaman-chants of “Ghost Dance” segueing into the slinky, primal goo of “Ain’t It Strange,” blurring the lines between ’78 and ’76 with aqueous perfection. And, in the process, contextualizing on CD Smith’s body of work as a shifting continuum itself. Disc one is also a chance to revisit “Glitter In Their Eyes,” the hard-rocking anthem from 2000’s Gung Ho that earned a Grammy nomination despite no discernible attention from radio or MTV. It closes with a 2001 recording, a now-serpentine, now-snarling cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” so vibrant, hypnotic and possessed that you’d swear His Purpleness gave it to Smith in the first place, much like Bruce Springsteen offered up “Because the Night” in ’78. It’s edgy, but just commercial enough to hit; Arista is already floating it as a radio single.
Disc two does unfold chronologically, with the exception of a hidden track at the end. There’s Smith’s ’74 pre-Arista single “Piss Factory,” which is followed by two ’75 demos of “Distant Fingers” and “Redondo Beach.” Then, after a thumping live-in-’78 take of “25th Floor” and the ’96 B-side “Come Back Little Sheba” things get really interesting. “Wander I Go,” also from ’96 and featuring Tom Verlaine and Jeff Buckley on guitars, is a mesmerizing, Doorsian slice of psychedelia, Smith droning/chanting breathlessly atop restless percussion and modal guitars. Fuse lit, the PSG duly shudders, then explodes into orbit for the next half-hour: five songs, recorded live in 2001, beginning with a swaggering “Dead City” and closing with a free-form “Birdland,” which spurts out Hendrixian riffs and extemporaneous Smithian babelogue.
(Of interest: Speaking to me a few years ago, guitarist Kaye indicated that if Arista OK’d the project the band might issue a live album, possibly a combination of archival and contemporary recordings. Obviously those plans were scuttled; the quality of the concert material here, however, will make fans hunger for more.)
Also included is another studio track from the 2001 sessions, “Higher Learning,” a dark, 7-minute improv with Smith alternating between growling vox and sheets of textural clarinet squall. While this one’s unlikely to be pressed into FM service by Arista, it’s pure Smith — uncompromising, focused, brimming with feminine tension.
Thanks to Smith, observes author/philosopher Susan Sontag (in Land’s elaborate booklet), “Women were sassier, and felt sexier. Because of you, precious friend. The music spread everywhere. In the mouth. In the armpits. In the crotch.”
Similarly, for Mojo magazine’s March tribute to musical heroes, Michael Stipe recalled how, at 15, he bought Horses one afternoon and stayed up all night with the headphones on. “I couldn’t stop listening to it. She was not a woman as women were generally defined in 1975 in the United States — she was something wholly other.”
Smith incited a revolution in the head, taking us to the 25th floor. And like I said above, there was no looking back.
E-mail Fred Mills at firstname.lastname@example.org.