First Appeared at The Music Box, June 2000, Volume 7, #6
Written by Michael Karpinski
"I hope I die before I get old."
My Generation, 1965
Pete Townshend was just 20 years old when he penned that much-quoted (and, ultimately, none-too-prescient) sentiment; Patti Smith would have been 18 when she first heard it. Ten years later, Smith would make her own waves in the avant-garde underground with Horses — a slurred, swaggering stash of junkie-punk poetry that would serve as an artistic touchstone for everyone from Chrissie Hynde to PJ Harvey; Jim Carroll to Jeff Buckley; and early R.E.M. to latter-day Bob Dylan. Coming across as a raw, mystically militaristic meld of Maria Callas and Iggy Pop, Smith's sometimes-brooding, sometimes-bellicose bellow-and-drone went a long way toward revolutionizing the role of women in rock. Indeed, one wonders if today's pale pretenders to Smith's definitively X-chromosomed throne (Alanis, Courtney, Fiona) fully understand and appreciate the instrumental impact she had in injecting the "grrrowl" into "riot grrrl."
Now, at the age of 53, the undisputed queen of piss-and-vinegar humanism is back with Gung Ho — her third album in five years after a self-imposed decade-and-a-half sabbatical from the music biz. No doubt today's SoundScan-obsessed record execs are at no less of a loss than their Billboard-bankrolled forbearers as to how to handle this scarecrow-skinny slip of a Siren — whether to celebrate or condemn her; demonize or deify. With her singular abilities to embody both poet and priestess; ambassador and anarchist; mother and lover — Patti Smith remains impervious to pigeon-holing in an industry that consistently values slick and shallow packaging over solid, creative content.
Gung Ho puts all of Smith's shape-shifting gifts on full-frontal-naked display, and ultimately proves that rare case where a calculated backward glance serves not as a surefire sign of creative decay, but as a catalyst for the most organic and reaffirming form of forward progress. The lightly oriental-spiced Lo and Beholden's chorus melody revisits with a wink her 1978 Springsteen co-written hit Because the Night, just as the exquisitely crystalline China Bird mimics 1996's even more melancholically evocative My Madrigal. Glitter in Their Eyes' sizzling, glam-rock riff does little to disguise the tract's true mission — to open Generation Y's eyes to the soul-squandering consequences of institutionalized commercialism; while the grinding, Doors-styled title track gradually establishes itself as less a heavy-handed apologist homage to Ho Chi Minh than a heavy-hearted ode to a nation betrayed by the broken hopes and empty rhetoric of a dead revolution. Finally, on the medicine-man incantation Libbie's Song, Smith channels General George Armstrong Custer's disgraced-yet-faithful-to-the-grave widow while simultaneously keeping a karmic candle lit for her own dear departed partner (husband and former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, who died in 1994). From start to finish, Smith's traditional backing band (led by yin/yang-complementary guitarists Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray) spin silky, minimalist backdrops against which Smith alternately salves and savages her psyche — as though possessed, Jackson Pollock-esque, to produce random patterns of beauty and truth out of nothing but her own blood and bone marrow.
Smith's not-infrequent Beats- and Symbolists-inspired soliloquies will no doubt alienate some listeners accustomed to the numbing verse-chorus-verse formulas that have been defining and limiting "popular" music since time immemorial. Further still, the record's determinedly dense second half is certain to be dismissed in conservative circles as just so much namby-pamby liberal claptrap — rant, not rock; sermons instead of songs. But one need not be a believer in Buddha or an apostle of Baudelaire or Burroughs to appreciate Gung Ho for what it is, first and foremost: a ripping rock ‘n' roll record. That it also has a head and a heart — a conscience and a cause — well...that's all just gravy, baby.
Eat your heart out, Mr. Townshend. Keep bearing witness, Ms. Smith. ½
"Give me one more revolution/One more turn of the wheel."
Gung Ho, 2000
Gung Ho is also available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2000 The Music Box