Back Again: The return of Patti Smith


Published in Scotland On Sunday, June 9 1996

SIPPING EARLY COFFEE IN A HOTEL IN SOHO, face framed by long strands of black and iron-grey hair, Patti Smith, at 50, more than anything resembles the art teacher she once dreamed of becoming. The room is filled with journalists with questions. On the table in front of her lies a page torn from the morning newspaper, an article she wants to keep, about the rediscovery of a statue that had lain long buried, forgotten in a garden.

The previous evening, performing an acoustic set before an audience of around 200 on the small stage of London’s Serpentine Gallery – her first performance in Britain in 18 years – Smith had resembled many things, comedian and shaman among them. Her very entrance played out like a gag: getting caught up behind the stage curtains, Eric Morecambe-style, then, when she made it through, greeting the audience with a surprised, suspicious, “Who the hell are you?”

But one thought above all kept recurring as she became possessed by herself, getting lost in her torrents of words, fighting desperately to cram more information into a line than time would seem to allow: Tinkerbell. When JM Barrie’s fairy creation lies close to death, it is only the audience’s belief that can save her. Up there at the Serpentine, eyes closed, hands all a-tremor, digging deeper and deeper to reach higher and higher on the epileptic tightrope of her creation, it is only the spell of belief that Smith inspires in us that keeps her from falling. Take one cynical, easy step backwards, and the line could snap.

Above all, on that tiny stage, she resembled Patti Smith: extending beyond the classic form, demanding the impossible, refusing to lose. Still.


Patti Smith performing at TIM Festival, Marina da Gloria, Rio De Janeiro. Photo by Daigo Oliva

Interviewed 20 years ago, following the release of Horses, the Patti Smith Group’s eternally startling debut album, Smith described her writing process like this: “I go crazy. I move like a monkey. I’ve wet myself, I’ve come in my pants…Instead of shooting smack, I masturbate – 14 times in a row…”

Back then, of course, she was the demon-lover bohemian embodiment of the poet as visionary. Now, the recently widowed mother of two (her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, formerly of Detroit’s revolutionary garage rockers The MC5, having died late in 1994), she lives a quieter life, confining her risk-taking to the page.

“Raising my children is the most important thing for me as a human being – but within me, the artist has always survived, and perhaps the only thing I had to do was relearn how I created. Y’know, when you have children, you maybe have an hour or two a day to yourself, so in that time, you use all your discipline, all your attention, and work. I found that difficult at first, but it’s a good lesson for every artist to have self-imposed discipline. It’s true I couldn’t sprawl out and write poetry all night and smoke pot and things like that. I had to give up those kinds of things. But I found that I didn’t need that, anyway.

“It was very, very good for me to get up at five o’clock in the morning, when the children were sleeping, set my notebooks in front of me and do a good hour or two of honest work,” she laughs. “And the art didn’t suffer.”

IT HAS BEEN NINE YEARS since her last album, the frustratingly lacklustre Dream Of Life, a silence broken only by the publication of a palm-sized book, Woolgathering. But now Patti Smith has returned to work with a vengeance, announcing her return with the publication of a new book of poetry and – importantly – the release of a new album in the space of a few weeks.

Recent years have been characterised by loss, and the loss informs both projects. Her brother, Todd, died within a month of her husband’s passing. The Patti Smith Group’s longterm pianist, Richard Sohl, died in 1991. And in 1989, her lifelong friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe – the photographer who captured Smith as icon with his cover shot for Horses – died of Aids.

In the introduction to The Coral Sea, the forthcoming book of prose-poems she wrote “in a fever” immediately following Mapplethorpe’s death as an act of both grieving and celebration, Smith writes: “When he became ill, I wept and could not stop weeping…When he passed away I could not weep so I wrote.”

Simultaneous with the release of The Coral Sea comes the long – and nervously –anticipated new album, Gone Again. It is a wonderful record. Partly co-written with her late husband, like the Mapplethorpe poems it works both as a sometimes-angry elegy, while also coursing with the strength, joy and optimism Smith derived from their partnership.

“In the last six months of his life, Fred taught me to play acoustic guitar, and I gleaned a great deal from him. My voice became stronger. I derived a different type of confidence from Fred. A lot of the songs I wrote myself, and” – she sighs – “one thing you can see is that, because I wrote them myself, they’re usually in waltz-time. Because we didn’t get any further than waltz-time in my lessons.”

While the largely acoustic Gone Again is an undeniably mature, restrained work, it is also unmistakably Patti Smith. The language swirls, daringly, defiantly beautiful. Her voice is stronger than it has been since 1978’s Easter, moving from a yearning keening, through seductive feline growls, to wounded, savage threat.

Crucially, the record reunites her with Lenny Kaye, the guitarist who, since their first collaborations in the early-1970s, has been her chief musical foil, and acts as musical co-ordinator on the album.

“When Patti first started talking to me about the record,” Kaye says, “the intention was to make it fairly acoustic. She’d written these songs, and I felt it would be kind of intimate, Appalachian – I thought, let’s get out the dulcimers, the clog dancers and stuff. But as the record progressed, we began naturally gathering a band around us, and Patti started performing and finding her rock’n’roll voice. We did a little show up in Toronto, and during one of the louder numbers, I looked across at Patti, and she was, like, kinda crawling across the stage on her back, and I thought: Well, the electricity isn’t that far behind…”

Back onstage at The Serpentine Gallery, Smith takes us back 22 years with her opening reading of “Piss Factory,” the savage, motorvatin’ poem written out of her experiences and frustration as a minimum-wage menial worker, which eventually became her self-financed debut single. As the words gather pace and she begins doing the oral-locomotion, time begins to blur. It becomes increasingly impossible to spot the gap separating the 50-year-old woman before us, and the younger artist responsible for that poem and Horses.

“Well, uhm…” she begins, when I ask her about the difference between the Patti Smith who made Horses and the Patti Smith who made Gone Again. Then she laughs. “The person who made Horses had darker hair.

“But,” she goes on, “I think the main difference is that I traded some of that really passionate, adolescent energy for a little more tolerance and care about my fellow man. So, hopefully, I’m a better person. But I wasn’t that bad then.” Again she laughs. “I just think I have more empathy at his point in my life.

“I wrote ‘Piss Factory’ when I was about 19 or 20, and I worked in the factory when I was 15, 16 and 17. I worked in the summers to try and make enough money to go to college. And it was a terrible place. It was non-union, there was very little money, it was very hot, and the people there usually worked there for life, with no benefits – but they were so desperate to have a job that they stood for this. In other, words, they didn’t rebel, they didn’t ask for more, they were so afraid of losing this really gruelling, meaningless job that they didn’t complain. And at the time, I looked at it as a hell-hole, and I looked at these people as…sheep, or idiots.

“When I think about it now, though, knowing more about the world – even though I still read the poem because I like its fervour – I think about these women a lot differently. I think that they had very little choice. There wasn’t much work in southern New Jersey. There weren’t many places that either a teenager or an uneducated female could turn to. Maybe they had children, maybe they had mouths to feed. Maybe one of them couldn’t read. They had nowhere else to go. So I look at them with a lot more compassion than I did when I was younger. But I still like reading it. I still remember what it felt like to write it.”

Patti Smith comes to Glasgow next month, launching her first UK tour since 1979 with a band including Lenny Kaye and another long-time Smith co-conspirator, Tom Verlaine, from the epoch-defining New York group Television. It’s been a long time coming, but watching her on the small stage in London, it’s been worth the wait. She looks like she was born to be there, performing.

Smith, however, is having none of this. “I don’t require it. I mean, I’m not like Judy Garland or something, where I need people to tell me they love me so I feel I can exist for another day. I just happen to be good at it. But I am glad to be appreciated.

“When I was younger, I thought I’d be a school teacher, because I loved getting up in front of the class and taking over the teacher’s job. Once, because I was so disgruntled at the way she was presenting Moby Dick, my teacher said, ‘Well, if you think you could do better, you get up here’ – and so I did. And I did better.”

Patti Smith
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
August 5, 1996

IT’S Jackson’s 14th birthday, and his mum has brought him along to work with her. There, his uncle Lenny presents him with a knight’s visored helmet, pushing it down over the hair that obscures his face, until his head is completely encased. Then, while mum and the others wander off, Lenny and the helmeted Jackson start playing a quite horrendous version of ‘Smoke On Water’. Midway through the song, his mum can be spotted crawling strangely around the back of the stage, before sauntering up to the mic just in time to add a crucial “Fire in the Skah-ayhee” punctuation to the final chorus.

The birthday party is probably not something that anyone was expecting in the first show of Patti Smith’s first proper UK tour since 1979. Certainly, the number of faces frozen between befuddled horror and bemused hilarity in the audience would testify to this fact. But the night is filled with such genuinely disarming moments. Like when, midway through the tribal chime of ‘Dancing Barefoot’, Patti decides to do just that, and sits on a monitor at the front of the stage to begin taking off her 10-hole Doc Martens – only to discover that her right boot is laced too tightly, requiring the band to add an extra couple of minutes to the instrumental section while she wrestles with the damn thing.

The band, however, are more than equipped for the flexibility and support Smith requires from them. This is in part due to the presence of the slight, hunched figure sitting at the rear of the stage. In slouch hat and khaki t-shirt, Tom Verlaine, the Television founder and oft-proclaimed guitar genius, has evidently decided upon the blues/jazz old timer look for the time being, appearing to nod off over the guitar resting in his lap. When his hands find the strings, though, the mercurial runs of notes lift the music to a plateau from which Smith’s vocals can launch and come cascading down, carrying the rest of band on the flight. A bookend merging of ‘When Doves Cry’ with the dub-echo of ‘Ain’t it Strange’ leaves you feeling that the Prince song was surely purloined from Smith’s outtakes book in the first place, as even the lyrics from both songs begin to fold back on one another.

Patti Smith herself, if anything, has become more human. While everything that was always great about her is still recognisably in place, her strength is tempered by occasional moments of fragility, her sure-footed freewheeling composure balanced with glimpses of endearing awkwardness, and it is the moments of recovery between these two extremes that take the breath away. So, when she initially misses the beat on the chorus to ‘People Have the Power’, the words resonate all the more rightly and strongly next time round when she hits it right. Her fluffed intro to ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’ is cushioned by Verlaine’s lead, and it seems to propel her extemporised middle section, reaching higher, words flowing out from some other place sketched by the music, beyond the reach of imagination.

Visually, this situation is summed up when Patti is seemingly lost in thought while the music skirts around her. Staring down at the tie hung loosely around her neck like some take-it-or-leave-it visual clue, she lifts it briefly to her mouth to kiss it, for the first time looking like the 50-year-old widow she is. A moment later, she pulls the tie off over her head, simultaneously pushing her hair back and lifting her face into the light, which picks out her exposed bone structure: suddenly it’s the figure from the cover of Radio Ethiopia, radical and unbowed, standing before us.

The climax comes with a merging of ‘Land’ and ‘Gloria’ from Horses, during which something that has been building slowly in the audience all night finally seems to break, and the release is spontaneous and glorious. Smith is somehow on top of a speaker, and the barrier between stage and audience, both literal and metaphorical, has been washed away in the generating rhythm. Many present will carry this concert in their hearts for a long time – and perhaps chuckle quietly sometimes over the memory of the most deadpan lecture on golf ever delivered from a concert hall stage, pondering again the heartbreaking potential of Seve Ballesteros. (I guess you had to be there.)

Published in Scotland On Sunday, August 11, 1996