Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Vibe

Someone very, very young asked me the other day, "Can you explain to me why Patti Smith is so great", and I was shocked and horrified. During my youth, almost every moment of my waking life was dedicated to a dream of looking exactly like Patti Smith. Which, given that I have a round, rather undefined, unangular face, fair hair, blue eyes and am solidly built, was always going to be a futile quest.

And actually "exactly like" isn't quite right - it was more that what I wanted was to look as cool as I thought Smith looked on the cover of the album Horses. Which I now recognise might have been a non-existent perpetual state for her and more a product of Robert Mapplethorpe's skilful framing - proof, if it were needed, that photography is truly an art.

Anyway, again the round face, blue eyes et cetera were working against me. Being cool is not something that goes with fair-haired people. It has taken me a long time to realise that, but think about it: even Marilyn Monroe, despite her enormous magnetism and charisma, was never cool. While the lead singer of Blondie may have been, her fairness wasn't real - it came out of a bottle.

Perhaps if Brian Jones had survived, we pale ones could have had a cool, blonde icon. But he didn't, and so now all we have is Boris Johnson - and, while he is many things, he is definitely not cool.

But to return to my young person's question - what was it that made Patti Smith seem a dazzling star in my youthful eyes? I think to understand her effect, you would have to be 19 years old in 1975. The image of her on the front of Horses would have to seem as inspiring and excitingly impossible to achieve as it did then - (the unsmiling stare; the wild, thick, but well-cut hair; the fine boned hands; the thinness that has no hint of frailty; the elegance of a plain white shirt; the confidence; the lack of any attempt to be pretty or pleasing) - and Because the Night would have to be playing on a small transistor radio on a shelf behind the counter in the hamburger joint in Braidwood where you've stopped on a velvety summer night en route to the New South Wales south coast. Like A Whiter Shade of Pale many, many years before it - and White Rabbit in the interim between the two, (although it didn't get much radio airplay in my memory, as it was more 'niche') - Because the Night, there, at that moment, seems startlingly unlike the things that normally come out of transistor radios and contains a note of something haunting and strange.

Novelty, by its very nature, does not last, of course; image is insubstantial. The word zeitgeist was pretty well invented for Patti Smith and Horses. I don't think anything else she did later captured the collective imagination as firmly. All the same, while it lasted, hers was a bright flash in the pan.

And, if I hear Horses now, while I recognise that it isn't tremendously substantial, (given a choice between Because the Night and the overture to Cosi Fan' Tutte, I wouldn't hesitate to take the latter), for me it has many associations. That is the special power of music - a song from a particular moment in your life remains evocative and loaded with nostalgia forever. It is the closest to time travel that most of us ever come.

The funny thing is, I am not actually much of a listener to music and I never have been. I don't even dare admit how little I know or care about so many of the bands and singers that the bulk of my generation admire. Nevertheless, there were records, including Patti Smith's one, that gave me a soundtrack to some bit of my life for a while. Joni Mitchell's Blue, for example, somehow got through to me with at least as much force as Horses. Similarly, by virtue of living in a household that was temporarily obsessed with Linda Ronstadt's album Heart Like a Wheel, the songs from that record conjure up the year I spent finishing off my Russian degree in Melbourne, (reading Anna Karenina in the original to a backdrop of "Some say the heart is just like a wheel, when you bend it, you can't bend it" may at first appear to be a clash of registers, but, on further thought, it actually isn't).

I wonder if others have similar bits of music where the aural equivalent of a glimpse of them - just hearing a snatch of the opening bars as you round a street corner -  can instantly resurrect earlier phases of existence in their minds?


  1. I was 18 in 1975 and in Sixth form (sorry Year 12) so definitely in your age group.
    Some songs that take me back to my teen years are "Perfect Day" by Lou Reed, "Alexander Beetle" by Melanie and anything by Cat Stevens. I am instantly transported to 1970 when we moved from Sydney to Melbourne. Funny how life changes like that make the songs of that time more potent somehow.

    1. I'm going to find Alexander Beetle as I've not heard of that. On New Year's Day in maybe 1972 or 1973 I remember seeing Skyhooks playing for free in The Rocks, which still seems quite exciting. They seemed surprising and original - and looking back it is amazing how there was no worries about security and it really wasn't especially crowded etc. Halcyon days.