Friday, November 6, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: Patti Smith Group's Radio Ethiopia (1976)

The idea for this morning originally was to pay homage to Patti Smith's Horses on its 40th anniversary. Smith's seminal debut Punk album -- recorded at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan, and produced by John Cale for Arista -- was released December of 1975, the beginning of a period we've been loosely focused on for almost three years.

Smith is now touring in support of the 40th anniversary of Horses, wrapping up a big year that saw the release of her critically acclaimed memoir M Train. I saw an interview with Smith recently on Democracy Now! and for some reason I started to tear up.

I don't know why. It was something I had to think about. So I have been thinking about it. And what I realize is that Patti Smith is extremely important to me. I should qualify that and say that the albums Smith did as the Patti Smith Group from 1975 to 1979, starting with Horses and ending with Wave (1979), are extremely important to me. They are wrapped up with my personal history, my marriage, my ex-wife, my Romantic sensibilities, etc.

Fifteen years ago, as an aspiring politico, I had a dalliance with a legislative aide to a city councilman. That dalliance sent me to the chair where I sit today: I broke up with my live-in girlfriend and moved into a studio bachelor pad, where I can be found most early mornings typing on a laptop in the dark.

When it was apparent that this dalliance was not going to blossom into any kind of relationship, I "bookended" the affair with a gift, Victor Bockris' Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography (1999), to mi amour. I had found the book on a remainder table in the university district. She loved it.

Like me, she was a Hippie kid. I ran into her again recently. She is running for city council to succeed her boss. Her race is noteworthy for the amount of independent-expenditure money that has been dumped into her district to try to beat her. After the first tally of votes on election night, she is running behind; but as votes continue to be counted, she is closing the gap. Can she make up the difference? I don't know. I hope she does.

When I ran into her. She showed me her smart phone. On it was the presser announcing the release of M Train.

So, yes, for some reason there is some pathos -- a pathetic connection -- that I have with Patti Smith.

Of course Patti Smith Group's four albums from 1975 to 1979 -- Horses, Radio Ethiopia (1976), Easter (1978) and Wave -- constitute the beginning and end of the Hippies vs. Punks period we've been trying to come to grips with. Apropos of that, I decided to do an audit of the records this week.

I haven't listened at length to Easter or Wave since I was living with my wife 25 years ago. My wife was a big fan of Easter, particularly "Rock N Roll Nigger." She and her medical-school girlfriends would get together and crank up the volume on the stereo. At the time, both Wave and Easter seemed uneven to me. I liked all the big singles off those albums -- "Frederick," "Dancing Barefoot" and "Because the Night" -- but the rest of the material didn't appeal to me especially.

Listening to those two albums again this week, my original assessment hasn't changed much. What struck me is how Blue Öyster Culty these records are, which makes sense since Smith was Allen Lanier's lover and collaborator prior to her marriage to Fred "Sonic" Smith and her relocation to Michigan. I must say I do appreciate "25th Floor" now.

And while my wife, my friends and I all loved and repeatedly listened to Horses, and it remains a vital record today, my favorite Patti Smith Group recording, and the one that I continue to regularly listen to, is Radio Ethiopia. My audit this week has backed up that appraisal.

Radio Ethiopia -- released in October 1976, the month before Carter's election and The Band's Last Waltz concert at Winterland -- has everything: classic hard rock cuts like "Ask the Angels" and the unsurpassed "Pumping"; the soulful rock balladry of "Pissing in the River"; a free-form Punk jam of the title track; and the two dilatory spoken word songs that constitute the album's sonic bedrock, "Poppies" and "Chiklets":

A few years back, when my conditioning was much better than it is today, I was running in the early morning sun. It must have been in the summer. No one was around. I had the streets and the trees and sunshine to myself. "Poppies" shuffled on my iPod and that line about "She just lay there and the gas traveled fast/Through the dorsal spine . . ." resonated with me, as has, in a similar circumstance, the line from "Chiklets" about "[T]he desperate beauty of a middleweight boxer."

For whatever reason, these two songs manage to capture the feeling of newness and possibility and open space that both Hippies (which I explored two-years back in a post devoted to Fly Like an Eagle) and Punks felt in 1976. The feeling wouldn't last.

But what I thought about this week trudging up the hill home after work was this frat guy I worked with at the library when I was in college. His name was Eric Hawkins, whom I referred to as "Screamin' Jay," even though he was very quiet and kind.

One afternoon while out on a book run we stopped off for lunch at the Top Dog on the north side of campus. He had broken a blood vessel in his eye from a drinking bout at the frat house the night before. He was suffering, questioning the whole "high life" thing. I could understand.

I mention this because he would come over to my apartment on Friday nights with all my other library co-workers. I lived close to campus. So it was convenient to relocate our post-work bacchanal from whatever pizza parlor, restaurant or bar to my place where we would continue to drink and I would DJ. I had a decent stereo and a good record collection.

I would hold "Pissing in the River" until the right time for maximum effect. I was amazed by the song, couldn't get enough of it. But my friends and co-workers didn't seem to pay much attention to it, which kind of chagrined me. "Screamin' Jay" noticed, and in a display of kindness and tact said something like, "No, man. I get it. It is a good song."

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