Rock of all ages
Rock queen Patti Smith gave up a legendary music career in the name of love. Now, after the death of her husband, she is finding a new, formidable voice. She speaks to Toby Manning.
he impact of former punk-poet and
doyenne of the New York scene Patti
Smith can‘t be overestimated. Smith
ripped and snorted through a mid-70s
music scene dominated by generic
West Coast mush and bloated. overblown progressive rock. with an arrogant but winning indifference to the rules of the game.
Where women in rock were either strung-out casualties like Janis Joplin or introspective ingenues like Janis lan. Patti Smith was as lewd as Jagger. as coarse as Jim Morrison and as streetwise as Lou Reed. Where rock and art were supposedly sharply divided. Smith blithely smashed down the barriers. dumb as the New York Dolls one minute. poetic as Bob Dylan the next.
Her stunning I975 debut Horses. produced by the Velvets‘ John Cale. paved the way for New York contemporaries like Television. Talking Heads. Richard Hell and Blondie. and influenced just about everyone from Courtney Love to Jeff Buckley. R.E.M.‘s Michael Stipe said later: ‘The first time I heard it. it was so good I thought I was going to puke.‘ Noiseniks Sonic Youth owe much to Smith‘s second album Radio Iz'tltiopia. as does our own P. J. Harvey. while third album [faster gave Smith her only real hit. ‘Because The Night‘ (ever- contradictory. the punk icon co-wrote her most famous song with Bruce Springsteen).
By Wave in 1979. Patti Smith was a bone tide star. She remembers arriving in Italy and seeing thousands of people on the airport runway. ‘I got off the plane and I got really excited because I thought Sophia Loren or the Pope or somebody‘s here. There were maybe IOO movie cameras and l was peeking round to see who was there — and it was me.‘ She shakes her head ruefully at the idea.
Her self-depreciation is genuine. How else could she have given it all up immediately afterwards to devote herself to motherhood and
marriage — to guitarist l’red 'Sonic' Smith. once of Detroit (ills proto-punks MCS — reappcaring only brieﬂy nine years later with the disappointing Dream (Hid/e. ‘l seetn to have a natural affinity for performing.‘ she says of her ‘retirement‘ period. ‘but I didn‘t miss it. I‘m not like Judy Garland where I need people to tell me they love me so I can exist for another day.‘
And now. just when most fans had given up on her. Patti Smith is back. her muse apparently galvanised by the death of her husband Fred and her brother Todd last year. the end of a cycle of loss that began with the death of long-time friend and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in I989. Not only has she produced her first record since I988 — Gone Again — but she is touring (with Television‘s Tom Verlaine on guitar). writing songs (one on the Dead Man ll/(lllx’lllg soundtrack. a collaboration with Stipe to appear on the next R.E.\4. album). She has a book of poems ottt — The Coral Sea. dedicated to Mapplethorpe — and there‘s even talk of a novel.
We‘ve witnessed so many comebacks and reformations recently. not least of Smith‘s 70s punk contemporaries. that a degree of cynicism is inevitable. Past glories are all very well. but Smith will be 50 this year. not an age noted for the creation of such a youthful form as rock ‘n‘ roll. And given the disappointment of her last album. how could she possibly deliver?
But Gone Again is a worthy successor to her 70s work. banishing the memory of Dream Of Life from its opening salvo of cascading electric guitars. There‘s not a weak point to be found. The deep. rich voice is more affecting than ever. almost honeyed on the more delicate acoustic tracks.
‘Frcd taught me a lot about my voice. and l derived a different kind of confidence from him.‘ says Smith. ‘He also taught me how to play the
‘I’m not like Judy Garland where I need people to tell me they love me so I can exist for another day.’
Patti Smith: tinding a new creative voice
guitar— but all the music I wrote is in waltz time because we didn‘t go any further than that in my lessons before he died.‘
lnevitably. many of these songs are imbued with an aching sense of loss. particularly the beautiful ballad ‘My Madrigal‘. Has scary old Patti Smith mellowed on us'? ‘I did trade some of that really passionate adolescent energy.‘ she says. ‘hopefully for a little more tolerance for my fellow man.‘
That may be so. but for all the acoustic ballads. Smith certainly hasn‘t lost her musical edge. The single ‘Summer Cannibals‘ sizzles away. spitting out sparks of an electric guitar beneath a lyric that ‘bitterly describes the downside of fortune and fame‘. Is it autobiographical‘? ‘lt‘s Fred‘s song.‘ says Smith. ‘I wrote the lyrics. but before Fred died he told me what he wanted in the song. He became famous very quickly and unfortunately when you become famous in the arena of rock and roll you have people offering you things and trying to take from you all the time. It‘s a dangerous game and you have to apply balance. but when you‘re young you‘re not at your most balanced.‘
Hardly surprising. then. that she should have been so affected by the death of Kurt Cobain. recognising much of her husband — and possibly herself— in him and composing the song ‘About A Boy‘ to express her ‘frustration at the waste of a life‘. That song and ‘Fireﬂies‘. which features Jeff Buckley. are the album’s highlights — the kind of guitar-driven. feedback-suffused sonic explorations callower performers might blanche at. Ultimately. as Smith says. ‘The only difference between me and the person who made Horses is that that person had darker hair.‘ Tell ‘em. Patti.
Patti Smith is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Monday 5 August.
The List 26 Jul-8 Aug [996 17 l