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Why was Patti Smith ashamed of being censored in 1976?


Back in May 1976, punk poet laureate Patti Smith sat down with journalist Mick Gold in an empty cafe in London to talk about her upcoming seven-inch Live at the Bottom Line, the B-side of which featured a version of The Who’s ‘My Generation’, a single that had come to typify the disillusionment and discontent of a whole generation of young people in the 1960s.

That discontent quickly took root in youth culture and came to define its attitude towards governments and establishments. Patti Smith, who seems to have served as a bridge between the latter days of hippiedom and the punk era, was unsurprisingly unimpressed when her version of ‘My Generation’ was released as a censored version in the UK.

Leaning over Gold’s notebook, Smith said: “You wanna write something in your paper? You tell the kids that I say not to buy it. You tell them that’s against my wishes and I fought and fought for the song not to be censored. I’m going to do everything I can while I’m here to have the record rereleased as planned with this picture sleeve and with the uncensored version. I’m ashamed of it. I’m ashamed of the fact that it was censored and I’m ashamed that it doesn’t have its sleeve. And I don’t want people to buy it.”

For Smith, the issue wasn’t just about artistic freedom but about the freedom of language itself: “It has this line ‘I don’t need no fuckin’ shit, hope I die because of it’ because it was live,” she said. “They bleeped it, and that’s not how it’s supposed to be. They’re two very important American slang terms; they’re nothing but slang. They’ve been abstracted from the physical act. When people say ‘fuckin’ shit’ they don’t think of a big turd or two people making it anymore – it’s just words you know? Rock ‘n’ Roll, whatever it’s called, is, like, my art. Government doesn’t know shit about whether it’s art or not, and that’s the whole thing: rock ‘n’ roll is still warfare, total warfare all the time. You’re always fightin’ always fightin'”.

Smith wasn’t the only recording artist forced to alter their artistic vision to appease censors. Later in the interview, she would recall watching The Rolling Stones live on The Ed Sullivan Show earlier that year. “To me, one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century is that the Rolling Stones, the top rock n’ roll band in the world, in the history of the universe, had to change ‘let’s spend the night together’ to ‘let’s spend some time together’. I cried when that happened. I actually cried, I was so hurt.”

The intensity of Smith’s reaction implies that, for her, it was essential that music be allowed to capture life in vivid technicolour, to confront the reality of life head-on. The problem was, of course, that the people in power had spent most of their lives painting reality with a monochrome brush: terrified of the idea that truth and destruction might prove to be synonymous.

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