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Music

Patti Smith explains the punk ethos of William S. Burroughs

@TomTaylorFO

William S. Burroughs once wrote: “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.” Very few artists in the realm of music have embodied this outlook quite like Bob Dylan. And it was Dylan who first stirred Patti Smith with the power of music. When she was growing up, her mother handed her a copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan, and it may well have represented a zenith of fate and discovery that another writer, Graham Greene, was referring to when he penned: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in”.

The future may not have been prognosticated on the spot, but soon enough, through a strange serpentine path, Smith would find herself almost inadvertently capturing her own zeitgeist in the same way that Dylan had a decade or so early. He was dubbed ‘The Voice of a Generation’, Smith acquired the moniker ‘The Godmother of Punk’. She later made the very Dylanesque declaration: “I was young, but I felt our cultural voice was in jeopardy and needed an infusion of new people and ideas. I didn’t feel like I was the one. I didn’t consider myself a musician in any way, but I was a poet and performer, and I did feel that I understood where we were at, what we’d been given and where we should go, and if I could voice it, perhaps it could inspire the next generation.”

Both Smith and her hero brought a literary weight to their music, and both were inspired by one of the first punks to enter the art world, the legendary beat pioneer William S. Burroughs. The beat author was a central figure in the music industry. His friendship with David Bowie and other prominent musicians meant that his impact was felt in an almost direct sense. Bowie and a range of other artists were not only inspired by the inherent weirdness of his work and its refusal to conform to conventions but also his word cut-up technique would be used by many artists to overcome writer’s block, as they sought to see things in a more abstract fashion.

Back in 1979, when the punk movement that Patti Smith had helped to spawn was reaching fever-pitch, she met with Burroughs for an interview feature with Spin. “Well Patti,” Burroughs opened, “Just regarding me as someone who knows very little—as I do know very little—about music and what’s going on now, just give me a little talk. Tell me what’s going on, and where things are going”.

Smith replied: “There isn’t anything to know. The seventies basically were a period where different people were trying to take a throne, you see? The only people that were interesting at all — not always even anyone that I liked—were people like David Bowie. And I don’t demean David Bowie, in fact, some of his work has been inspirational to me, but he’s still… he’s not an American. You know, he doesn’t move me. I don’t want to say anything negative, because he does enough positive things that make him worthwhile to me”.

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Adding: “But he didn’t excite me in the Seventies. I think what it was, was a hunger that we didn’t know that a lot of us had. We all felt loneliness as a hunger for something to happen. As we thought we were lonely, a group like Television thinks they’re alone. The boys that later became the Sex Pistols thought they were alone. All of us people that should have been perpetuating, or helping to build on, the sixties, we were dormant. And we thought we were alone”.

It was this same hunger that Burroughs had felt when he became a progenitor of the beat revolution. The youth felt disenfranchised, and suddenly they were willing to forgo things in their own fashion. “Our credo was, “Wake up!” I’ve said this before, but just to tell you, in case you haven’t read or anything: I wanted to be like Paul Revere,” Smith mused.

“That was my whole thing I wanted to be like Paul Revere. I didn’t want to be a giant big hero, I didn’t want to die for the cause. I didn’t want to be a martyr. All that I wanted was for the people to fuckin’ wake up. That’s all I wanted them to do, and I feel that that’s what happened,” she said. 

With the extreme daring of Burroughs’ prose, Smith was fuelled with a notion of how art can perturb while she was working in Gotham Book Mart and surrounded by his work.  When Junkie was released in 1953 it served as an incendiary attack on decency and controversially challenged American ideals of what can be spoken about in art, much in the same way that fellow New York denizens The Velvet Underground would do over a decade later, and then on to the New York Dolls, then Patti Smith, then…