It starts in half-promise, looking for purpose. The music is tentative. The poet seems unconvinced. She’s invoking good/bad Johnny, the angel leather jacket boy, and it’s just words. Awkward 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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