Just Kids, Patti Smith's recently-published reminiscences of her life in NY with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, is being read by Smith on Radio 4 as Book of the Week this week. I've never been a big fan of either Patti Smith or Mapplethorpe, but they've both been artists you couldn't help but notice.
In summer 1976 I crashed for a while in a house where Horses rarely left the turntable. The owner of that album was not so much an enthusiast, as an evangelist. But it always struck me as hysterical art-school posturing. "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine!" Cor, really? It's instructive to compare Patti Smith's version of "Gloria" with Van Morrison's original version recorded in 1964 with Them -- hmm, which is the rawest, the most elemental?*
True, by that time I was no longer that typical small-town teenager who thought rock and pop defined the outer limits of human experience. My trajectory had begun to veer off in the direction of classical music and contemporary jazz: this was, after all, also the time of Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert. But the changes that happened in popular music around 1976/77 (often referred to as "punk" in journalistic shorthand -- a travesty of the complexity of what was happening then) did affect me deeply, because I cared very deeply about popular music.
I was an avid reader of the New Musical Express, which was in its ultra-hip, antinomian heyday with writers like Ian Penman, Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill, and Paul Morley turning out provocative and thought-provoking pieces on the emerging scene. For a few brief years, it seemed that pop music might be regenerating itself with the energy of raw creative impulse rather than stacked megawattage, and might be re-situating itself back on the streets, rather than in the stadium. And, crucially, on British streets. Finally, it seemed, singers had shaken off the compulsion to mimic an American accent. American "punk" acts like Patti Smith and The Ramones seemed somehow to have missed the point.
It didn't last, though. It can be difficult -- at the time, up close -- to distinguish between a phoenix rising from the flames, and a crash and burn situation. Despite its ongoing (and apparently eternal) half-life, what we witnessed then was the final fizzling out of pop's batteries. Sorry, young 'uns, but it's true. Pretty much everything since has been a repeat or a reworking of models established before 1980, and has aspired to nothing more than the condition of entertainment, mere background noise.**
As to Robert Mapplethorpe ... Oh, don't get me started. What was I saying about hysterical art-house posturing?
* Rhetorical question. Can you imagine what it must have been like hearing Them improvise Gloria in those legendary extended sessions at the Maritime Hotel in Belfast? For me, the song always invokes the sleazy danger of those leather-jacketed guys who operated the dodgems at fairs -- the very essence of rock'n'roll.
** I do realise that this is a bit like saying, "Look, we already had attractive young boys and girls back when I was young, so why do we need to have them again now?" or even, "I ate yesterday, why bother again today?" But the unoriginality of contemporary pop is profoundly irritating; done for the second (or third, or fourth) time around, it's like someone is trying to steal your youth (except -- even more irritatingly -- they can do it better, because instruments and studios have improved, and people have learned from all the mistakes that were made first time round ...) Grrr!