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Patti Smith/Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Outside in

Music | Outside Society spans Patti Smith's underground to over-ground rock 'n' roll career

Issue: "Finding their way," Oct. 8, 2011

Only five of the 18 songs on Outside Society (Arista/Columbia/Legacy), Patti Smith's new career-spanning compilation, are not on Smith's two-disc 2002 compilation Land (1975-2002) (Arista), and every one of those five is available on one of Smith's original albums. Her fans-being rather more zealous than, say, those of Lady Gaga-probably already own them.

So it's safe to assume that Outside Society's target audience is the Patti Smith novitiate-a fan of underground rock 'n' roll who was born after the New York City punk boom of the mid-1970s. They're young enough to be either the 64-year-old Smith's child or grandchild. It's also safe to assume that Outside Society's target audience is the only thing that's safe to assume about it.

When Smith burst onto the rock 'n' roll scene in 1975, she did so by proclaiming "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine," and Outside Society begins the same way. It was easy to hear the proclamation as blasphemy, but what the Jehovah's Witness-raised Smith meant was that she didn't think anyone else should have to pay for her transgressions. As Christian orthodoxy, it fell short. But as a statement of self-responsibility, it was practically conservative.

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Not that she'd have seen it that way. Aesthetically nurtured by the same post-Beat atmosphere that nurtured fellow rebels Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, Smith came on like a counter-cultural rocket, freely and exuberantly violating taboos. She did for commonly accepted notions of womanhood what Bob Dylan's singing did for commonly accepted notions of male singing.

Surprisingly, she wasn't kicked to the curb but gradually clutched to the mainstream's bosom, even scoring a top-20 hit in 1978 with the Bruce Springsteen-penned "Because the Night." By the time she released 1979's Todd Rundgren-produced Wave (represented on Outside Society by "Frederick," "Dancing Barefoot," and the definitive version of the Byrds' "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star"), she was poised to join Blondie's Debbie Harry in the pantheon of underground-to-overground mainstream acceptability.

Then she dropped out. For almost a decade. She married, gave birth to and reared two children, and-well, seemed almost conservative again. Perhaps that was why she returned to recording in 1988 with Dream of Life, the first single of which, "People Have the Power," re-asserted her leftist, distinctively Big Apple street cred in no uncertain terms, albeit atop an '80s-friendly production scheme.

Songs of the city

Garland Jeffreys/Photo by Danny Clinch

Other than Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and maybe David Johansen, no rocker of significance has labored to capture New York City in sound as relentlessly as Garland Jeffreys. And at 68 he has seniority.

He sounds as spry as ever on The King of In Between (Luna Park), his 11th album (13 if you include those released only in Europe). A black man unencumbered with obligations to R&B (unless intermittent reggae riffs count), he calls 'em as he sees 'em. On "Streetwise," he's as comfortably conversational bequeathing common-sense advice to a schoolgirl walking home as he is honoring his Harlem-born father, from whom he got similar advice in the first place.

But, like Smith, he still feels obligated to check his instinctive conservatism at the door. "Black president on the White House lawn," he sings. "I remember when there were two black jockeys there when I was born." He then reminds Secret Service men of their duty. And on that issue, at least, both conservatives and liberals can agree.

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