Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Teenage Kicks: The Sixties And Me

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Once upon a time people turned out the lights to watch TV and walking down the street I could see shows flickering silver and black in the darkened living rooms. They might be westerns, they might be guys solving problems with a helicopter or scuba gear, but they were always Made In Hollywood USA. There was even a show that put itself squarely in the middle of this magic kingdom: 77 Sunset Strip. They were stories full of V-8 energy and brimming confidence that said: America is the best place on Earth. I wanted to go there. Fortunately, my mother did too. Standing on top of the Empire State Building in 1964 as she stared out across Manhattan she almost hummed, “I’ve wanted to stand here ever since I saw a photo of it being built.” That was 30 years before. Dreaming had turned to plotting and then to action and we moved to Canada and then in 1966 drove across the border into The Land Of Plenty.

It was a time when the whole world hummed with an endless sense of possibility – of gas turbine cars and Moon colonies and things continually getting better. Optimism and promise throbbed quietly in the background of everything, a constant morse code tapping out N-E-W. All of it new: teflon and velcro and non-stick pans, The Beatles’ endless inventiveness and the aural tornado of “The Witch” by The Sonics, films so fizzing you could make one in Spain with an American TV star and an Italian director stealing the plot from a Japanese film and invent a new genre, the geometric space-age fashions coming out of New York with paper dresses and white plastic boots, the mirrors Lichtenstein and Warhol held up to the hot, happy world we lived in. Warhol – he was so modern it hurt, deifying soup cans and reinventing the meaning of celebrity, industriously working in his Factory all painted silver. How space age could it get?!


1966
American life starts in the university town of Eugene, Oregon, a place bubbling with contradictions: Friday night cruising! Art films! Prom queens! Collegiate hipsters! Within a week I encounter something previously seen only on TV and album covers: the American girl.

Golden skin, golden face, golden curves, golden fifteen. She’s kneeling behind me while I leaf through her high school Yearbook, leaning over my shoulder to helpfully point out the tribal codes of teenage life on the western edge of America. Very little of it registers though because I am intensely focussed on her breasts intentionally and repeatedly pressing against my back. Desire, embarrassment and fear choke me in straitjackets of inaction.

Essential things I learn about American girls: They radiate intimidating confidence. They look like the covers of the teen fashion magazines they read. They talk about suicide, debating whether taking pills or drinking bleach is better, all of them knowing someone who knows someone who slashed their wrists but wasn’t serious because they cut this way not that way.

Most important, I grasp that if I want to unhook their bra straps on the back seat of Bryce Butler’s ’54 Cadillac I need to get beyond the British Invasion of the Top 40, past Motown’s sound of young America, to the esoteric fields of guitarists John Fahey and Sandy Bull and folk singers Mimi Farina and Judy Collins. All the good-looking brainy girls have these albums stacked by their parents’ KLF stereos. Next to the Web Of Sound spun by The Seeds or The Animals’ fuzz-driven dead-end dramas these records are anaemic and interminable, with zero electricity. But if “liking” this music will get me to second base….A smart youth would try and work out what it is that speaks to these girls, but I’m not smart.

These artists are where owning LPs start and stop, other than The Beatles of course. It’s all 45s. Dylan is college stuff, ignored except for his novelty hit, “Rainy Day Women”. The closest sound to a folk artist is Janis Ian on the radio, which plays a continuous soundtrack of brilliant teen experience and aspiration. As Sonny And Cher so wisely sing, “Teenybopper is our new born king, uh huh.”

Then Aftermath appears. At a party shortly after, everyone stops making out in the darkened rec room and fills the dance space, the whole room singing, thrilling on the excitement of The Stones, the successive brilliant sneering explosions, building to the floor-filling, teen-singing, sheer 11 minute brand-newness of “Goin’ Home”, then stepping outside to the jet-age shape of Dad’s new E Type Jaguar glinting in the night. I tell you, the future is an amazing place.

American high school is like heaven with teachers. Everyone drives to school. Sports come with Colgate-smile cheerleaders in tight sweaters routine-dancing to “Night Train”. You can wear what you want. You can mix up drugs in the chemistry lab.

That’s what Kyle does: distils amphetamine hydrochloride after school when the teachers aren’t around. But Kyle is a closeted braniac and his drug choice has nothing in common with the few thespians in the Drama/Art gang increasingly curious to try marijuana, which they’ve learned, despite the warnings in the anti-drug films shown in PE class, doesn’t turn you into a heroin-seeking addict with just one puff.

It’s October and sketchy descriptions of some new people in San Francisco called Hippies are flowing north. Sitting on the hall steps one lunch hour, the hippest of the drama kids is talking about a mysterious drug called LSD that sends you “on a trip”. Cautiously, my girlfriend asks, “Is that what they call ‘psychedelic’?” It sounds exciting, very different from the space-age underground circling around Andy Warhol in New York.

Soon after, LSD advocate Timothy Leary comes to town on a tour promoting the drug as the modern way to talk with God. When I enter the basketball court where he’s appearing it is entirely dark except for one candle in front of Leary. He sits on the floor, sprinkling his sexy pitch with jokes and a light dusting of academic seriousness, his radio-announcer voice riffing in the near-blackness on an ad slogan for the decade: Tune in, Turn on, Drop Out.

Then Ken Kesey shows up, Leary’s psychedelic salesman alter-ego, but without Tim’s patrician looks or smooth charm, and he’s saying acid is for having parties with God. He’s followed by Andy Warhol, who doesn’t say anything at all. A few weeks later it’s discovered that Warhol sent an impersonator and the real Andy is forced to appear. He says even less.


1967
We’ve locked the door and put a towel on the floor to block the crack, sitting in a circle as someone knowledgeable lights a thin joint of Mexican marijuana and teaches the right way to smoke it. The inhale-pass-hold ritual emphasises the entry to a very secret, very small group doing a go-to-jail activity. As it becomes a regular weekend and summer vacation enterprise, some of my friends graduate to the small purple pill. Everyone knows the best LSD is Purple Owsley. It’s Holy Grail legendary and possibly as insubstantial; instead the intrepid voyager seeks Purple Doubledomes and then later Purple Haze. Older, more responsible college people get concerned and nurse-like at parties when they find that some of the sixteen year olds are tripping but the high-schoolers treat it as just another Saturday night, with added electricity.

In January a Psychedelic Shop opens, filled with trip glasses and liquorice rolling papers and hallucinatory posters from the San Francisco dance halls and this Hippie thing is looking very new and very attractive. The media shrieks like the whole of young America is lolling around in a crashpad full of drugs and free love but when I look around my school of 1500 there are about 12 of us learning how to ‘maintain’ when high in front of our parents.

In San Francisco for Easter, I go to my first “proper” concert, Big Brother And The Holding Company at the Avalon Ballroom. The Avalon is up a wide staircase with red wallpaper leading to a large dance floor bathed in early evening sunlight. The people are mostly Hippies with really long hair, wearing beads and bells and anti-War badges and bright clothes that didn’t come from a department store.

Big Brother is just what a music-mad rock kid wants: driving, good looking, loud. Janis-Joplin-Media-Star hasn’t been invented yet and she’s just the singer, not the spotlight. I’m more interested in guitarist James Gurley, who looks rockstar cool with high, chiselled cheek bones and fantastic feedback. When I dream of being a rock star I look like him. They sing a song about the bands in San Francisco and mention the Avalon; places in songs are always in New York, Los Angeles or England and here’s a song not just about a city I’m in but the place where I am. Groovy!

When Janis announces ‘Ball And Chain’ there’s a cheer, which means it must be special. The next ten minutes are…I have nothing to compare it to. Songs like this aren’t on the radio. Even though it’s early, Janis grabs it and dives in, the guitars building into big balls of noise around her. It is just…wow!





1969
Hollywood! The El Dorado of desire! Driving down Sunset it’s just as Jan and Dean sang in Dead Man’s Curve: “La Brea, Schwabs and Crescent Heights”. 77 Sunset Strip really exists!

By now the Vietnam War has grown from a small news story in ‘64 into an unstoppable mutant virus devouring daily life. There’s always some new guy in school back from the jungles, flinching at loud noises, a shadow with eyes full of tracers and incomings. Because he sits next to me in Art class I’m friendly with one of these zombies, a whispery stick of a boy-man called Dwayne. Give him a joint and the stories leak out, fragments of a life you never want to see; about the Ranger being reamed out by an officer for his long hair, beard, and lack of military uniform, and the guy just pulls out his gun, jams it under the officer’s chin and says, “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t hear you,” and after a silence the officer says, “OK soldier, carry on”; or watching a band play and when a drunken GI doesn’t hear the song he wants, stands up and shoots the girl singer, the bullet shoving her backwards over the drum kit where she dies in her boyfriend’s arms. He always ends his stories with a phrase from The Doors, patron saints of soldiers: “weird scenes inside the goldmine”.

Enough with the serious! All the good-looking brainy girls have Leonard Cohen on the stereo. Even trying not to listen I know every couplet, sitting through his interminable drone in the interests of getting their clothes off. A smart student would try and work out what it is that speaks to these girls, but I’m not smart.

The rock concert scene is really taking off and every chancer with a fistful of dollars is putting on concerts and festivals. In a basketball arena in Fresno I lean my elbows on the lip of the stage and stare an arm’s length from Clapton as Cream rip through a blinding display. A lacklustre Doors play under the stars at the local fairground, Morrison’s hands around the microphone hiding a joint he hits on between verses of “The End”. In Pasadena Led Zeppelin perform in the shed that stores floats for the Rose Parade, Page looking rockgod-cool in Converse, skinny jeans and a beat up leather jacket. Over in north L.A. Hendrix is so bad on the first night of a rock festival that he comes back on Sunday and plays for free.

Guaranteed, though, is The Grateful Dead will be bottom of the bill. Their set is one long medley of strange music that no one applauds. They are easily the most cutting-edge band around and I see them several times in half-empty clubs and halls. Outside of their fans no-one seems to like them and won’t get around to liking them for another ten years.

One appearance is opposite a Christian youth meeting, prompting their leader to write a flyer titled The Grateful Dead vs. The Grateful Alive. He’s part of the New Christianity that’s seeping across the nation. There’s a big market in books by Tibetan gurus and past-life vendors, but the biggest charlatan predicts a new Messiah will come out of the Middle East in the early ‘80s and bring peace on Earth. The Grateful Alive nourish themselves on this, make it their selling point to spread The Word, sucking up school kids in emotional Bible meetings held in homes and empty shops.

It’s an invisible contagion that keeps multiplying until something – a church? a cult? – called The Tony Alamo Christian Foundation starts advocating across L.A. through radio ads. Their hippie-flotsam zealots are everywhere. I’m at a free concert in Griffith Park, marvelling at the Nudie suits on the Flying Burrito Brothers when my view is blocked by twin laser-ray eyes blazing in a bombed out face full of Puritan harangue: “I can see in your eyes you suffer from the sin of pride.” There’s a rich irony here, this grubby urchin earnestly hustling for my soul while Gram Parsons is searching for salvation from a makeshift stage. The flotsam born-agains like to place themselves on the righteous side by saying that Jesus was a despised outcast and rebel too, but honestly, who are you going to follow: a lost, humourless kid who’s been singed by the light or a honey-voiced singer wearing drugs and pussy on his suit?

As Vietnam keeps escalating the sense of war at home intensifies with it. One year I’m listening to Joan Baez advocate peaceful dissent and sing some songs; the next a Black Panther minister is conveniently claiming all sides of the Bible to simultaneously preach peace and brandish the  sword of vengeance. Since he’s surrounded by grim faced guards carrying rifles, I’m thinking he favours the latter. At an anti-War march adrenalised longhairs scream “Up against the wall motherfucker!” at the police, who suddenly charge into them with batons swinging. I’m on the edge so it’s easy to run away, but these same guys will buttonhole you at school, asking, ‘Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?’

So it’s a surprise when the latest way to Fuck The System is an illegal bootleg record of unreleased Dylan songs. It’s soon followed by an amazing document of The Stones live and then they’re everywhere. There’s something outlaw and romantic about bootleg records and if you can’t find them the FM rock stations are playing them anyway. They literally bear the rubber stamp of amateurs, but you know the trend is getting serious when a bootleg of The Band at the Hollywood Bowl is released on Rubber Dubber Records with a “proper” cover. It even has liner notes.

The Rubber Dubber is a guy called Scott and it’s his mission to produce high quality bootleg recordings. His hair is swept straight back to his shoulders, a trim beard and glasses obscuring his age, but in this new era we’re all under 30 anyway. We strike a business deal because we both have what the other wants: I know lots of music magazines to publicise his records and he has money. It’s new capitalism!

Scott lives in the hills above Echo Park, a cheap-rent district popular with hippies, hungry musicians and Mexicans. You don’t live there if you don’t have to, which is possibly what makes it attractive to a fugitive. When I arrive for our first meeting it is another beautiful LA sunset with the air glowing golden and the sky still blue. His house is non-descript, like all the others on the street. I step into a sparsely furnished living room with a wooden floor and windows along the front and side. Leaning against each window sill is a high-powered rifle, the dark wood stocks and black barrels stark against the white paint of the window frames and walls.

“We’re practising for when The Revolution comes and we have to off the pigs,” are Scott’s first words to me. I can’t tell if he’s serious; I’ve been experiencing this Come-The-Revolution malarkey for years and even with guns against the wall it still feels like some kids playing cops and robbers.

What he is serious about is how he makes money. “You better understand, we’re criminals. It’s what we do.”

Supposedly Scott is an ex-Seal, the Navy version of the Green Berets, and can short-circuit a city’s power supply with a ballpoint pen. It’s hard to equate from his average height and chubby frame whether this is true, but underlying his general cheeriness is a steely quality that belongs either to a commando or a criminal. Maybe both.

His partner Steve projects no such doubt; he looks like an outlaw through and through. Tall, hard, with long black hair and trimmed beard, for all his smiling affability I can easily imagine him hanging out with bad people. I have to ask him what’s hanging on a thin silver chain in the V of his open necked denim shirt: it’s a silver coke spoon. There’ll be a lot more of that in the next few years.

We tape concerts with a shotgun microphone and a high quality tape recorder concealed in a rucksack. Scott buys a whole row of tickets so that tape reels and equipment are hidden among 15 people. He loves to talk, explaining how to smuggle pot from Mexico, how to  commit corporate fraud without detection, how to hack airline computers and book free tickets, how he’s been hanging out with the Stones to make sure they have the best drugs in town. I figure the last story is just dealer bullshit but then a photo is published in Rolling Stone that shows him up at the Stones hideaway talking at Mick Jagger. He must believe the over-quoted lyric of the day, “to live outside the law you must be honest.”

Rubber Dubber HQ is an anonymous warehouse downtown. It’s almost completely empty except for some old desks and 5,000 Led Zeppelin albums awaiting distribution. No-one ever arrives unannounced so some dark suits and short hair coming through the door is not good. It’s like a movie as badges flash and they confiscate the Zeppelin LPs. Seamlessly Scott becomes a half-vacant hippie employee, telling them his boss is out somewhere. He actually helps them load the LPs onto a truck. Ten minutes later the building is abandoned and Rubber Dubber Records is history.


1971
Hippie is dead and now we’re ‘freaks’. We’re everywhere. Oddly, here on the experimenting edge of America, looking forward means looking back, dressing like an Old West pioneer in denim, turquoise jewellery and fringe suede jackets and “getting back to the land”. It’s hard to remember how far we are from the space-age edge of a few years ago.

The entertainment industries have mutated to embrace us. When Hippie exploded the record companies created the position of Company Freak so someone could explain how to dig the new scene. Now they’re all from the new scene and they’re taking over. The children of The Beatles and The Stones sit in wood-lined offices where it’s always night, their desks lit by pools of light from lamps draped with shawls. Creative Director Walter Wanger kits out his office to look like a kitchen, with a stove and everything, but people start treating him like their mother, so he changes it to look like a bar, and now they’re telling him all their problems. In certain positions a new type of woman is prominent. They don’t hide their confidence in front of men, pass around to each other the guys who are good in bed, and aren’t afraid to show their education. Liza was deported from South Africa for carrying dynamite for the ANC. Eve played chess in the nude with Marcel Duchamp as an art piece. Bobbi is Tinseltown royalty, the niece of Hollywood publicist-king Warren Cowan. One hot afternoon in her perma-night office she muses over what to do.

“I can’t decide whether to go to a movie or get laid.”

Without looking up her assistant decides. “Go to a drive-in. Then you can do both.”

There’s a feeling of new power in the air. The music penthouses are being gate-crashed by arriviste tycoons of teen; David Geffen and Elliot Roberts are starting a record label called Asylum. Geffen has courted the warm searchlight of publicity ever since he charmed Columbia Records into giving Laura Nyro and him shares in the company as part of her record contract. Now he’s not just part owner of a record company, he is the record company. Elliot Roberts is almost the anti-Geffen, a publicity shunning shadow behind his artists Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, their credibility and status, which far-outstrip their modest record sales, a credit to the prowess of their manager. In the dark offices the creative elite celebrate the new tycoons in town, hoping that it’s just the beginning and the Geffen-Roberts success will trickle down to fertilise their own greed.

Yes, it’s a new decade, a new order and a new band. The Eagles are made up of guys you’ve seen around town, toting their guitars and satchels of songs in pursuit of fame. Asylum is launching them at The Troubadour, a venerable club that is Ground Zero for the new decade’s music. From this room Elton John made his LA debut and Jackson Browne introduced his inner observations. The various Eagles have spent years here, elbows on the mahogany as they hustled drinks, hustled women, hustled men who could change their lives.

The club has a stage against one wall and booths along the back and side. What would be the dance floor is filled with tables running out from the stage, placed so that if you sit here you twist to one side to watch the music. I am sitting right next to the stage, at the feet of Randy Meisner, so close that I can see the nuances of lyrical emotion running across his face as he sings. But there aren’t any. Instead he is fixed in a permanent smile, a breezy countenance to match the mood of their cheery songs. Along the edge of the stage the other guys are grinning too, only Don Henley at the back looking stern as he sings and drums. All around is happiness, the invited audience cheering and whooping and applauding the nostalgic tapestries about James Dean and old Chevys and some girl in Winslow, Arizona. New York rock critic R. Meltzer is opposite me. He doesn’t disguise his boredom, slow hand clapping out of time with the crowd. Then, in the middle of a song, chin on hand, he picks up his beer bottle and starts banging it in slow repetition on the table. Meisner looks down, stares at him while he sings, then flicks his eyes back up to the adoring crowd and wipes the guys at his feet from his mind.

To be honest it doesn’t feel like the start of a new decade, instead we’re exhausted by the last ten years. To quote the band who will become the soundtrack  of the American ‘60s, “what a long strange trip it’s been”. Personally, I’m suffocating under the denim and calming nostalgic music: “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain”? Get an umbrella. So I’m moving to London ostensibly to go to film school, but whenever I tot up the reasons to move top of the list is the fact that my favourite bands and musicians are British. I’m particularly interested in David Bowie. I read that he’s cut his hair and dyed it orange and has a new album about an alien rock star. That sounds modern.


[First published in The Word, July 2011

Friday, 28 October 2011

Rock Shrine No. 1 - 12

Rock Shrine No. 1 - The 2 I's [Cliff Richard and The Shadows]

The Two I’s was the birthplace in the 1950s of British rock and roll. In this coffee shop's tiny basement Cliff Richard and the Shadows were discovered. So were Tommy Steele, Joe Brown, Mickie Most and two synonymous with later styles, Paull Gadd (aka Gary Glitter) and Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore.

The Two I’s features in Stoned, the first volume of Andrew Loog Oldham’s wonderful memoirs, since it’s central to the film Expresso Bongo, a seminal event in young ALO’s life. It also features in the film Absolute Beginners.

These days it is an Italian restaurant.


Expresso Bongo

The 2 I’s, 57-59 Old Compton Street, London, W1D 6HP

Map Location




Rock Shrine No. 2 - Abbey Road [The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Oasis]

The most famous building on the most famous street in Britain. This is EMI Studios, Abbey Road. Converted from a Georgian house to studios in 1931, nearly every artist on EMI until the 80s recorded here. It is of course most famous as the recording home of The Beatles. The zebra crossing that appears on the cover of ‘Abbey Road’ is about 100 feet up the road to the left of the photo.

This is Studio 2, where The Beatles recorded nearly all their albums and Pink Floyd several of theirs (including Dark Side Of The Moon). This is also where Cliff Richard and the Shadows recorded ‘Move It’, the first British rock and roll single. The room is almost exactly as it was 40 years ago – the rest of the building is very different, especially Studio 3, where a lot of the last two Beatles albums were recorded.

The stairs lead up to the control room. I was once told that Paul McCartney was so used to this studio he had a photo of the room taken from the window of the control room and a fake window with the view put into his own studio so he could feel comfortable.

Paul shows Ringo and George Martin how you make a hit record…


Abbey Road Studios, Abbey Road, London NW8 9AY

Map Location



Rock Shrine No. 3 - The Saville Theatre [Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles]

In 1967 this was the Saville Theatre, where Brian Epstein promoted a series of concerts.
A young Peter Gabriel saw Otis Redding here. It’s most famous for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. ‘Sgt. Pepper’ had been released two days earlier and Jimi kicked off the 
show by playing the title song while Lennon and McCartnery watched from the audience.


The Saville, 135 Shaftsebury Avenue, London WC2H 8AH

Map Location


Rock Shrine No. 4 - Friar Park [George Harrison]

Henley is a beautiful town on the River Thames where several stars and artists live. Both Dusty Springfield and George Harrison were residents, though it’s a safe guess Dusty’s house was more modest.

In the old days the main road to Oxford went past George’s gaff and it was a busy road. Now it is bypassed. From the road all you see is 1/2 a mile of wall (literally), and a couple of gate houses – extraordinary examples of rococo Arts & Crafts. What a sight to greet you on your return home!


Friar Park, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

Map Location



Rock Shrine No. 5 - Great Marlborough St. Magistrate Courts [Sid Vicious]


The photo is of a hotel lobby but in 1976 it was a Magistrate’s court. But not just any court. This is the location for several very famous rock star busts in the 1960s involving various Rolling Stones and Beatles. But more than that...

In 1835 Charles Dickens worked here as a court reporter. In 1895 Oscar Wilde filed libel charges against the Marquess of Queensbury, leading to the famous court case that ruined him. In 1963 Christine Keeler was in court over charges that led to the Profumo affair and the collapse of the government. That's some history.

But about those rock stars…

1969: Mick Jagger was fined £200 for drugs charges
1970: Case against John Lennon for exhibiting pictures which were too sexually explicit in the London Art Gallery dismissed.
1970: Artist Francis Bacon accused of possessing cannabis
1971: Songwriter Lionel Bart charged with possessing dangerous drugs
1973: Keith Richards was fined £205 for possession of marijuana, heroin, mandrax, a revolver and an antique shotgun.

He’s So Vicious

At the 100 Club Punk Festival Sid Vicious was arrested and the next morning appeared at this court. He sat in the dock about where the person is with the suitcase. His face was a puffy mass of bruises from where the cops had been banging his face into a table at the station the night before. He was remanded to Ashford Juvenile Prison, an experience that really scared him because those kids weren’t playing.

For him to get bail someone had to put up a surety – a backup in case he did a bunk. Because I believed him innocent and the cops arresting him had openly broken the law, I put up my house as security. The bail was set at £1,500 – the house was only worth £11,000, so a pretty hefty bail amount. A week later he was back in the same court and his face was still all blue from the bruises. Trial date was set for a few months later.

The trial happened right after the Pistols came back from Sweden. When I got to the waiting room Sid came over, beaming, and with a big smile introduced his new girlfriend. He was really, really happy. Nancy was as nice as she could be but in 30 seconds I was thinking ‘Oh boy…’ and everyone else was thinking the same. The judge ruled ‘not guilty’.

Now known as The Courthouse Hotel, it is opposite the top end of Carnaby Street, just around the corner from the London Palladium.

Courthouse Hotel, 19 – 21 Great Marlborough Street, London W1F 7HL

Hotel Web Site

Map Location



Rock Shrine No. 6 - The Roxy [The Clash, Johnny Thunders]



In 1977, this window was the entrance to The Roxy, the coolest punk club in town. (It was the only punk club in town.) Through the door you went downstairs to a functional-cool big room, with the stage at the front and the bar at the back. Don Letts spun the discs between bands and filmed everything with his 16mm camera. If you go downstairs in the shop, imagine a couple of hundred punks jamming to The Clash and Johnny Thunders. It’s at 15 Endell Street, two or three blocks from Covent Garden tube station. Opening night at The Roxy:


The Roxy, 15 Endell Street, London WC2H 9BJ

Map Location



Rock Shrine No. 7 - CBS Studios [The Clash, The Stooges]

This building used to be CBS Studios.

Hundreds of bands and artists have recorded here but today let’s talk about four. The Stooges recorded Raw Power in Studio Three. The Clash recorded their first album in the same studio. They also recorded a number of singles, including White Man In Hammersmith Palais. Mott The Hoople recorded "Roll Away The Stone" and "All The Way To Memphis". Happy Mondays recorded Gonna Step On You Again.



In the 80s it became an independent studio – Whitfield Street Studios – under the ownership of famed producer Robin Millar. Unfortunately, the last recording session was on 29 September, 2005. It is now empty.

CBS Studios, 31 Whitfield Street, London W1T 2SF

Map Location



Rock Shrine No. 8 - The Pavillion [The Beatles]


In 1964 this was the location for the premiere of The Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night. It is now a shopping mall called the Trocadero. Located on Picadilly Circus. The Pavillion, Picadilly Circus, London W1D 7DH

Map Location


Rock Shrine No. 9 - Regent Sound [The Rolling Stones, The Kinks]

Regent Sound is where The Rolling Stones recorded all their singles and albums until they moved operations to RCA in Hollywood. All the great first singles, those hot r’n’b numbers that make up the first album…This is where they were made. Many other "beat boom"groups recorded here as well. Most notably The Kinks, whose records made at this studio got the attention of Jimi Hendrix. When he first met guitarist Dave Davies he wanted to know how Dave got the sound on the solo of "You Really Got Me". Today it’s an instrument shop and very aware of its history. Inside is a wall of period clippings and photos of the Stones and other groups who used the studio.


The window is currently Beatles themed. The Rickenbacker is a 1964 model of the type used by John Lennon in that year. Yours for £1499, about $2800. Next to it is a 65 blue Fender, the same as used by John and George in 1965, the first time (the card helpfully says) they used Fender guitars. It’s £1400 or $2800.

Regent Sound, 4 Denmark Street, London WC2H 8LP

Map Location



Rock Shrine No. 10 - 6 Denmark St. [Sex Pistols]

6 Denmark Street was the home of Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook in 1976. They lived in a pretty disgusting room on the first floor. It was also a rehearsal space in the band’s early days. The building is just a few doors down from Regent Sound. (See Rock Shrines No. 9.) The building and windows look much cleaner than they do in reality. It still looks like a disgusting space.


Rock Shrine No. 11 - St. Martins School Of Art [Sex Pistols]


On November 3, 1975, The Sex Pistols played their first gig at St. Martins College of Art and Design. It was arranged by Glen Matlock, who was studying there at the time. They were thrown off before finishing their first song.

St. Martins is on Charing Cross Road, just around the corner from Denmark St.


Map Location



Rock Shrine No. 12 - 100 Club [Sex Pistols, The Who, Kinks]

The 100 Club has a long history. It first opened its doors in 1942 as the Humphrey Lyttleton Club, a jazz club where even Louis Armstrong played.

After 22 years it changed its name to the 100 Club and started booking rock acts, including The Kinks, The Who, The Pretty Things and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Blues giants like Muddy Waters, Albert King and Otis Span have played here. In the early 70s I saw Ian Dury play a number of times in his first group, Kilburn and the High Roads.


On 30th March, 1976, a new band played – The Sex Pistols. The Pistols started a Tuesday residency in May that went through the summer; they became regulars until the end of the year. There were times during the summer that I was standing 20 feet from the stage and I was at the back of the audience.

On 20th September 76, The 100 Club Punk Festival happened: The Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Subway Sect, The Vibrators and French band Stinky Toys. Promoter Ron Watts kept saying there would be 300 to 400 people coming and none of us believed him. When we came to the front door there was a line stretching down the street and around the corner. Those two nights were fantastic – loud, sweaty, exciting, fresh.

The 100 Club continues to present music. In 1982 Metallica did a secret gig. The Rolling Stones played there in the early 80s as well. In 2010 it looked like the club might close. Still owned by the same family they were hit with a big increase in rental fees. As part of the effort to save it Paul MacCartney played. In early 2011 Converse sponsored the club to ensure the club stayed.

Thirty years after the Pistols kicked a musical revolution into action, the club is exactly the same. When so much has been torn down, repainted, made corporate, it’s refreshing to see such sacred ground left alone.

Official web site

100 Club, 100 Oxford Street, London W1D 1LL

Map Location

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Divining Rod And The Lost Vowel. On Tour With The Patti Smith Group



TODAY

In ritual did we seek salvation;
with an act as simple as a needle on a record. Place the disc upon the turntable. The tone arm carefully placed. Flick the lever, watch it falling, the needle touching wax. That sound, of diamond tip touching, is the sound of anticipation running towards the mystery of the first listen. There’s always mystery in the first listen. Will it be worthwhile? Will it reveal itself all at once or slowly over time? Will it reveal anything at all? Will it bring me salvation?

“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”. Sacrilege? Fact? Salvation? Definitely a spectacular opening statement. She strides on. For 40 minutes the needle rides the waves and troughs: spiky sounds and weird smooth noise, proudly stupid songs and sophisticated sonic vistas. It stands outside the traditional forms, and grasps for rare emotions. Then it reaches….

It starts in half-promise, looking for its purpose over tentative, improvised music. The artist doesn’t seem convinced by her poetry. She’s invoking good/bad Johnny, the angel leather jacket boy, and it’s just words. Awkward words, and unsure sounds. Then the music finds a primal pulse and the voice speaks life into Johnny and the velocity is building and
 
Suddenly/ - and her voice mounts the music’s beat
Johnny gets a feeling/ - and it becomes urgent and exciting
He’s surrounded by horses, horses, horses, horses/ - and it’s entering the ecstatic place beyond chords and words
Coming in from all directions/ - and in a tumbling gallop Patti Smith carries you to the biggest continent imaginable, the land of a thousand dances.

Her first album, Horses arrived in Britain in late 1975 saddled with the weight of expectation. For most people it was the first document from the new groups in New York busy deciding what modern Seventies music should sound like. These bands were little more than names that worked the imagination: Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones. Great Britain was a Jurassic landscape in Dickensian thrall, the nation happy for the innards of Bleak House to ooze across the country like primeval tar, sucking down and drowning anything modern. The people who literally and metaphorically owned the land deemed that three TV channels and one popular music radio station (for most of the country) was enough media for modern culture, filtering it for safety through the bog of Light Entertainment, a concept dreamed up to ensure that frivolity was polite and frothy and harmless.

In spite of this the decade had started strongly with T. Rex, Bowie, Mott The Hoople, Roxy Music, Slade and Gary Glitter, but as these teen titans crested into the downside of their creative arc, or moved to Manhattan the better to concentrate on the hearts and minds of young America, nothing had grown to replace it. From Wick to Cam Towen it looked used up, worn out. Into this tar pit land came the occasional report and photos from the stirrings in New York at CBGBs. They were intriguing, but no beacons of hope. The occasional self-produced singles from some of these bands, hunted down in specialist record stalls, were not promising. But Horses came with the imprimatur of a major record label. Everyone could buy it.

Born in 1946, Patti Smith was old enough to know the world before rock and roll. The world before “teenagers”. She read and heard poetry when it was the de facto place to go for rhyme powered truth, when poets dreamed they could change the world, before it was overwhelmed by the iambic pentameters of Chuck Berry and Lieber/Stoller. She understood, in a way that anyone born after “Hound Dog” never could, the salvation offered by the passion of Little Richard, the sexual promise of The Rolling Stones, the white-heat of The Who and Hendrix, and the raw spirit of bands like Them. Her poetic tradition flowed from Blake through Byron and Rimbaud to The Beats and those with the beat: Chuck Berry, Dylan, Jagger and Richards, Tim Hardin, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison….And slowly she started searching for the horizon between them.

At first she thought of herself as a poet. Then, at an important reading she decided to bring to her poetry “the frontal attack of rock and roll”. She asked rock critic Lenny Kaye to add guitar. It worked. He stayed. They started to map a new territory, speaking opium poetry with a rock and roll mouth. Keyboards were added, another guitar, drums. It included her in the CBGB tribe, the only female group leader besides the lipgloss–and–platinum Debbie Harry, whose gossip-point was that she used to be a Playboy bunny, about as far as you could get from the skinny, androgynous, crumpled hair Smith.

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It’s only in the future that we can see what really happened in the present. In 1975 what we think we see is a woman with a Brian Jones haircut and a thumbed-up Season In Hell making an extraordinary music that barely has cult status. What we learn years later is that in bedroom sanctuaries and mental safe-houses and on imaginary guitarland stages, a revolution is starting with an act as simple as a needle on a record.

The misfits and the square pegs are hearing secret alphabets, saying, come, go with me, here are some maps, everyone is a tourist, everyone an immigrant, everyone a stranger. You will get lost, you will have your wallet stolen. Don’t drink the water. Go further! We have remedies and folk songs rearranged and games that kings forbid. Don’t waste the dawn. Progress. The world moves! You are not invisible. Princes and thieves have constructed pyramids in honour of your escaping. What names they have given them! The Frug, The Pony, The Jerk, The Watusi. The Mashed Potato. With raw iron soul they can be yours. Just answer this: Are you worthy to enter? Then gather at the marina and shove off.

In 1971 Smith had co-written Cowboy Mouth, a two part play with Sam Shepherd. Her character kidnaps the other and tries to remake him into her image of a rock and roll saviour. She fails. But life improves on art. People were gathering at the marina; Horses was making the people who dream of being somebody but won’t ever be somebody, into somebody. Michael Stipe called it Ground Zero for a new music, “the defining moment in my life". That’s nice - and there’s no underestimating how many young men put Horses into their music arsenal alongside The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Ramones. But it was women who were most inspired to claim the music and the life as their own – to look artist-thin cool in a black leather jacket and junk store discoveries, to write songs about easy sex and free money, to make three chords soar in feedback joy – to ignore and dismiss the whole male ideal of a female musician – the floaty dresses, the big mascara eyes and the bedroom lips, the sculpted pop hairdo and the straight chanteuse hair, the songs about waiting for her man, getting her man, losing her man, standing by her man…All those…rules.

Power is never given, Smith’s art said. Be responsible for your own experience. The rules are what you make them. You can do the impossible, it’s there for the taking.

By the 1990s so many sassy female groups and musicians existed a cliché tag like Riot Grrl couldn’t corral them all. Stipe was right. Horses was Ground Zero, its influence spreading like virulent half-life radiation. First of all the punk groups: The Slits, The Raincoats and The Bush Tetras, Siouxsie And The Banshees, X-Ray Spex (oh bondage up yours! indeed), Exene and Phranc and the early Go-Gos in LA. Then Chrissie Hynde. Chrissie was a woman you saw around the city, living in a cheap room with a mattress and a guitar and writing songs. She was shy but boy did she have attitude and you never thought for a minute that she wanted to be a star like Joni Mitchell or Carly Simon; she wanted to be a star like Mick was a star or Dylan, in control and calling the shots. Which she became. And then: Courtney Love, Kim Gordon, Polly Harvey, Shirley Manson, Missy Elliott and Queen Latifah, tough-minded business people like songwriter Dianne Warren…Still they come: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Kills, Meg White, Beth Ditto, Adele…each generation continuing to give voice, expression and confidence as the owners of their own destiny.

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In May, 1976, The Patti Smith Group came to Europe on a mad, one country per day tour, their first time on the road. England’s two punk groups The Sex Pistols and The Damned were a few months old and the converted knew every London punk by sight. I was a writer at the music weekly Sounds, living the new sensation and spreading the gospel, so a tour of duty with the group was a natural. However, after the clear-cut manifestos of Malcolm McLaren, The Patti Smith Group was not so simple.

1976

LONDON: A few minutes before The Patti Smith Group is due for a run-through on the TV music show The Old Grey Whistle Test, Lenny Kaye sits on the drum podium, fingers idly walking the unplugged fretboard of a black 1957 Fender Stratocaster guitar. Modestly famous for compiling ‘Nuggets’, an archive album of Sixties ephemera that shows the most important music often happens in the margins, Lenny has recently made the transition from rock critic to rock critic’s wet dream, a full-time musician. Even though the group will only play for eight minutes all their guitars -- the Gibson Firebird, the Les Paul Sunburst Finish, the Cherry Red – are reverently displayed with rock and roll piety. This is it kids, what 2,000 years of Christian civilisation has strived to perfect: the electric guitar.

Drummer Jay Dee Daugherty appears, immaculate in white stovepipe jeans and braces, and after checking his kit picks up a guitar. On the monitor a film clip of Paul McCartney starts crooning ‘Yesterday’. Lenny underpins him with flashy guitar fills. Then from the other side of the podium comes a stumbling run. Never taking his eye off the monitor, Jay unleashes a shaky melody of quaking, out of tune notes.

Ivan Kral and Richard “DNV” Sohl appear and they pick up guitars. It seems you just can’t start the job without being sanctified by the six-string. The band is without attitude, low-key, discussing what and how they will play. This is their second television appearance and it has taken much time to decide the two songs and one of them, ‘Land’, normally goes for 20 minutes.

Patti walks across the studio floor, quite small and incredibly thin. Fiorucci jeans hug pencil legs over boxer’s boots. An ochre coloured Indian shirt that could double as a dress might have been pulled out of Keith Richards’ laundry bag. Her shipwrecked hair obscures Bob Dylan ‘Don’t Look Back’ Wayfarer sunglasses. That is just clothing; what the eye continually falls on is a supple houndstooth cashmere Yves St Laurent jacket, a prize from her belief that when you have some money you should spend it on something very expensive that will make you feel good through the times with no money.

The Old Grey Whistle Test is British TV’s one concession to the belief that rock has become an adult art form. Master of Ceremonies ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris treats music with reverence and expects his musical guests to do the same. A few months before, he famously followed an appearance of the New York Dolls with an apology for their musical noise. Flash clothes, flash moves, flashbulb excitement -- these have no place on the Old Grey Whistle Test, so having The Patti Smith Group on the show is an unusual choice.

In the confines of a stage barely big enough for the group to stand Patti creates great theatre: whipping off her shades exactly as the pulsating intro breaks into ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’, suddenly dropping on her knees in front of Lenny as though to eat his guitar. The cameramen leap quickly but by the time they focus these TV moments have passed. When they draw to a close there is an electric, tangible atmosphere – no-one moves or speaks except for the whisper of Harris from the other side of the studio.

Between takes Harris talks to her. He seems nervous and its easy to see why; a close encounter is like a double barrel shotgun pressed to the temples. Barrel one: she wears the New Yorker’s archetypal belief that they rule the world as only non-native New Yorkers do. Barrel two: she has that confidence, that rock and roll arrogance, so rare in the modern musician, that in stars we call charisma. I mean this as a positive. She’s lively, fast, funny, and uninhibited in the way stars are. Watching a video of Jimi Hendrix laying waste to ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, she whoops and hollers and encourages the boy to rock and roll. Later, Lenny, DNV and writer Paul Gambaccini are discussing old New York doowop hits like true music obsessives and spontaneously start singing a classic tune; suddenly she improvises a verse over it with an ecstatic smile, making it both theirs and her own.

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Because musicians naturally gravitate to clubs, we are sitting at a table in The Speakeasy, a basement Mecca that’s been cosseting rock stars since the 1960s. Cultural giants have rocked on its stage and found sustenance at its bar. Cameras are banned and journalists discouraged. Shenanigans and indiscretions, the metier of the rock star at play, are thus given license and privacy. On this Tuesday night none of these things is happening. Then a tall man enters, sees Patti and warmly says hello. It is obvious from the strut of self-confidence that he is a rock star but his acne scarred face is anonymous. After he leaves Patti reveals: it is Gene Simmons of Kiss, they of the greasepaint faces. In a rock world that values as essential qualities credibility and heartfelt truth, the clownish vaudeville turn of Kiss looks like an easily dismissed joke. It’s not as if they’ve troubled the Top Ten. In an approving tone Patti divulges that last year Gene Simmons made three million dollars. It’s hard to decide which is stranger; that she is a friend of Kiss or that he made so much money.

Being people who are constantly in proximity to wealth while having none, we marvel at Gene’s good fortune.

“I never keep money,” says Patti. “I spend a lot in one day and then scrimp for months.”

”I’d like to have enough money that I didn’t need any more,” says photographer Kate Simon.

“Honey,” comes the reply, “A woman always needs money.”

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PARIS: Two days later. The band has performed in Copenhagen the night before and their equipment is late. Finally, both coincide at the Elysee Montmartre, where the hoarding advertises ‘The Dirtiest Show In Town’. Group is separated from tools by enough crowd spilling into the streets for the police to demand the doors be opened or the concert cancelled. Unknown to the group, a second, early show has been added so without a sound check they perform their debut Paris concert.

It’s a tawdry place, originally a ballroom, with gingerbread ceiling and a minstrel gallery. From the stage Patti surveys the room and reckons this is the kind of place Nijinsky must have danced.

“It’s a strip joint,” yells someone in the audience.

“Well, Nijinsky did a lot of stripping,” she smiles.

Expectantly we watch to see what magic The Patti Smith Group is made from. About the fourth song Patti starts to improvise in verbal cut-up, the music drowning out sentences and thoughts, but others leaping clear: “Don’t you know the blackest thing in Harlem is white?” Between numbers she works hard to establish rapport, making silly jokes, encouraging the audience to make noise and be wild. The reading of Jim Morrison’s ‘American Prayer’ leads into ‘Ain’t It Strange’. It builds, Patti beginning to wail, punching fists and dancing around the stage like a dervish. “This is no avant-garde project of me/ I’m still trying to be your valentine…Everything I’ve done has been with one object in mind/ Deep in my heart I know rock and roll will be beyond poetry/ Beyond soul/ Deep in my heart of me I see a glorious future for me.”

One of their best songs: ‘Radio Ethiopia’, the station for those so over-infatuated with reggae they start speaking Rasta-ese, building from a dubular base to a soaring rock riff and then on into space. Patti chanting: “I take Rimbaud, Artaud, Verlaine/ You take Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison.” Triumphant: “It’s like one big cultural exchange!” Mantra-like: “I take Artaud, you take Jim/ Now I’m back to remerge them.”

The audience is devotional, cheering, calling out, throwing books to her. It is just hot and sweaty and smoky enough and the band just good enough to convince yourself you feel part of the great beast, the vampire animal come to feed its soul with electric megawatt rock and roll input. But really, we all want to make it more special than it actually is.

Unsatisfied with her audience she berates them. “Oh come on man, this is Paris!” When the cheering and celebration dies down she yells over the music, “Paris means nothing to me, Paris is just a word,” and then they blast into ‘Land’ and ‘Gloria’.

As the audience fights its way out after the last strains of ‘My Generation’, two Americans expound to each other.

“Wow,” he says. “She was too much woman for me.”

“Yeah,” she breathes ecstatically. “It was too much, man.”

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With the benefit of a soundcheck the second set is fantastic. Lenny and Ivan work in unison, trading bass chores and often ignoring them, keeping things together with tight, slashing rhythms. Ivan remains more or less where he is while Lenny utilises a rocking sidestep to launch into guitar hero evocations. DNV maintains an almost motionless pose, keyboarding by feel with long, elegant fingers, staring intently at Patti the entire time. Jay kicks the proceedings along with an expression near weeping.

Patti bounces around the stage in her boxer boots, floating like a butterfly, punching the air with her fists, the only clues that one of her icons is Muhammad Ali. By 1976, adoring Ali is a given, but Patti’s identification seems to go deeper.

When Ali first burst into the boxing world as Cassius Clay, the Establishment didn’t respect him as a fighter. Most thought he couldn’t box – a heavyweight was meant to wade in and flatten the other guy and Clay skittered around the ring like a stone across water with his hands at his hips, dancing, dancing, leaning back just far enough when the opponent launched a punch for the glove to miss, then connecting with a flurry of hard punches before floating away out of reach. He was so fast, so pretty, he was the greatest. But as he became World Champion, adopted Islam as his religion, changed his name, Ali demonstrated that he was more than just the world’s most famous athlete – he was a black man who refused to play the white man’s game, who stood up and demanded, in a hostile world, to be regarded on his own terms as a beautiful, successful human being. And he did it, largely, by an intuitive ability to improvise, to react to situations with speed and wit, “the lead actor in his own American drama,” as biographer David Remnick put it. Patti is old enough to have watched this drama unfold as it happened and it’s tempting to think she sees parallels in her own life, not only in the fight for acceptance but also in how the improvisation within the ring matches her own performances.

During ‘Ain’t It Strange’ she starts dancing with Lenny, grabs on to the organ and arches her back, then whirls around in circles until she collapses on the floor. Staggering up to the mike she grabs it and hauls the next verse from deep within her. She begins reading ‘An American Prayer’ over the most evil guitar/bass/drums run. “We are ruled by TV…Give us one more hour to develop our art and perfect ourselves…This is Radio Ethiopia...and you’re on.” As a primal rock riff starts she picks up her guitar and watches Lenny’s left hand intently. She begins playing, stops and clues in again, gives up and repeats the process with Ivan and then spins to the microphone.

“Deep in the heart of any man is the fear. The fear of temporary loss of control!” It’s a triumphant cry, followed by the pick tearing down the neck until she finds the proper fret and scrapes the top string to oblivion. She drops to her knee by a monitor and administers more marrow scraping. The circle of photographers leans in as close as possible, clicking madly.

For the encore the band stand in a line, DNV standing blank faced with a fag hanging from his insolent lips, picking bass guitar with well-developed one finger style. They play a perfect version of ‘Time Is On My Side’, followed by the obligatory ‘My Generation’.

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Post-gig interviews are conducted in a dazed, exhausted atmosphere. Rock et Folk writer Philippe Manoeuvre disdainfully asks about all this Rimbaud shit. Patti ignores the implication of a homeboy dismissing his own poet, replying that it’s not the poetry so much anymore as the life.

Ah yes, the life. In 1976 the conceit of the Artist as a Romantic, living life for Art, life imitating Art, still appeals to those who see themselves as creatively outside the commercial mainstream but still want Top Ten success. The fascination is so strong that musicians even adopt their names -- Tom Verlaine! Phil Rambow! – and you have to admit it does look, well, romantic. Shelley drowning off the Tuscan coast and his friend Byron cremating him on the beach, brains boiling out of the broken skull into the flames; the preening opium addict Cocteau, with a library’s worth of inspirational texts, images and some of the century’s most startling and original films to steal from; a poet here, a painter there, and above all the poster boy, the teen prodigy Rimbaud, with a drug lover’s manifesto espousing a long disordering of the senses – “For he arrives at the unknown!” – abandoning art at 19, shot by his lover Verlaine, then roaming through Algeria and Ethiopia to an early death. It’s a pantheon to aspire to. Even rock bands who see an icon in Andy Warhol and instead practise the concept of artist as businessman, like the Rolling Stones, very ably disguise it behind a screen of romantic outlaw chic.

The Stones are another of Patti’s icons, especially Keith Richards. But then he’s practically everyone’s icon; as early as 1964 Fab magazine called him ‘the mainspring of rhythm and blues’ and by 1975 Sounds journalist Barbara Charone had updated it to, ‘when Keith Richards opens the door, rock and roll walks into the room’. Keith personifies the romance of excessive times, summed up in the 1972 Annie Leibowitz image of him passed out on a backstage chair, pink tinted hair a stranger to a comb, long Moroccan scarf draped around him, ruffled shirt open to the waist, silver cocaine snorter on a chain around his neck. He looked cool.

Between ’68 and ’72 the Stones produced probably the most compelling work of their career. Not just big statements with difficult questions and answers like ‘Midnight Rambler’ and ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, but also gems like ‘Bitch’, ‘You Got The Silver’ and ‘Moonlight Mile’, vivid panoramas both simple and sophisticated (sometimes in the same song) with often brilliant lyrics. If Keith was a truthful compass, the road of excess did lead to greatness.

And here was the crux of Patti’s dilemma. To achieve career sustaining success she had to be a poet in a rock and roll world. Whether the profound simplicity of Little Richard (awopbopaloobop!) or the pop complexity of Smokey Robinson (America’s greatest living poet according to Dylan) or the verbal cathedrals of Dylan himself, all those fabulous meters and cadences were wedded to a beat. Patti had to be in a band.
“I’ve always had Lenny because I needed someone to lean on,” Patti told Rock et Folk. “But what if one night we were both in trouble? So we got DNV. And if DNV was in trouble then we were both in trouble, so we needed another one. One night we were all in trouble and we said, ‘We’ve got to get a drummer to keep this thing all together’.”

In her answers to Rock et Folk and her song choices is perhaps where Patti sees the threads joining up, where it all becomes equal: Keith touring the panelled mansions and concrete arenas of America, Rimbaud touring the hash brothels of Africa, Patti touring the (what exactly?) of Europe.

Paris Arista Records Man takes the band to dinner at La Coupole, dining epicentre of the Left Bank literati. Throughout the meal Patti collapses against the seat, head back, eyes closed, exhausted. When the others decide that Arista Man can take them to the brand-new Club Sept she returns to the hotel. We don’t know it yet but she hasn’t slept since London.

Club Sept is: Very trendy! Very exclusive! Barred to us! But in a world of diminished culture France still respects a poet and eventually our motley group is allowed through the nameless door in the nondescript wall. Around a small dance floor small tables are filled with suited businessmen drinking cocktails with beautiful women checking themselves in the mirrors along each wall. The DJ is playing the music that you’re imagining. When New York rockers dream of night time in Paris, this is not the boite they carouse in.

As dawn tinges the sky Ivan and Richard walk back to the hotel. In the middle of the Champs Elysee, Richard ‘Death In Venice’ Sohl strikes a pose. “Paris at dawn!” he exclaims. “I feel like a photo in French Vogue!”. As a subscriber to “rented chic” – that is, clothes with holes in them – it’s not likely. The veteran of a classical background who didn’t discover rock until age 16, he’s not a devotee to the magic pulse in the way, say, that director Paul Schrader was transfigured on seeing his first movie at 17. Reckons the band moved into rock and roll “because we grew up. As we keep growing we’ll move out of it.”

Back on the avenue at 9am, Ivan ritually films the Arc de Triomphe with the Bolex 16mm camera that is constantly by his side. A Czech who learned to play guitar at 11 and had a smash hit record the same year, he would spend dissident time in New York trying to develop a career and going to Patti Smith gigs, wondering why they didn’t need a really good guitarist, until they asked him to join.

The band gathers in the hotel lobby. Patti arrives last, wearing yesterday’s clothes and looking even worse than the night before. Two people hold her up so she can stand. The band look shocked but no-one addresses her or her condition. In whispers we learn that she didn’t sleep last night. On the way to the airport she pukes. In the waiting lounge she collapses in her seat, Dylan shades in place, Keith scarf around her throat, Ali boots splayed out in front of her. Surrounding her is rock and roll on the road: Lenny asleep, a roadie stretched full out on the seats, people looking dishevelled and dazed. Passengers gape and gawk. It’s hard to see how this road of excess is leading anywhere, least of all greatness.

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BRUSSELS: Five concerts in five countries in five days. It’s ludicrous. The band has been working solidly since Christmas, this Continental jaunt the madcap finale to no doubt necessary overwork. Arista Man says, too, that Brussels won’t be an important gig. “It’s not a major stop on the map but you have to fly over it to go from Paris to Amsterdam so you might as well drop in and play.” Right, just another honky-tonk on the roadmap of Europe.

Lying on her bed all afternoon, Patti talks at length, appearing to say the first thing that comes to mind, contradicting herself every few minutes. It’s an opaque exchange – a conversation needs the chemistry of interaction – but leaning into the bathroom mirror she starts chatting with sparky precision. Perhaps it’s from washing her hair. In those few minutes of mental and physical clarity as eye makeup is applied and lipstick glides on it’s easy to see why she’s been a muse to Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Shepherd; she glows with a unique, luminous beauty.

Patti is mimicking Dylan at his worst in ‘Don’t Look Back’: wired, white, sunk inside her own oblivion, dancing on the perimeter with Rimbaud and Jimbo, where there are no stars, stoned immaculate. It’s ironic she bows down to Muhammad -- Ali is supremely self-disciplined whereas the rest of her gallery of gods are anything but. Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Keith Richard, all have the same life-on-the-edge-of-the-cliff quality. Creating ecstatic visions by destroying the body is a cliché of the worst order, but there’s no denying its fascination. If you’re the perfect artist (or perhaps just lucky) you can make the perfect statement: take it right to the edge, like Mr. Dylan in ‘66, then halt. I was there – I looked into the abyss and have returned, stronger, heavenly with its brilliance, one of the elite. I’m not the average artist going just far enough to say I’ve been there.

It's bullshit. It doesn't make you stronger and the amount of great, or even good art that's come from it is far outweighed by the damage it rationalises.

Or perhaps she’s just dealing with personal problems. Or coping with the road. Who’s to know? The only one with the answer isn’t saying.

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The concert is in a lecture theatre at the university. The stage is six inches high. Fifteen hundred seats ring it in a tiered semi-circle. The audience fills every inch of space from the edge of the stage – sitting on the stage – to the back corners. It’s probably the most perfect viewing situation ever.

The dressing room is subdued, Lenny preparing guitars, Jay changing into a white suit. Jay is the fashion plate of the group, a taste developed in his native Santa Barbara. He’s the only member to have the conventional background of high school groups (including the deliriously named King Tut And The Space Queers), graduating to the big time with The Mumps when its leader Lance Loud was made famous by the TV show, An American Family. Relocated to New York he used to run into Ivan all the time at Patti Smith gigs, “because we both liked seeing her so much, and we’d both be wondering why they didn’t need a really good guitarist and a drummer.” Ten months ago he signed on.

As we talk he says something that will become a punk mantra over the next two years.

“The important thing to remember is that we’re our own best fans.

“There’s always an audience, though we didn’t start out to please anybody but ourselves. This band hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be out there. We’re intent on breaking down the barriers between the two. You don’t really realise what you’re doing; you just go out and do what you have to do. Everybody has his own personal vision – rehearsals frequently turn into group therapy sessions.

“We’re just passing through rock. We’re in a constant state of flux and I’d say that now we’re beginning to leave rock. Europe has given us a big lift. The audiences are much more prepared to accept us. They’ve put life back into our old songs, given them new emphasis. After awhile, singing ‘Gloria’ loses all meaning.”

With stage time imminent Patti ropes in the band. “You guys, tonight’s your night to really push me. Like, if I loosen out on the songs, pretend it’s an instrumental. On ‘Radio Ethiopia’ really listen to the ways you can interact. And don’t forget the feeling that goes with –“ she duplicate’s the song’s great riff. “Listen. If you hear someone taking a solo, complement them. If you hear a leak or trouble, use your own initiative to make it good. But interact, that’s the important thing. Don’t go off on your own stream so much you don’t know what’s happening.”

We go to a concert hoping it will be memorable. That it will be a moment – talked about for years afterwards. Moments happen. You don't choose them. Band and audience and expectation and the sublime all concentrated into a point, a here/now when music lifts beyond chords and amps and swagger to make a connection with the gods and become a walk in heaven. A moment just happens. Tonight is a moment. Tonight is pure, ecstatic, passionate, inspiring.

The feeling of communication among the band flows strongly. Lenny has so much space he’s doing moves that surprise even him. Acting as Patti’s foil, he dances with her, plays for her. When Patti straps on her guitar she watches his hands intently, taking lessons. She cocks her head and then moves a couple of feet, resting her head on Lenny’s shoulder for a minute while he blitzes the audience. The circle of photographers leans in as close as possible, clicking madly. As she begins to improvise she shuts her eyes and gropes for the words, listens to an internal voice as a groove starts, opens her eyes and stares intently into the distance as the words tumble out, then closes her eyes and breaks into a big smile, floating and stinging.

The audience responds from the beginning. She speaks to them in halting French, beaming at Lenny when she gets it right. After ‘Free Money’ they go berserk. Patti encourages the noise, then calms them down. ‘Radio Ethiopia’ is inspired. Tonight, instead of using its normal base upon which to improvise, they kick it out of the way and just soar. At the intro to ‘Land’ the audience starts cheering. The opening riff of ‘Gloria’ brings renewed cheering and mass sing-along. Jay concludes ‘My Generation’ by kicking apart his kit and storming from the stage. No-one leaves, chanting and cheering for more. In Brussels, that minor honky-tonk on the map between Paris and Amsterdam, Patti Smith gets her first taste of outright adulation. For 10 minutes, 1,500 people go absolutely nuts.

Elated fans buzz around the dressing room door, wanting to get in. “You are a friend of Patti Smith?” asks a kid. “Do you know what sign she is?”

“Is Patti fragile?” asks another.

The band sits around a table looking shattered. Patti is triumphant. She is being interviewed by local radio.

“Rock and roll is a logical step from poetry, but do you think that all ze poets of this age should be into rock and roll?”

Patti launches. “Well, as I said on the album cover, the word ‘Art’ must be redefined. The new children are so aware, you know, the beauty, culture, sculpture, drugs, mathematics, sex, death. Children now are units of sensation long before they were…even in my youth. Kids have many, many levels. And I just think that the old definition of anything, the definition of poetry, the old definition of rock and roll is…is…le mort. It doesn’t apply anymore. Things are changing too fast. Rock and roll is getting such universal appeal, such universal alchemy, that we’re getting more power. Rock and roll is getting more powerful than anything before because it’s art that communicates to all men. It doesn’t exclude anyone, there’s no hierarchy. Nobody’s cooler than anyone else.”

Her eyes are closed, the speech somewhat blank, certain phrases coming after slight hesitation.

“It’s all…it’s like…When Jim Morrison said, ‘We want the world and we want it now,’ he was merely asking for what we’re going to be taking anyway. So whether or not we have it right now by having it handed to us doesn’t matter. Eventually we are going to get it anyway. Rip it back. Reform it. Reform having two – you know – ‘re-form’ and ‘reform’.”

Her eyes snap open and she stares into the distance with an expression that says, I said that? It’s impossible to know whether it warms her or scares her.

“Yes,” responds radio guy, “But 10 years ago the people in rock were very much younger, the Stones, the Beatles were kids…”

“Well I’m a kid,” she replies positively. “We’re all kids. You’re a kid until you stop kidding around. You’re a kid until you choose to be otherwise. America has been drenched with the myth of Peter Pan so I have this syndrome that says, ‘You won’t grow up.” She laughs.

In 15 minutes she answers four questions, rambling in an insistent monologue that is hard to interrupt. Inconsistencies slide by.

“What is ze difference between ‘star’ and ‘image’?

“Tonight the people were the stars. To them I was the star. Which is alright if you want to believe in it. I believe in constellations. They’re stars, we’re stars, everything forms when we’re all linking together, having a perfect moment. Like a big bell, you know.”

“Do you think you are a star?”

“No.” She’s very definite about that. “I’m just talking metaphorically. ‘Star’ is a Sixties word…It’s void. All these words have multi-definitions. We’re trying to break the language barrier. I’m not interested in semantics –“

Lenny cuts in. “Anytime you say something to something that makes it what it is. (Eh?) And that means you limit what it is. (Oh.) And we’re against being labelled as anything because then that just means it’s another place we can’t go. We want to go every place, to speak every language, we want to play every song. And anything that takes place outside the bearing of the group – how famous we get, how many records we sell – that has no bearing. All we want to do is do what we do and take it a step further and see how far out into space we can go.” (Glad that’s clear.)

Then radio guy’s girlfriend asks the million dollar question -- whether it’s strange that people today are so interested in self-destruction.

“Well, self-destruction is obviously negative. If you self-destruct…(her voice dies out as she thinks, then comes back forcefully)...but the way a snake self-destructs, you know, when he takes the old skin off – he destroys the old skin, but you come out with a new skin, a more developed skin, a more illuminated skin. So it’s like a double thing. It’s like a rebirth…You know…Like death and resurrection being so linked that one doesn’t become more fantastic than the other, I guess, if you experience both…(her voice now less sure)…I guess that’s what it’s all about.”

Brussels Arista Man takes the band to a restaurant for dinner, just as you know Amsterdam Arista Man will tomorrow night. To do that, they have to push through a cheering crowd around the band’s bus. For them, The Patti Smith Group are stars. Who cares what Patti thinks? As she wrote in Cowboy Mouth: “They created a god with all their belief energies…the old God is just too far away. His words don't shake through us no more…Any great motherfucker rock'n'roll song can raise me higher than all of Revelations.”

At the restaurant Lenny is cajoled into chatting up two statuesque women who clearly know who he is and want his advances, while Patti is at her most comatose, a screen registering few life readings. Afterwards, everyone returns to the hotel. They have to be up early in the morning for Amsterdam.

With photographer Kate Simon I work through the contradictions of Patti’s excess, the music it produces and the person (or lack of it) it creates. Our soundtrack is Neil Young’s recently released Tonight’s The Night, a deeply unpopular album full of its own contradictions, mixing dissonant howls about addiction with stoned celebrations of reefer and the first release that shows he is his own artist, not ours. At least one thing is certain: Regardless of what happens offstage, Patti and her band have played wonderful music of vision, passion and purpose and if that’s so, perhaps the end justifies the means.

I close the curtains about 5.30. Across the air shaft, the lights in Patti’s room are still on.

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POSTSCRIPT: In 1978, Patti’s journey to the glorious future seen on a Paris stage did result in success, but not in the direction the band’s members had predicted. ‘Because The Night’, from her third album, reached number 13 in the American charts and getting there required not leaving rock behind but going to the heart of the territory. Co-written with Bruce Springsteen and clothed in the sonics of commercial rock producer Jack Douglas, it’s a measured song with a chorus you can sing even if you haven’t heard it for thirty years. But it doesn’t make people want to change their lives. In deciding to employ Springsteen’s commercially astute rock ‘n’ roll romanticism and arrange it in the cadences necessary to reach the Billboard Top Twenty, Patti left the land of a thousand dances for a much smaller country.


Patti Smith photos by Kate Simon