The “Summer Cannibals” of Patti Smith

A sepia-tone album cover of the album Gone Again. Patti Smith stands in front of a blank wall with her hand down and her hand to her face.

In this article, I tell the story of how I came to love Patti Smith’s song, “Summer Cannibals,” which became an ongoing presence during a particularly challenging period of my life. In writing this piece, I realized that even though the song is filled with foreboding imagery, it is ultimately a song about rediscovering your own strength, and perhaps, your own sanity.

Gone Again

I first met Patti Smith through her writing. Of course, I’d heard, and even performed, “Because the Night,” but I didn’t really know anything else about her. However, when I read Just Kids in 2011, I contemporaneously explored her musical catalogue. I started with her debut album, Horses, which I loved and enjoyed. But as I moved through her discography, I discovered her 1996 album, Gone Again, and for the first time, connected with her music in a direct, visceral manner.

Patti Smith stands in a brightly lit room. Her mouth hangs open, as if singing, and her eyes are closed. Patti's hair is in three long braids and much of her hair covers her face.
From Patti Smith’s “Summer Cannibals” music video.

Gone Again is an album about death, grief, and loss. It was written after Smith tragically lost several significant people in her life, including her husband, Fred Sonic Smith, her brother, Todd, her life-long artistic collaborator and former companion, Robert Mapplethorpe, and her pianist, Richard Sohl. (The album also includes “About a Boy,” written about Kurt Cobain’s untimely death, and “Beneath the Southern Cross” features Jeff Buckley’s final studio performance).

I can only imagine the emotional and psychological impact of losing several people you love in almost rapid succession. But Smith, being the steadfast, relentless worker that she is, tapped into a deep well of creativity to explore and express the various facets of grief and longing.

After the release of Gone Again, Smith and her band hit the road for their first tour in many years. Much of this is documented in Steven Sebring’s poignant documentary, Dream of Life, which was filmed over roughly 11 years of Smith’s life.

But I digress. The cannibals are waiting.

Cannibals of the Mind

I’ve always been fascinated by cannibals.

Maybe it started after I watched Silence of the Lambs when I was 12 (which I continued to watch every week for almost a year). Maybe it was the recurring dreams of cannibals I had my sophomore year of high school (they carted me around in a cage while they ate suburban families). Or maybe my affinity for cannibals stems from something within my own psyche.

Maybe, unconsciously, I invite others to consume me. Maybe I salt my own flesh, lace my heart with herbs, and cook myself just enough to scent the air and invite a salivating monster to fulfill—what? An unconscious death wish? A compulsive enactment of something horrifying but familiar, perhaps from childhood? Who can say?

The real question is: What does it mean for a person to eat another person?

Cannibalism as I understand it—which I’m going to call “psychological cannibalism”—is the experience of being utterly consumed, swarmed, outnumbered, and overwhelmed and being unable to do anything about it. It’s a panicked, visceral fear of death precipitated by a sense of dread and powerlessness, and in specific, imagistic terms, results primarily from the actions of other human beings. Including oneself.

This is where my story begins.

Summer of Solitude, Hunger, and Rage

In the summer of 2011, fifteen years after Gone Again was released, I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico in a tiny casita. That summer was hot, hotter than I’d expected, and the air was, at every moment, intensely dry.

Friends who’d assured me they’d stay for the summer all left town. Networking contacts were unresponsive. Job opportunities vanished. A performance space I’d volunteered for shut down before the summer ended.

There were at least two forest fires that summer, and one of them almost burned several barrels of radiated material in Los Alamos. I was warned by a local: “If even a fragment of that stuff gets burned up and spills into the air, you’re pretty much guaranteed cancer.”

If it isn’t already obvious, let me restate that this was not the fun summer I had hoped it would be. I was 21 and yearned for adventure, and even the familiar places around town or in New Mexico would have sufficed. But the summer ended up being significantly more solitary. I had very little money and saw very few people. I lived like a monk.

At the time, I was in college studying music composition and performance, but leading up to the summer, I’d felt I was entering a receptive period, a time where I would simply read, watch, listen, and take things in. I told people, “I don’t plan on writing music this summer. I think I’m just going to wait.”

I was very wrong.

Once I read Smith’s book, Just Kids, and started listening to her music, I realized I needed to create every day, even if it wasn’t in the form of music. I bought a large multimedia sketch book and began painting with watercolors, drawing with oil pastels, and writing, often on a single page. Later, I did end up writing music, and composed two of my favorite songs to date.

Thanks to Smith, the soundtrack of my summer was Gone Again. I listened to it everywhere, whether I was driving around town, lying in bed, or sitting outside. I couldn’t get enough of it.

In a literal sense, there was no real connection between the album’s content and myself: I hadn’t lost any loved ones and was not (consciously) dealing with any grief, but at some point, I realized I was living inside the album. My world was arid and barren. Everything around me and within me felt raw, every interaction had a sharp edge, every word and every glance was filled an unspoken intensity and a subtle rage, and throughout it all, I was so hungry. But in the solitary moments of creation, there was humor, a little levity, and a few fleeting moments of clarity and calm.

Eat the Summer Cannibals

Although I loved the entire album, but the song I listened to more than any other was “Summer Cannibals.” I consumed it daily, sometimes hourly, as if it was the food and companionship I craved. In a way, it did feed me, and for that I am grateful.

Musically, the song is quite simple. It’s three chords, repeated in a rotating pattern. The order of the chords gets flipped around, back and forth, the entire song. As far as the underlying musical structure is concerned, that’s basically it. But Smith’s vocal intensity grows as the song progresses, and her guttural gnawing howl of “Eat! Eat!” as well as her ferocious delivery of “descending into hell” brought me into a state of furious joy I had forgotten existed.

In this song, Smith metabolizes her rage by being consumed by it. After strange women and men encircle her like snakes and taunt her like hyenas, she awakens. Her sense of self-agency returns, and she knows she’s had enough. In the final verse, she sings, “I opened up my veins to them and said ‘Come on, eat!’” Now, Smith taunts her hunters, and pushes against the cannibals. Her strength has returned.

One of my favorite moments in “Summer Cannibals” is the last verse. The combination of the lyrics and Smith’s vocal give us the sense that she has truly, on every level imaginable, had enough. Her voice begins to waver, as if drunk; you can feel her spinning and shaking, until finally her energy centers itself again, erupting in the final cries:

‘Cause I was down in Georgia

and nothing was as real

as the street beneath my feet

descending into hell.

A close-up black and white image of Patti Smith biting into the crook of her arm in the Summer Cannibals music video.
From Patti Smith’s “Summer Cannibals” music video.

In this torrent of emotional expression, Smith helped me pull my attention inward. Instead of blaming the world—social disappointments, lack of job opportunities, the dissolved internship—I could see how angry I really was, and I was able to recognize the physical, creative, and relational hunger that was steadily consuming me. I saw, quite clearly, that I was slowly being eaten alive by my own life.

After playing victim for many months, I realized I was psychologically cannibalizing myself. I was eating myself alive with repetitive thoughts, fantasies, and fears, largely derived from a bedrock of unconscious rage. Once this realization began to surface, it was late summer, monsoon season, and finally, after months of relentless aridity came the relief of rain, the blessed moisture, the soothing sound of falling water.

After Summer, the Fall

After summer, I repeatedly returned to “Summer Cannibals.” Early in the fall semester, I played a piano and voice rendition of the song at our college’s weekly open mic night. I prefaced the performance by saying, “This is how my summer was.”  After seeing me growl into the open lid of the piano, a friend came up to me after the performance and said, “Well, that felt real.”

Even then, my dreams and illusions were dissolving, my life plans were becoming unhinged and collapsing in on themselves. I knew that I would not pursue a full-time career as a musician, but I still had another year of schooling: one more year to pretend that it was what I wanted, one more year to ignore the ever-accumulating student loan debt, before everything I had ignored would finally rear its head and consume me in a fiery wave of panic, in the scrambling futility of online job applications, being forced to move back into home I loathed, haunted by the looming presence of my father, both the actual person and the father of my mind, chanting and chiding me at every turn: “Get a job. Get a job. Get a job. Get a job. Get a job.”

In the winter of 2012, months before I moved back home, I attempted to record “Summer Cannibals” in a studio on campus. Well, I did record it, I just wasn’t satisfied with it. I could tell, even as I performed it in the studio, that I was holding back. I couldn’t let the rage out of my body, and at the time, I didn’t understand that when you don’t let these things out, you become ill, either physically, in your attitude and behavior toward yourself and others, or all the above.

Smith’s song, and her album, provided a much-needed scaffolding for my mind and my emotional life during a particularly difficult period. Eventually, I was able to recognize the grief and rage trapped in my mind and body, but it took almost the entirety of my 20s before I was able to effectively lance a lifetime of psychic boils and discharge a virulent stream of psychological pus.

Bon appétit, friends.

Postscript: Other Voices

After I finished writing this piece, another memory surfaced:

I am in my casita in New Mexico, singing and playing “Summer Cannibals” on my keyboard. When I start singing the chorus, something happens in my stomach. I gag, dry heave, and cough. My eyes water, and I stop playing. I try to sing and play again. More dry heaving. I stop trying to play. I give up.

A few weeks later, in early autumn, I encountered a voice teacher on my college campus. I asked her about my dry heaving issue: “Have you ever heard of anything like this before?” She paused, then confidently said, “No.”

Although I returned home with few answers, I sensed that this mysterious occurrence was a psychological phenomenon that was expressing itself physically, rather than a purely physiological issue.

Maybe whatever was trying to force its way out of my gut was just singing its own song the only way it knew how. And its song was impossible to ignore: it physically interrupted my attempt to sing a song about being eaten, about literal and metaphorical cannibalism.

Perhaps this musically-induced regurgitation was my body’s attempt to purge the experienced-but-unremembered feelings of psychological cannibalization stirred up by the song. These feelings occurred so early on in life that they did not reside within the context of narrative memory, which made them unreachable by my conscious mind.

Instead, these archaic feelings resided in my body. They hibernated in my organs and slept in my bones until a song about cannibals finally woke them up.

Written by Daniel Siuba

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