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Patti Smith brings poetry to the masses.

This Land Is Your Land

It's never too late to appreciate Patti Smith

By Gina Arnold

I USED TO HAUNT record stores on an almost daily basis, but ever since digital downloading came into fashion, I've been somewhat absent from their precincts. The other day, I made a quick trip to Tower Records, and it was like visiting a dusty old mansion that one had lived in long ago: still familiar, still beloved, but somehow a lot less glamorous and exciting.

I went to buy the new Patti Smith collection, Land (1975-2002), and the new release by Andrew W.K. It had been so long since I'd record-shopped that I couldn't figure out if the latter would be listed under A, W or K. The answer is A, but before I found that out I was sidetracked in the Ws by the sight of the new White Stripes CD, White Blood Cells. The White Stripes are a hip indie-rock duo out of Michigan. When I placed the record on the counter, the clerk--a heavily tattooed lady of uncertain age who looked like she'd recently kicked a very bad habit--acted interested. "Oh, are they good?" she asked. "So I hear," I replied, and she looked puzzled. "From who?" I didn't answer. Then she saw the Patti Smith collection. "I've heard she's really good! What does she sound like?"

I couldn't believe it. Here she was sporting a facial tattoo, for God's sake, and she didn't know the music of Patti Smith? It reminded me of the time I saw a girl with two elaborate tattoos of Boy George at a Dictators concert. I know that tattoos have become a dime a dozen, but when you get out of the land of butterflies and roses, they should at least indicate a passing familiarity with American bohemia, where both the Dictators and Patti Smith are revered as gods.

The incident was particularly odd because, back in the day, record clerks were the ones who looked down upon customers for their bad taste. I remember being sneered at as a child for buying some plebeian record. Once, a clerk in Berkeley made me cry for buying the "wrong" record by the English Beat. Now, apparently, the tables are turned. Clerks ask random customers for their opinions and profess total ignorance of artists who ought to be required listening for all Americans--and certainly for record-store clerks who dress like punk rockers.

Smith is probably the most influential artist of the last 25 years, having cast her shadow over every act worth hearing. Her songs "Because the Night," "Frederick" and "People Have the Power" are excellent examples of the kind of arty hard rock that evolved from punk and made it listenable to the masses. But what is more striking about Smith is her role as an American poet. It's certain that she has done more than anyone else to make the very idea of poetry--a genre whose relevance to modern society has been fading for years--contemporary. Without Smith, most people's connection to modern poetry would be confined to those stunted efforts in The New Yorker or the more vulgar types of rhymes one finds in greeting cards, children's books and bad rap songs.

Formally, Smith's life, work and written voice have more in common with older poetic traditions--not just Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath but artists like Rimbaud and Baudelaire. But her subjects are more modern (the description in "Piss Factory" of working on an assembly line is nothing you're going to read in The Norton Anthology of Poetry), and the way she delivers them, in a rock setting, is transformational. I can't understand why other people haven't done it.

"Should I get Horses?" the clerk asked me, as I signed my bill. "I've heard that's her best record."

"No," I said, shaking Land, the record I was buying, in her face. "Start with this." I don't usually recommend greatest-hits collection, but this woman had a lot of catching up to do. Of course, if she's gotten this far without appreciating the art of Patti Smith, maybe she won't appreciate it now, but you never know. And respect is due to her for at least knowing and admitting the gaps in her musical education. Everyone's got to start somewhere, and Land is a very good place.

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From the April 4-10, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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