PattiSmith Banga

Reviewing Patti Smith’s new album, Banga, for Pitchfork, Lindsay Zoladz writes:

Remember those words that shot out of her lips like hot lightning on her brilliant 1978 record Easter: “I don’t fuck much with the past, but I fuck plenty with the future.” Well, more than three decades later, Banga is the work of someone interested in fucking with everything. […]

Smith is still the eternal college freshman at heart, constantly stumbling upon new artistic heroes and then drawing from them fathomless and unabashedly ebullient inspiration. […]  Ultimately, it’s Banga‘s earnestness about the thrill of discovery that makes it feel so out-of-time and refreshing. It runs counter to that sense of maxed-out ennui that governs the way so many people talk about art and artists in the age of Wikipedia– when posturing that you know it all is more attractive than confessing blind spots, if only so you can bemoan the fact that it’s all been done before. Though more in spirit than in sound, Banga pulses with the notion that there are still good books we haven’t read, old ideas waiting to be fucked with, and new lands we haven’t yet explored.

This, for me, states exactly, precisely, why a new album from Patti Smith is always so exhilarating – she isn’t afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve, and to joyfully stir into the mix imagery and thoughts provoked by art, poetry, film or literature which has recently inspired her.  On Banga, set to some of the best musical arrangements to have graced her albums, played impeccably by familiar collaborators –  guitarist Lenny Kaye, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, bassist Tony Shanahan, guitarist Tom Verlaine, guitarist Jack Petruzzelli, and her children Jackson and Jessi on guitar and piano – her lyrics encompass a dog in Bulgakov’s  Master and Margarita, Nikolai Gogol, film director Andrei Tarkovsky, actress Maria Schneider and ill-starred Amy Winehouse.  About the dog, Patti explained in an interview:

The album title came from the dog in The Master and Margarita. It was Pontius Pilate’s dog and his dog’s name was Banga. The reason I wrote a song for Banga, for those who have not read the book, Pontius Pilate waited on the edge of Heaven for 2000 years to talk to Jesus Christ and his dog, Banga, stayed faithfully by his side and I thought that any dog that would wait 2000 years for his master deserves a song. Its really a song for my band and for the people. It’s a high-spirited song, dedicated to love and loyalty.

Patti Smith seeks out – and yearns to espress – the ecstatic: as she cries in the chorus of ‘Banga’: ‘believe or explode!’  Her imaginative cosmos is inhabited by Blake, Dylan, Jim Morrison, Rimbaud, Gahndi, Baudelaire and Burroughs – all part of a flowing conceptual continuity.

Banga evolved over four years, the songs emerging as Patti wrote her first memoir, Just Kids, the chronicle of her deep friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, which won critical acclaim.  This perhaps explains the variety of subjects and musical moods on the album.  There are catchy, sixties-style pop songs like ‘April Fool’, ‘This Is the Girl’ (for Amy Winehouse), ‘Amerigo’, and the elegaic waltz  ‘Maria’ (written for her friend, the actress Maria Schneider, and evoking, Smith writes in the sleevenotes, ‘the wanderings of the nameless girl in the desert that Maria portrayed in Antonioni’s The Passenger‘).  ‘Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter)’ is a jam inspired by the free jazz of Sun-Ra and Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film, Ivan’s Childhood, in Patti’s estimation ‘the most beautiful movie about war’.  Its repeated phrase, ‘The boy, the beast and the butterfly’ recalling a key scene in the film.

Ivan’s Childhood

The band really rocks out on the title track and ‘Fuji-san’, a remembrance for the victims of Japan’s Tohoku earthquake.  Patti writes  in the notes to Banga:

On March 11, 2011, Japan experienced the Tohoku earthquake. The concern for our friends and all of the Japanese people led Lenny [Kaye] and I to write ‘Fuji-san.’ It is for them — a call of prayer to the great mountain — for a protective cloak of love.

Hokusai : from Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji

But it is the songs that bookend the album on which I’ll focus in this post. ‘Amerigo’ and the epic ‘Constantine’s Dream’ are romantic critiques of conquest and environmental degradation that spiral out into meditations on art and spirituality. ‘Amerigo’, with a lilting and infectious chorus, extrapolates from letters written by Amerigo Vespucci after discovering the New World. Smith imagines his Catholicism and colonial ideology being turned inside-out following his encounters with its indigenous people.

In this land we placed baptismal fonts
And an infinite number were baptized […]

Ah the salvation of souls
But wisdom we had not
for these people had neither king nor lord
And bowed to no one
For they lived in their own liberty

Vespucci arrives in the New World

Amerigo Vespucci was a Florentine merchant and explorer who led four expeditions in search of a western route to the East Indies in the late 15th century, and whose name was given to the American continents by the mapmaker Waldseemüller.  Patti Smith has drawn on letters Vespucci wrote to those who had sponsored his voyages back in Florence.  This is an extract from a letter to Pier Soderini, Gonfalonier of the Republic of Florence that gives an account of Vespucci’s first voyage in 1497 (known as the Soderini letter).  If his claims are in this missive accurate he reached the mainland of the Americas at least 14 months before Columbus:

They are not accustomed to have any Captain, nor do they go in any ordered array, for every one is lord of himself: and the cause of their wars is not for lust of dominion, nor of extending their frontiers, no for inordinate covetousness, but for some ancient enmity which in by-gone times arose amongst them: and when asked why they made war, they knew not any other reason to give than that they did so to avenge the death of their ancestors, or of their parents: these people have neither King, nor Lord, nor do they yield obedience to any one, for they live in their own liberty: and how they be stirred up to go to war is (this) that when the enemies have slain or captured any of them, his oldest kinsman rises up and goes about the highways haranguing them to go with him and avenge the death of such his kinsman: and so are they stirred up by fellow-feeling: they have no judicial system, nor do they punish the ill-doer: nor does the father, nor the mother chastise the children and marvelously (seldom) or never did we see any dispute among them. […]

They sleep in certain very large nettings made of cotton, suspended in the air: and although this their (fashion of) sleeping may seem uncomfortable, I say that it is sweet to sleep in those (nettings): and we slept better in them than in the counterpanes. […]

They use no trade, they neither buy nor sell. In fine, they live and are contended with that which nature gives them. The wealth that we enjoy in this our Europe and elsewhere, such as gold, jewels, pearls, and other riches, they hold as nothing; and although they have them in their own lands, they do not labour to obtain them, nor do they value them. They are liberal in giving, for it is rarely they deny you anything

In the Mundus Novus or Medici letter sent from Lisbon to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, Vespucci describes a later voyage to South America in 1501-1502. In it, Vespucci gives a description of the Carib people of the southern Caribbean and the northern coast of South America:

Albericus Vespucius offers his best compliments to Lorenzo Pietro di Medici. On a former occasion I wrote to you at some length concerning my return from those new regions which we found and explored with the fleet, at the cost, and by the command of this Most Serene King of Portugal. And these we may rightly call a new world. Because our ancestors had no knowledge of them, and it will be a matter wholly new to all those who hear about them. […]

We found in those parts such a multitude of people as nobody could enumerate (as we read in the Apocalypse), a race I say gentle and amenable. Ali of both sexes go about naked, covering no part of their bodies; and just as they spring from their mothers’ wombs so they go until death. They have indeed large square-built bodies, well formed and proportioned, and in color verging upon reddish. This I think has come to them, because, going about naked, they are colored by the sun. They have, too, hair plentiful and black. In their gait and when playing their games they are agile and dignified. […]

They have no cloth either of wool, linen or cotton, since they need it not; neither do they have goods of their own, but ali things are held in common. They live together without king, without government, and each is his own master.[…]

Beyond the fact that they have no church, no religion and are not idolaters, what more can I say ? They live according to nature, and may be called Epicureans rather than Stoics. There are no merchants among their number, nor is there barter.

And the sky opened
And we laid down our armour
And we danced naked as they
Baptized in the rain
Of the New World

Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map grew out of an ambitious project during the first decade of the 16th century to document the  new geographic knowledge gained from the discoveries of the late 15th and the first years of the 16th centuries. Waldseemüller’s large world map included data gathered during Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages of 1501–1502 to the New World. Waldseemüller christened the new lands ‘America’ in recognition of Vespucci ’s understanding that a continent new to Europeans had been discovered as a result of the voyages of Vespucci  and Columbus. There is only one known surviving copy of the first printed edition of the map which probably consisted of 1000 copies.

Waldseemüller’s map supported Vespucci’s revolutionary concept by portraying the New World as a separate continent, until then  unknown to the Europeans. It was the first map to depict clearly a separate Western Hemisphere, with the Pacific as a separate ocean. The map represented a huge leap forward in knowledge, recognizing the newly found American landmass and forever changing the prior European understanding of a world divided into only three parts: Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Martin Waldseemüller’s world map, 1507

Patti explains in the sleeve notes for Banga:

I misplaced the postcard, and confused by the soldiers’ armour, I was unable to locate it in the realm of Spanish art, yet the image haunted me.  Years later, on a plane to Rome, about to embark on an Italian tour, I mentioned the coveted image to Lenny, pledging I would one day find it. Our tour ended in Arezzo. That night, I had a troubled sleep and dreamed of an environmental apocalypse and a weeping Saint Francis. I awoke and went down to a courtyard and entered a church to say a prayer. I noticed a painting on the back wall. Piero della Francesca had created the frescoes of The Legend of the True Cross. There, in all its glory, was the full image that the postcard had detailed – The Dream of Constantine!

Piero della Francesca Dream of Constantine

The Dream of Constantine by Piero della Francesca in the Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo

As fate would have it, it was in the Basilica of St. Francis. I decided to learn more of his life and contribution and also of the painter of The Dream of Constantine. This opened a period of intense study and pilgrimage.

Our friend, Stefano Righi, guided Lenny and I through the stations of Saint Francis’ life: the mountain where birds covered him, singing, the forest in Gubbia where he tamed a wolf, the frescoes of Giotto and finallyhis magnetic tomb, beneath the lower Basilica ofthe Papal Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. We left the memorial card for our beloved friend, the poet Jim Carroll, who revered Saint Francis.

There are many stories I could tell in the creation of ‘Constantine’s Dream’, but let it suffice that Lenny and I prayed before the painting for the strength to achieve our mission. Lenny conceived of the musical themes and guitar figures, and our band recorded a strong basic track. We then took the track back to Arezzo and recruited the band Casa del Vento, whom I met during a benefit concert for EMERGENCY. The band from Arezzo improvised on the track of ‘Constantine’s Dream’, only steps away from the Basilica of Saint Francis, where the piece was born.

‘Constantine’s Dream’ is an improvised, half-sung, half-spoken meditation, recorded live in the studio, that weaves together Columbus’s voyage to the New World, the life and work of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, the pastoral ideals of St. Francis of Assisi, and environmental cataclysm. It is a major piece of work, exploring the relationship between art, knowledge, spirituality and humanity: rich and compelling, as deep and fully realised as anything she’s ever recorded.

The narrative consists, not of one dream, but a telescopic series of dreams, each one merging into the next like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes. Smith makes connections between seemingly unconnected events; in her hands, time flows like liquid.

In Arezzo, Patti has a dream in which Saint Francis

who kneeled and prayed
For the birds and beasts and all humankind

In the early light, she leaves her room, ‘stepping down the ancient stones, washed with dawn’ and enters the Basilica of San Francesco where she finds peace in a vision of the world of Saint Francis:

I saw before me the world of his world
The bright fields, the birds in abundance
All of nature of which he sang
Singing of him
All the beauty that surrounded him as he walked
His nature that was nature itself

But Patti is senses another call, ‘the call of art, the call of man’ and is drawn to the beauty of Piero della Francesca‘s ‘Legend of the True Cross’, a series of tableaux that includes ‘The Dream of Constantine’, Francesca’s representation of the moment when the crusading Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity after seeing the vision of the True Cross.  Patti here draws on the account of Eusebius, who wrote, ‘he saw with his own eyes in the heavens a trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces or ‘In this sign, you will conquer’.  In her extemporisation this becomes:

And the angel came and showed to him
The sign of the true cross in heaven
And upon it was written
in this sign shall thou conquer’.

From Constantine’s dream, the poem shifts into the dream of the artist:

From the geometry of his heart he mapped it out
He saw the King rise, fitted with armour
Set upon a white horse
An immaculate cross in his right hand.
He advanced toward the enemy
And the symmetry, the perfection of his mathematics
Caused the scattering of the enemy
Agitated, broken, they fled.

Patti sees Francesca wake and cry out:

All is art – all is future!
Oh lord let me die on the back of adventure
With a brush and an eye full of light.

The blind and aged Francesca dies in October 1492, just as ‘a world away, on three great ships, adventure itself’ Columbus arrives on the shore of the ‘New World’. Now, Patti imagines the ecstatic vision of Columbus as he sees the New World for the first time:

And as far as his eyes could see
No longer blind
All of nature unspoiled, beautiful

Columbus set foot on the New World
And witnessed beauty unspoiled
All the delights given by God
As if Eden had opened up her heart to him
And opened her dress
And all of her fruit gave to him

Columbus falls into a sleep and in a dream of his own, sees all of this beauty ‘entwined with the future’ in an apocalyptic vision of nature destroyed – the ‘terrible end of man’, the ‘cross to bear’:

The 21st century advancing like the angel that had come
To Constantine
Constantine in his dream

Oh this is your cross to bear …

All shall crumble into dust
Oh thou navigator
The terrible end of man
This is your gift to mankind
This is your cross to bear
Then Columbus saw all of nature aflame

The apocalyptic night
And the dream of the troubled king
Dissolved into light.

Here, Patti echoes Rousseau’s reversal of the Christian theme of the human fall from grace.  The direction of the fall is reversed: no longer into nature, but into culture.

‘Constantine’s Dream’ is not the final track, though.  The album concludes with Patti’s own haunting take on Neil Young’s visionary account of planetary collapse from the 1970s, ‘After the Gold Rush’, which has ‘Mother nature’s silver seed’ setting off in spaceships to a new home. Patti, accompanied by young children, sings:

Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 21st century…

In the album notes, Patti describes how the last two tracks came into being:

Back in New York at Electric Lady Studios, I summoned all I had experienced in the last year. I considered the night of my apocalyptic dream and finding the postcard image. I thought of the painter who went blind and died October 12, 1492, the same day Columbus set foot in the New World. I thought of Saint Francis and his bond with nature and the threat of environmental devastation in our own century. Surrounded by my supportive camp, I stepped before the microphone. All the research I had done fell away, as I improvised the words, driven by the deep personal struggle of the artist, who by the nature of his calling is obliged to manifest the spiritual as physical matter in the material world.

My daughter Jesse and son Jackson open the Neil Young song. I chose it to follow the dark apocalyptic vision of ‘Constantine’s Dream’, as it offers a new beginning. Tony Shanahan recorded his young nephew Tadhg and friends singing the last refrain. Thus Banga closes with my son and daughter, and the sons and daughter of others – all our children, the hope of the world, embarking on adventures of their own.

At a performance in San Francisco in October 2010, Patti prefaced a performance of her beautiful song ‘Wing’ with a reading of Saint Francis’ prayer.  For the first time I was able to sense the true meaning of his words, free from the defilement that Margaret Thatcher imposed when she intoned them on her election victory in 1979:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Patti Smith’s Banga is, both lyrically and musically, a superb album, bursting with inspiring and challenging ideas.  It comes in a beautiful special edition a 65-page book of original images, complete lyrics, and liner notes by Patti Smith that is a gorgeous artefact in its own right.

See also

4 thoughts on “Patti Smith’s Banga: new lands to be explored

  1. Thanks for this review Gerry – I like the in depth Amerigo and Constantine’s Dream bits especially. Why do a lot of your images always get blocked out? Is it because of copyright issues? I’ve noticed it before.

  2. Thanks for your response, Diana. I’ve looked at this post on someone else’s PC and the images load fine. I don’t think it can be copyright – apart from the album cover, the other images are Wiki commons ones from Wikipedia. Recently I’ve been ‘repairing’ some of my posts, especially the Mersey & canal walks ones, because the links to the images (which were on my Facebook page) had unaccountably broken – I think FB must have altered links when the timeline was introduced last year. Damn nuisance!

  3. When you say the last 3 – do you mean the 3 YouTube videos? If so, then that really might be something to do with your PC setup – perhaps a missing plugin for your browser?

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