Patti Smith

Patti Smith :: Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 19-6-13

I feel like I’m taking part in some kind of gig marathon, the like of which I’ve not done since I saw four Bowie shows in 11 days (and, in total, 11 shows in four months) in 2003. I’m not as young as I used to be, so I did feel like I needed a night at home, but this gig was a truly special evening, one I’m glad to have been able to be part of. So, gig 3 of 4 (the last is Yoko on Sunday) was the inestimable Patti Smith. It’s a great venue in which to see a show, the Empire. It’s getting a little run down though, I must say. I thought these corporate naming deals were supposed to mean the place has a bit of cash to not look like it's falling to bits? The rough and unpolished venue, however, seemed to suit the evening’s contents. I’ve loved Patti Smith for years, ever since I first heard Horses as a teenager. I wasn’t the only one. Some of the people I adore the most (Morrissey, Stipe) also count that record as one of the great turning points of their life. I’ve been deeply moved and in thrall to a great many pieces of art, theatre, film and even television but, and perhaps this is just me, I don’t find anything as transformative as music. Nothing lifts me off the ground in the same way.

She has always had that same rumpled charm, since the beginning. I can’t think of any women in her profession who changed the visual aesthetic in popular music so greatly. Before her, you had 60s girl groups, Janis (not beautiful but certainly intending to exude sex), Joni, and of course the Debbie Harry’s of the world, and all that came after. People knew how to treat, and react to, beautiful women in music. They were either taken seriously ‘despite’ their looks or not taken seriously at all. You sang someone else’s songs, like Dusty, with glamour, or you wrote your own, like Joni, and both critics and the public did their best to fit you into a box. I watched an interview with Joni recently where she spoke candidly about the abuse she received in the early 70s for having the temerity, as a 21 year old, to write a song that went ‘I’ve looked at love from both sides now.’ How dare she, at that age, think she knows about such things in such depth? You can’t imagine that happening now. And it certainly didn’t happen to men – nobody had a go at Dylan for writing Masters Of War at 23 even though he’d never been further than New York and Minnesota.

So in 1975, this extraordinary woman appeared. With matted hair, wearing men’s clothes, she sang political songs and was certainly not what was accepted as beautiful. She didn’t play anyone else’s game. She wasn’t gamine or coquettish, she led a band of men, she had a gay boyfriend (Robert Mapplethorpe of course), and she had a song called Rock N Roll Nigger. People must have been horrified. She got called angry, because if women aren’t overly emotional or subservient (think of the women in Mad Men, and how Peggy and Joan are treated for not being obedient) they’re angry don’t you know, and she got called a man, and a hundred worse things. She might have arrived in the 70s but the reaction to her as a woman was very mid-60s. Now, she is accepted without question but back then she was treated as a threat. It was bad enough for Joni, and she was pretty and blonde.

You’d think all of this treatment would make her a bitter person, but that was absolutely not the woman who walked on stage last night. Your audience reflects you, understands you, and she knew it, she was grateful for it. She spent most of the show smiling, between songs, talking about how stupid she is, how she knows that striking poses is what’s expected of her, but can’t stop talking about silly things on stage. And then in the next second she’s talking about the usual protest singer stuff (fuck corporations, governments, capitalism etc), telling us we have to take our freedom, talking of violent protests in Istanbul and Brazil, spelling out P-U-S-S-Y R-I-OT in the style of G-L-O-R-I-A near the end of the show, to roars. She knows how to play the audience, how to create the show in her image, but she is tremendously charismatic, likeable and sincere.

This is a woman who, between the 17 years of 1979’s Wave and 1996’s Gone Again released one album, Dream Of Life, having basically given up her music career in large part to raise her two children. Another move that confounded the male-dominated corners of music theory who had painted her as a lesbian or a feminist, as if those things are all mutually exclusive and motherhood is incompatible with either. Her daughter, Jesse, joined her on stage, to play keyboards for the last third of the set, following bandleader Lenny Kaye’s three-song sojourn into Nuggets territory, with a nicely judged solo cameo, taking in covers by The Music Machine and Count Five . Incidentally, in the pantheon of albums about loss (Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin et al), her record Gone Again must be right up there. The acute concentration of the deaths of her husband, her brother Todd, her keyboardist Richard Sohl and Mapplethorpe was poured into the record, but rather than such pain being simply too hard to listen to, it’s comforting, relatable and empathic. She dedicated Because The Night, an inevitable highlight, to her late husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, ‘the man it was written for’. There were plenty of other tributes too, with songs dedicated to and Johnny Smith and Amy Winehouse, the latter eulogised beautifully in This Is The Girl.

On stage, she is compelling, proselytising, and frankly, shamanistic. You’d follow her anywhere. I have friends in New York who have seen her play live repeatedly, and I never quite understood why until now. Her voice, a deep and powerful instrument, propels these songs of fight and hope to every corner of the venue. I was standing at the back, near the bar, where much conversation was taking place. After a few songs, people started shushing each other, during her between-song chats – something I have never seen in London at a concert. Gradually, the chatter lessened and the crowd stopped thinking about their drink orders or jobs or catching up with friends and focused their complete attention on the stage.

I’ve had a fair few live music experiences in my time. But I can honestly say that a life highlight was seeing the epic Horses/Gloria rendition at this concert. I can barely speak about it, the transformation of how I felt, the elevation, being utterly removed from the space I was standing in to feel transported to completely another place. Not just in the physical sense, where my mind fluttered to CBGBs and how it must have felt to stand in that shithole and hear the song for the first time. But also in the metaphysical sense, of being raised up off the ground. Like I said, only music does that so completely to me. It was an honour to be there, to be so consumed by a song I forgot where I was. The noise level after it was deafening, as she left the stage. The encore started with Banga, her most recent album’s title track and flew into the deceptively poppy People Have The Power. She led us on another treatise on being free, escaping governmental power and, even though you’d think a rich rock star telling us all to protest and find our joy in the world might be annoying or presumptuous or even ridiculous it just wasn’t, none of it was. Even a roomful of white people singing Rock and Roll Nigger didn’t feel bizarre or out of place, such was the power of the performer. The audience members were among the most varied at a rock concert I’d ever seen. There were people who must have jumped the Glasto fence in the 80s, old crusties, hippies, Red Wedge types, mums and dads, tattooed pin-up girls, students, hipsters, old punks, Guardian/Socialist Worker readers, people in suits who’d just left work, the age range going from fresh-eyed teenagers to desperate-to-escape wage slaves to baby boomers. Everyone listened, everyone heard, and everyone believed in the moment that we could all escape and take her advice, that we could be inspired to not put up with the social and economic conditions in which we live. Even if it was just for a moment, so what? It's better to lose yourself in it than to be a cynic, and it’s preferable to allow yourself that humanistic moment of naivety, of idealism.

It was a special night, a special connection, between two bodies of people. ‘You’re my fuckin’ show, thank you so much!’ That rare thing happened, the performer gave to us, we gave back, and the circle was complete.

Ask the Angels
Privilege (Set Me Free)
Break It Up
April Fool
This Is the Girl
Summertime Blues
Ain't It Strange
Beneath the Southern Cross
Talk Talk
Distant Fingers
Psychotic Reaction (Count Five cover)
Dancing Barefoot
Pissing in a River
Because the Night

People Have the Power
Rock 'n' Roll Nigger