Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Why Patti Smith matters

I’ve been to see a film with the 16-year-old heroine who says her favourite musicians are the Stooges, Patti Smith and the Runaways. I would love to believe that such 16-year-olds exist. I’m not sure whether I do. But it made me think back.

It’s hard to explain to a man why Patti Smith was so important. It’s hard to explain to someone who cares about guitar solos why punk rock mattered. Maybe it didn’t matter that the Sex Pistols sang God Save the Queen in Silver Jubilee year and were banned from being number one (the past really is a different country). Maybe it didn’t matter that English people finally started making records in English accents. Maybe it didn’t matter that people were making music, and writing about music, who had never been allowed to before.

It matters that Siouxsie came from the suburbs and frightened everyone who saw her and has never gone away. It matters that Gaye Advert and Tina Weymouth played bass because people thought it was easier for girls to play. At least they played something. It matters that the NME allowed a teenage girl from the sticks onto their staff. And she’s still annoying people.

It matters that Chrissie Hynde out-rocked the boys. She wasn’t the first to do the rock-chick thing (I always liked Suzi Quatro), and it looks like a cliche now, but girls and boys alike fell for it. It matters that the Slits didn’t care what anyone thought. It matters that the Raincoats refused to do the girl-group thing (and it’s great that one of them now has kids in a rockabilly band).

Before all that, there was Patti Smith.

It was a long time later that I actually heard her music. I didn’t like it much at the time. But I hadn’t long graduated from T Rex, and I didn’t do avant garde. What mattered was she looked like a woman and she dressed like a man and she stared at the camera daring it to tell her she couldn’t be an artist, a musician, a poet. No woman in the music business had ever exuded that much autonomy.

My best friend and I wore our white school shirts over our Lone Groover T-shirts and Levi’s jeans and tried to look like Patti Smith. (I had the dark hair, she had the skinniness: it kind of worked.) Neither of us have become an artist or a musician or a poet, at least not the way Patti Smith is. But I’m sure we have both become somebody that we might not have been otherwise.

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