“O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!”
— Tom Paine
“I can relate to Thomas Paine. When he wrote Common Sense, he was trying to stir people up, get them thinking. And he did. Paine’s words — ‘These are the times that try men’s souls’ — became the battle cry of the American Revolution. I can relate to a person like that, who has this calling and does the work.”
— Patti Smith
Patti Smith will be recognized tonight as a member of rock-and-roll royalty.
But Smith is no royalist. She remains as rebellious as ever – and as politically charged.
Few of the dozens of individual artists and bands that have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have accepted the honor at a point when their careers are so vibrant, and necessary.
Because of the Hall of Fame’s quarter-century rule – artists can’t get in until 25 years after they begin recording — inductees tend to be honored at the point when they are either retired or, at the very least, retiring in their approach to demands of the day.
But Patti Smith continues to push the envelope, releasing adventurous albums, touring passionately and speaking up as an American who sees herself in the tradition of Tom Paine.
“I guess I’m essentially a late-18th-century, early-19th-century kind of person. There is a part of me that likes to serve the people,” she says. “In a different era, I’d have liked to have worked with Thomas Paine.”
While she may not work with Paine, Smith’s career has been marked by a determination to work like Paine — as a poet-pamphleteer with a good beat
Smith is an artist, not a politician. But she has never shied away from the power of the pen – or the guitar – to rouse the masses against tyranny and injustice. Her faith in the force of an informed citizenry, expressed in the 1988 song, “People Have the Power,” remains unaltered:
I believe everything we dream
can come to pass through our union
we can turn the world around
we can turn the earth’s revolution
we have the power
People have the power …
“That song came out in an election year, in 1988, and I saw Jesse Jackson delivering speeches and I felt like, if I knew his phone number, I’d call him and say, ‘I have a song for you,'” Smith once told me. “His speeches, the concepts he was addressing, were very similar to the lyrics in the song.”
Eventually, “People Have the Power” would become the theme song of a presidential campaign, that of Ralph Nader in 2000. Smith even got the consumer advocate to sing along on the chorus at some of his super rallies that year.
Smith’s political passions run deeper than mere calls to arms – although this fan of Paul Revere would never dismiss the noble work of rallying Americans to embrace and act upon their citizenship. “The country belongs to us,” she once explained to me in a conversation about her political ethic. “The government works for us. But we don’t think of it that way. We’ve gotten all twisted around to a point where we think that we work for the government.”
Over the course of three decades as a recording artist, Smith has been both activist and educator. She has constantly explored issues of race, class, gender, sexuality and militarism. She has written of the conditions of Native Americans (“Ghost Dance”), immigrants (“Citizen Ship”) and Africans (“Radio Ethiopia/ Abyssinia”), of the Chinese occupation of Tibet (“1959”) and the Vietnam War (“Gung Ho”). She has celebrated the inspiration of the Mahatma (“Gandhi”) and of the and the WTO protests in Seattle (“Glitter in Their Eyes”).
Militantly opposed to the war in Iraq, Smith penned what remains the most powerful anti-war song of the moment, “Radio Baghdad,” which ends with chilling indictment of the bombing of that city and the cry: “They’re robbing the cradle of civilization.” Fiercely critical of the Bush administration, Smith’s most recent songs have condemned the detention without trial of foreign nationals at the U.S. military’s Guantanamo Bay facility (“Without Chains”) and U.S. support for Israel’s 2006 assault on Lebanon (“Qana”).
Smith is an artist, first and foremost. She is a rock-and-roller wholly worthy of her hall of fame induction.
But she is also a Tom Paine for our time, calling out as the great pamphleteer did to a nation in need of redemption. She places no faith in the current “King George” – a ruler she judges worthy of impeachment – or in rulers generally. In her manifesto for a “New Party,” Smith sings to the commander-in-chief:
You say hey
The state of the union
Is fine fine fine
I got the feeling that you’re lying…”
Like Paine, Smith keeps the faith in the people, and in the potential of the American experiment to be redeemed by a politics worthy of a nation founded on the Jeffersonian principle “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…”
“When in the course of human events,” Patti Smith sings in “New Party”:
It becomes necessary
To take things into your own hands
To take the water from the well
And declare it tainted by greed
We got to surely clean it up…
Or, as Paine suggested a few centuries earlier: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
John Nichols’ new book is