At a recent exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, Scotland, I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse at Robert Mapplethorpe’s "Jim and Tom, Sausalito". This, Mapplethorpe’s most notorious image, depicts a man urinating into the mouth of another (with his subject accepting graciously). The photograph was displayed as part of an exhibition entitled, "Sh(OUT): Contemporary Art and Human Rights", a collection of installations and art pieces that are as much about acceptance, as they are about activism.
By the time I returned home from this trip, I felt compelled to revisit the music of Mapplethorpe’s esteemed collaborator and friend, Patti Smith. Of all her works, my strongest inclination was to reach for her 1997 album, Peace and Noise. Released a year after her memorial compilation Gone Again, Peace and Noise possesses the same lingering heartbreak of her previous album, albeit with a vitriolic edge.
Instead of sitting back and watching her dearly departed ghosts swirl about, Smith adopts a rabble-rousing persona, virtuously professing to her specters that she is ready to start a riot. OK, she may not have been perpetuating the same anarchistic angst of the 1970s, but Smith (who had notoriously retired from the musical world for years), was now fuming with a more concise anger.
This is evident from the get go in “Waiting Underground”, which sees the rock poetess adopting a huskier growl, which soars over a distorted aural landscape. Here, she acknowledges the death of her comrades (her collaborators, her lover, and her friends), but this doesn’t mean that she is melancholic. Rather, she professes that “there’ll be a gathering”, where the citizens of the earth will “hammer the earth”, with the “beat of their feet”, manifesting their rebellion through the universal mediums of music, dance, and art.
Mid way through the record on “Dead City", Smith’s anger reaches an enquiring crescendo. She questions, “Is it any wonder, there’s squalor in the sun?” when our generation “build scenes on empty dreams”, and “smoke them one by one”. Still, instead of suggesting despair, she gives voice to her younger cohorts, calling for their freedom -- one that isn’t disrupted by the false hope of capitalist society. It is in these moments that we realize the potency of her words, and her experience. Smith refuses to lay in the woodworks with the ghosts of her past. She is alive and is prepared to rally for a generation that has either grown afraid or complacent.
At other times, the singer takes on a more restrained approach to her subject matter. In “Spell” for instance, she uses the words from Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl”, to underscore the collective human experience. It was whilst listening to this back in 1997 that I first became acquainted with the work of the Beat generation. Then, not even yet a teenager, I was able to draw parallels with the past. This sparked a curiosity in music, literature, film, and politics to name just a few things. And now, nearly 12 years later, I still find myself coming back to Peace and Noise. Whether in doubt, fear or most recently, out of sheer compulsion, I can always rest assured that Patti Smith’s Peace and Noise will always be as inspiring as it was back in 1997.