photograph by robert mapelthorpe
Having myself a rock concert at home. I've not sat and listened to any rock albums in several years. I tend now to want to hear Kyle Creed play banjo and Willard Gayheart sing, Alternate Roots, bluegrass, old-time, mountain music. Turning inward to home, focusing on the music as it is made in the immediate world I live in, the culture of this spot on earth. It pulled my interest away from rock, as I knew it would. My first discovery of old-time in 1977 was so dynamic, I knew if I started paying close attention, I'd lose interest in rock. Punk had just begun in 75 and it was gradually trickling out into the world at college radio stations, and that's it, for about 25 years. Sixties rock (classic rock) was not played on the radio stations. Sponsors wouldn't have it. The radio played Motown and disco in the time. Off the radio, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & Holding Co, the Velvet Underground, Cream; none of them would ever be heard anywhere around where I lived. In mid 70s came a big sound of the next generation, like Ted Nugent, Bon Jovi, REO Speedwagon. They were big on the charts, but I'd already been there, done that. These bands made Sixties rock into pop.
Punk happened in 1975 and, again, no radio stations played it but college stations. Punk became a culture different from the pop mainstream, which was just starting to get used to the Sixties sound of the slower rhythms that can't be danced to (except hippie dance), sit-down music; then punk happened with high-speed rhythms like old-time fiddle tunes. It's stand up and jump up and down in place music. For the next quarter century I was listening to bands nobody around me had heard of, like Generation X (Billy Idol's London band), Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nina Hagen, Joy Division, Patti Smith, the Clash, the Damned, et al. Earlier this evening, while writing the first paragraph, I was hearing ARTIST IN THE AMBULANCE by Thrice. Had to crank it way up. Finally in the later years of my life I have the ideal sound system I've waited all my life for. It cranks way up and delivers satisfaction. Caterpillar went out the door. Now it's Patti Smith's RADIO ETHIOPIA that was new when I went to my first fiddler's convention. In Patti Smith I heard an artist making rock the art way. This album did very poorly for the band. Critics didn't get it and it was such step off the edge of pop culture into art that it left its audience. It probably defined for the band the line between what works and what doesn't work with the people who became fans by HORSES. A demanding audience. How do you follow one of the great albums in rock? And it your first?
patti smith group
Lenny Kaye's guitar is one of the great ones in rock, too. Plays a Fender Stratocaster. He may not be a big name in the pop world, but I'd guess in the rock music world he's very well respected. PSG, Patti Smith Group, continues in my ear to be among the very finest bands in rock where musicianship and and plain all out rock and roll is concerned, done in a new, artful manner. I'd say they could raise an audience into ecstasy. I've not had the opportunity to get to a concert, because that meant going to New York and one thing and another, several hundred dollars out of pocket per day, 12 hours each way. Not me. I don't drive to NY to hear some poet, say Molly Peacock, read at some intellectual hangout. Alas, all the art in New York has to go unseen by me. Photographs have to do. And that's ok. I can't see Patti Smith in concert. But I can see Burning Spear in concert at Ziggy's. That's worth a lot. Winston-Salem and Charlotte have a lot of rock venues. I can see anybody I want. But it's not that important. I'm happy hearing Patti fill my head with vibrations I like to hear in the familiarity of home.
Radio Ethiopia is going now, ten minutes of Lenny Kaye's guitar, JD Daugherty's drums, Patti's voice working with Kaye's guitar. It's been a very long time since I've heard Radio Ethiopia. It is still as great as I heard it in 1976. This screeching of guitar strings, doing it something like Velvet Underground could have done it, is what ran off their sales. Velvet Underground was an art band, not a pop band. So was PSG. When I heard it, I didn't know anything about critics and sales. All I knew was Patti Smith had a new album and I needed to hear it fast as I could get my hands on one. I felt like the entire album was an excellent next thing after HORSES; they'd followed their artist ears and reached out into fusion of poetry and sound. It helps to be one who appreciates poetry itself and can find it in unexpected places, like punk rock. Rock is the popular poetry of our time, and I have to say, there are some truly superb poets in rock. I'm looking at a Nobel Prize for Bob Dylan if he doesn't die too soon. He may not. Possibly when he puts out his apex album. The last four of Dylan's albums I can't help but think of as the best Dylan I've heard all along the way. And I've heard him from Man of Constant Sorrow on his first album with just an acoustic guitar. Every one of his albums is as much a work of art as a book of poems by Wallace Stevens.
Patti Smith has the name of the first punk rocker, the definer of punk, whatever. Nina Hagen is called the Mother of Punk. She says in one of her songs, "I'm the mother of punk! So what the funk!" Nina Hagen was another one who was out there on the edge making art rock. Punk is not one sound. Punk is your own sound. Punk is the music you want to make. We tend to think of the Sex Pistols and the Clash as the definition of punk, but it's not like that. I've put on Nina Hagen's second album UNBEHAGEN (translates: restless). She's playing African Reggae, a great reggae song, anyway in my way of hearing. It's not Black Uhuru, for sure, but it works. It's punk. Nina Hagen is somebody you either get it or you don't. Like the Tao te Ching in that way, though different. Nina Hagen cannot be explained. Her albums always have artist musicians, mostly German, They never hesitate to rock. Caterpillar came in for a morsel of catfood between albums. When Nina started, out the door Caterpillar went. She's not used to this kind of thing happening here. TarBaby loved it. I could play Rocket From The Crypt really loud and TarBaby would be lying in front of a speaker happy and comfortable.
Nina is singing in German on her first albums. I don't mind not understanding the words. I've never paid a lot of attention to the words. Most rock is sung such that I can't make out words. Like THRICE. Also THE USED. I don't understand any words from the Thrice album. Didn't understand any words at the concert. The twenty-somethings around me were singing words like those were words the vocalist was screaming. Oh well. I read words to a song I don't understand, if they're included in liner notes, and am satisfied not understanding them. I've found pop lyrics largely boring. Then you get people like Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Siouxsie Sioux, Lou Reed and a very long list of others, who write lyrics that equal contemporary poetry. I'm not one who thinks of rock a "lower art form." Rock is where theater and poetry have disappeared into. The rock concert is contemporary theater. You say there's no story. We don't need a story now. We do anecdotes now. Quips. We don't live stories anymore. I tend to think of this album I'm listening to now by Nina Hagen the same as reading a dozen poems in a book of poetry by somebody like Philip Larkin, Ron Padgett, Elizabeth Bishop. The guitar at this moment on Hermann Heiss Er, is great as a rock solo gets.
I've needed this. It's like a cleansing of the spirit. This is music I love intensely and have loved for the second half of my life. Have not given it much attention over the last dozen or so years. Maybe this is return of long-term memory coming back. Like first time I heard Patti Smith's HORSES. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. Not long later I'm hearing Nina Hagen's Superboy and TV Glotzer, delighted to hear somebody tearing it up in rock again, this time in a new way. Nina Hagen Band is there with Patti Smith Group in the realm of great rock and roll bands that applied the cutting edge. This album Unbehagen is as current as Five Finger Death Punch, minus the rap influence. It was from 77 or 78. I've never had a chance to see Nina perform live, though would have loved it. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. It's just another experience with the music. They're finishing up the album with No Way, an instrumental of how punk rock is played by musicians who don't let up. I've never had the chance to see The Who, another band I'd have loved to experience from the audience. They were said to play at the loudest decibel level of any band. I heard the Cars and wondered if the Who could actually be louder than them. Who knows? Who cares?
Caterpillar came back in.