When baby boomers hear the name Patti Smith, most of them will no doubt recall the late Gilda Radner's classic impression, which included a lot of unconsciousness interrupted by a few stumbles around the stage in a strung-out, junked-up, alcoholic stupor. To the average young music fan, the name Patti Smith is legendary, but it's in the same way Lou Reed and the rest of the Velvet Underground are legendary. Their parents either vaguely recognize the names, or "just loved that stuff" in the '70s and subsequently forgot all about it when they bought toaster ovens and homes in the suburbs. And youngsters have, well, limited exposure to the artistic relevance of these prolific musicians, and their dauntingly large catalogs make it difficult to know where to begin. Sure, the late-'70s punk audience is still out there (um, I think), but for the most part, Patti Smith falls directly into the generation gap.
In a lot of ways, this makes Smith's die-hard fans--and there are lots of them out there, almost all of them music critics--extremely lucky. It means that people who loved Smith's happy-to-be-sad style in the 1970s can stand alongside younger fans, who've only just discovered her music, at pretty intimate venues. Both groups can enjoy classic songs from the four albums she released between 1975 and 1979 (Horses, Radio Ethiopia, Easter, and Wave) as well as more recent tracks from her end of the '90s comeback (Dream of Life, Gone Again, and Peace and Noise). And everyone can hear the new tracks from this year's Gung Ho performed live, which is, of course, the way Smith was meant to be heard.
Fans of any generation embrace Smith's sincerity, her despair at the suffering of others, her condemnation of systematic violence and greed, and her Beat-inspired brand of spirituality. They can identify with her sketches, photography, and poetry, understand her haunting spoken-word tracks (like "Speed," Smith's expansion on Ginsberg's immortal poem Howl). They crave her pained, bluesy vocal tones and the way her voice interacts with the clean electric guitar that often shares her foreground. And they cherish any fresh political commentary and new throaty tracks that she offers them along the way. When all this adoration and fascination intersect in the tight quarters of a small club, the whole room becomes pretty hypnotized. There she is, Patti Smith, a legend, right there, singing away as if she were just an ordinary person. Anyone standing in the crowd begins to truly understand that the secret of this artist's esoteric appeal is her humanity. Gilda Radner, a legend herself, immortalized Smith's mistakes. This, along with her lyrics, her small performance venues, and her illegible handwriting, serves to reflect the fact that Patti is just an ordinary person, with some extraordinary gifts to share with the rest of us, no matter what age we are when we first discover them.