November 23rd, 2008


Patti's cool beauty

You know Patti Smith. She's the meeting point between Rimbaud and Keith Richards, the high priestess of Rock Romanticism, the mother of PJ Harvey and Justine Frischmann, the sister of Kathy Acker, follower of Ginsberg and Burroughs, stick insect with surprisingly good breasts, Jane Birkin crossed with a Jersey waitress, the coolest girl in art school, the dream groupie, the girl who lights a candle, reads you poetry and feeds you drugs.

To be honest, Patti Smith's music is complete anathema to me. Caterwauling pretentiously over bluesy thrashes about a world in which artists = "niggers" = outsiders = freedom = Rimbaud = the Noble Savage and "there's a million membranes to break through"... Quite frankly, for me, there's more wisdom in an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. MTM also never incited anyone to do atrociously rousing 20-minute cover versions of Gloria, or taught U2 and Sinead O'Connor politics.

Here's a clip of Patti's philosophy at her mid-70s peak:

I think it's easy to see how this kind of faith in unfettered individualism -- with its derision for, for instance, the discipline of communism -- leads fairly smoothly into the conservatism in which "there's no such thing as society" and the self (the consumer) becomes all-important. Smith's 70s self is the self-actualising bratty hippy Adam Curtis shows morphing, in the 80s, into a Reagan-supporting entrepreneur (not that Smith ever did that, bless her; she's done her fair share of protest against the likes of Bush).

One of the things Adam Curtis' documentary The Century of the Self shows is precisely how the experiments -- via drugs, encounter groups and EST -- of the 70s counter-culture did indeed break through the million membranes of the self, only to find nothing at the centre of the self's onion. This "nothing" became, in the era of Thatcher and Reagan, the void from which consumers pulled their need, and entrepreneurs their business plans.

What I'd endorse wholeheartedly, though, is Patti Smith's choice of t-shirts, and that's what today's entry is really about. I think it clicked when I saw some of Patti's t-shirts in a vitrine in the Punk: No One Is Innocent show in Vienna in May. (By the way, that "no one is innocent" line shows that Patti was never quite nihilistic enough to be the Queen of Punk some claim her to be; on her third album she proclaimed "At heart I am an American artist, and I have no guilt!")

Patti's favourite 70s t-shirts (they appear in photo after photo) are the Keith Richards one -- he's obviously the inspiration for her dishevelled hair -- Ethiopia First (the one with the pyramid and eye, printed backwards in one of the most famous photos, in which Patti stands next to a urinal), and a shirt that says Rastafari (she was clearly into the reggae-rebel style thing the Clash also picked up on).

Patti also wore t-shirts depicting Native American tribesmen and a Union Jack. Even when she wore no shirt at all, she accessorized her nakedness with ethnic thongs and beads, and just a soupcon of bondage.

If Patti Smith's 70s t-shirts are so cool because of their outsider subjects and anti-rationalist attitudes ("Fuck the clock"!), they're also cool because of how she wore them: with holes snipped in them, or tugged taut down a pair of jeans with an open fly, or saggy at the neck, with a shoulder jutting through. She was obviously proud of her unconventional, tomboyish sexuality -- in the Stockholm interview above she peels off her shirt knowingly, and in her Alan Bangs interview for Rock Palast she confesses she can't concentrate on anything else when she sees herself in the monitor:

"I'm just attracted to myself, I really can't help it, I'm telling you the truth, I'm admitting it, I know it seems like it's a very vain thing, but I like to look in TV monitors, so as long as you put one in front of me I'm going to peek at it."

And that's pretty much how I feel about 70s Patti myself. No matter how I feel about her philosophy and her music, I have to peek at her cool beauty.