The Power of Patti Smith


There’s a consistent thread through every Patti Smith album. It is a theme that is even more present in those that she has released since her first child was born. That thread is spun from strands of hope and the belief in the possibilities of change. It is most obvious in songs like her anthem “People Have the Power” and the homage to the revolutionary spirit of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, “Gung Ho,” but is also apparent in the songs of a more personal nature that appear on all of these albums. Her latest album, Trampin’, continues this trend.

Her first work to be released on Columbia, Trampin’ is another collection of imagistic poems set to a music that is sometimes reminiscent of the rhythms of the musicians of Jajouka (first brought to modern western ears by Beat icon Brian Gysin) and at other times evocative of a devotional moment in a Gregorian monastery. Yet, there are many musical moments where Patti and her band still rock as hard as her band in its Radio Ethiopia days. Always able to control her pitch, whether it was at its most feverish in a song like “Break It Up” or “Rock and Roll Nigger” from her signature album Horses and her third work Easter, respectively, or its most reflective as in “Paths That Cross” from her 1988 work “Dream of Life, ” Patti continues to maintain that control-lifting her voice in chant when the music demands it and dropping it to a whisper when the song insists. Then, occasionally, raising it to a decibel level that the music and its lyric require. All the while, her band remains faithful to its muse.

To pick up that thread of hope and change, let’s go back to Trampin’. The song from this album that expresses it best might very well be the piece titled “Gandhi.” This is a long song that begins with a dream about Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a dream that Patti admits is a trespass, but quickly becomes a story about the man who was one of Mr. King’s inspirations: Mahatma Gandhi. As the guitars and rhythm section rise and fall like the breaths of a sleeping body, Patti’s words recall and reinvigorate the meaning of Gandhi’s life and work. Then the guitars really begin to sing, just as Patti calls on us all to:

Awake from your slumber
And get ’em with the numbers
Get ’em with the numbers
Long live revolution

But why? Why is there any need to awake, you might wonder. One answer lies in another song. A song that holds nothing back. Anger and loss. Death and destruction. Bigotry and ignorance. That song is “Radio Baghdad” and, yes, it’s about that dirty little war. The anger of old, when Patti used to give shows where she ripped into the duplicity and stupidity of the rulers and their minions and laid it out for all to see with the fearlessness of her mentor Bob Dylan and the anger of the Weather Underground, is present and accounted for right here in this song. It begins with an incantation to the land of the Tigris and Euphrates and the civilization that it birthed. The perfect number, zero, that was discovered by its scholars, is where Patti begins. Slowly the incantation rises, enveloping the listener’s soul. The band slowly crescendos.

We invented the zero
And we mean nothing to you
Our children run through
the streets
And you sent your flames
Your shooting stars
Shock and awe

Anger drowns the devotional sounds in a replica of that shock and awe, that horrifying bombardment. This anger is a good thing. Revolutionary change is not possible without anger that is justified. Nor is it possible without hope and love. Patti reminds us of this, too, as she ends this song about Baghdad and America’s war on its people:

Suffer not
The paralysis of your neighbor
Suffer not
But extend your hand

Indeed. Such paralysis of which she sings is often brought about through despair. The despair born of hopelessness and fear. The fear and the feeling that you cannot make a difference. That everything is resolved before you have a say. Or, even worse, left unresolved forever. Fear not, sings Patti in her song “My Blakean Year.”

Embrace all that you fear
For joy will conquer all despair
In our Blakean year.

Patti Smith has always had the ability to create joy from despair and hope from fear. One imagines this is what brought her to rock and roll. Isn’t it the music of joy and celebration in the midst of chaos and despair? Indeed, doesn’t it take that very chaos and despair and turn it into something you can dance to? Smith does this in the stories and impressions that make up so much of her work and she does it with the heroes whose stories she tells. Her homage to Ho Chi Minh mentioned earlier is a perfect example of the latter. Therein she reflects on Ho’s meaning to the Vietnamese people and their desires to be free of colonial and imperial powers. In words of poetry backed by the sound of US choppers bent on destroying their land and their vision, Ho and the Vietnamese rose above and defeated their oppressor. The dichotomy of the choppers ugly, ominous rhythm and the beauty of Patti’s words delivered in a soulful, uplifting chant illustrates Smith’s ability to create beauty from humanity’s ugliest act-war. It is this creative ability that allows her vision of unbounding hope and joy to unfold in song.

There’s a rap that Patti used to begin her performance of “Rock and Roll Nigger” with. “I haven’t fucked much with the past,” it begins. “But I’ve fucked plenty with the future.” This is what a good deal of her early work was about. She threw her lot in with the revolutionaries-cultural and political-and helped birth a new world that is still struggling to survive as the old one grabs on to whatever it can to keep itself alive. War and corruption. Censorship and prison. Reactionary religions and vacuous entertainment. Yet the future is still up for grabs. Patti Smith and her band aren’t just fucking with it, their recent works are providing us with the hope and the inspiration (tempered with a wisdom that only time can bring) we’re going to need to insure that that future is worth living.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is being republished by Verso.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: