‘I don’t fuck much with the past but I fuck plenty with the future’ Patti Smith may have announced in the first line of her poem ‘Babelogue’, which also provided the intro to ‘Rock’n’Roll Nigger’ from her third album Easter. These days, however, she would appear to spend a fair amount of time looking back, as indeed she is well-entitled to do, given the over 35 year span of her groundbreaking and influential career (with extended breaks for the domestic joys of house-keeping, child-rearing and private study), and which is evidenced by the release of this new compilation of selections from that life’s work.
The declaration was never wholly true anyway. This is a woman, after all, whose first single was a version of ‘Hey Joe’, who has always had a neat line in judicious covers, from ‘Time Is On My Side’ to ‘My Generation’ to ‘So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll’ Star’ (included here) to ‘Wicked Messenger’, and whose last album proper, Twelve, was comprised entirely of her takes on other people’s songs. Nor is this even her first career-long retrospective (one hesitates to use the generic terms Greatest Hits, since Smith has only ever had one, the Springsteen collaboration ‘Because The Night’, and isn’t really a singles artist; or Best Of, since it isn’t, but more of that anon), 2002’s double-disc Land beating Outside Society to the punch in that regard.
In many ways, despite the fact that it appeared nine years ago, Land would still provide a more representative introduction to Smith for neophytes, and remains a much more essential memento for long-time admirers, because over its two discs it functions as both a Best Of and a Rarities collection (and, in a sense, is a Best Of because of those Rarities). Thirteen of Outside Society’s eighteen tracks already appear on Land, the slack taken up by the above mentioned Byrds’ cover from 1979’s Wave, ‘Up There Down There’ from 1988’s mostly marking-time piece of MTV ‘alternative’ rock, Dream of Life – her only head-above-the-parapet between Wave and 1996’s real comeback, Gone Again – ‘Lo and Beholden’ from her final album with Arista, 2000’s Gung Ho, and one song a piece from her two albums since signing to Columbia, the title track from 2004’s Trampin’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from 2007’s Twelve.
Perhaps the comparison is slightly unfair, since it’s partly a question of space available, and with a running time of over 80 minutes, Outside Society is already pushing it in terms of the single CD format. But it’s not just that: it’s also to do with the predictability of the selections on show here, and Smith must bear some responsibility for this, as she chose the track listing and sequencing herself. For while this compilation representatively offers songs from every one of her 10 albums, one does wish that Patti hadn’t dealt quite so even-handedly with all of her babies. Some albums are just plain better than others, and one track from some of those others would have more than sufficed, instead of two, or sometimes three.
You see, a lot of Smith’s best work can’t be classified as conventional songs as such: it’s made up of long, risk-taking, song-poems, with cascading, improvisatory music, owing as much to free jazz as it does to garage rock, and dense, inspired lyrics, referencing Rimbaud as well as Little Richard. Unlike the case with a lot of artists, who have their popular, crowd-pleasing productions for the masses, and then their more esoteric, experimental excursions for diehards, with Smith you can’t really have one without the other. Or rather, a large proportion of what makes her great is the weird stuff, and it’s precisely her more organic, idiosyncratic side that is woefully underrepresented here.
Thus, sadly, there’s no room for that pre-Horses debut single, ‘Hey Joe’, with Smith taking exultant wing on Tom Verlaine’s guitar flights, nor its B-side, that most excoriating of rock’n’roll paeans to blue-collar, adolescent disenfranchisement, ‘Piss Factory’. Chief among the casualties is ‘Radio Baghdad’, undoubtedly her greatest song of the new millennium. A live-in-the-studio, sound stage recording, it is strongly empathetic with those who have suffered and understand suffering, and so do not stand idly by: ‘Suffer not your neighbor’s affliction/Suffer not your neighbor’s paralysis/But extend your hand’, as well as a powerful diatribe against western arrogance, in its climactic: ‘They’re robbing the cradle of civilisation’. It would have correlated well thematically with ‘Radio Ethiopia’ (excluded too) as well as with ‘Rock’n’Roll Nigger’’s ‘in heart I am Muslim/In heart I am an American artist’ (thankfully included). But at over 12 and 10 minutes respectively, Radios Baghdad and Ethiopia were likely never within an ass’s roar of contention. Unless, that is, Smith had freed up more room by leaving off another cut or two from some of the multiple selections from individual albums that were chosen, instead of opting for three songs from the overproduced sheen of the Todd Rundgren manned Wave, for example, and a pair from several others.
In this respect, one could speculate that Smith doesn’t fully understand the strengths of her own oeuvre, or what her legacy amounts to. More likely, what happened is that in the wake of her National Book Award (Non-Fiction) for her Robert Mapplethorp memoir, Just Kids, and her induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, in other words the fact that she is no longer exactly Outside Society, Columbia wanted a relatively accessible sampler for those whose interest had been piqued for the first time. And that, largely, is what they got.
Of course, this being Patti Smith, there is still much to savour. It’s nice to be reminded of the out-thereness of that divisive but underrated sophomore album Radio Ethiopia, widely regarded at the time as a massive let down after Horses, via the reggae inflexions of ‘Ain’t It Strange’ and the viscerally scatological imagery of ‘Pissing in a River’. ‘1959’, from 1997’s Peace and Noise, about the fall of Tibet, is another worthy inclusion. Smith has always made others’ songs over in her own image, and her banjo-led, front porch reading of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, reinterpreting it as an Appalachian ballad, is a stroke of genius.
On the whole, though, this is vastly insubstantial for hardcore fans and, comparatively, considering the material at its disposal, a rather anodyne introduction for newcomers. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great rock’n’roll on here, and if I was hearing ‘Gloria’ or ‘Rock’n’Roll Nigger’ for the first time via this collection, I’d be suitably enthralled and entranced, and it would encourage me to delve deeper. But it’s still only at best half the full picture, and could have been so much more. Therefore, what John Lennon wrote in his liner notes to his career compilation Shaved Fish could apply equally well to Outside Society: ‘I didn’t call it Best Of because it isn’t’.