review of june 2 concert at institute for contemporary arts, london

[from "Keeper of the Phlegm" by Robert Yates, Guardian, June 3, 1996]

You can tell Patti Smith is an outlaw, the way she spits on stage. "She's not very ladylike, is she," says somebody behind me which, as insights go, is akin to noting that Vlad the Impaler was not very nice. Patti Smith may be many things—equal parts Egyptian goddess, celibate Shaker and Jerry Lee Lewis is her own preferred analysis—but a lady is not one of them. At least she did not direct her phlegm at the audience, punk style, which would have been doubly cruel since the audience had come in reverence.

The New York singer who made her name in the mid-1970s had not played in Britain in more than 10 years, and just before she arrived on stage, the ICA's theatre had the hush of a church about it. You half expected a prefab altar to be whisked on, and the venerated Patti to arrive with a pile of hosts and communion wine.

Instead, she appears with a couple of likely-lad musicians. One is long-term colleague Lenny Kaye, part of Smith's band when she recorded Horses, her 1975 debut album, a kind of punk rock with A levels, and still the record most cited by women in pop who never much fancied Doris Day as a role model. Patti Smith deserves a prize for suggesting that woman performers did not have to wear paisley leggings and commune with an acoustic guitar. The second musician is Oliver Ray who, along with Kaye, has collaborated with Smith on her forthcoming album, Gone Again, her first in eight years, and whose songs provide the bulk of the set's material.

The songs are largely contemplative, but from the opening beat, Smith is in exuberant form. Her clothes are, as ever, distressed—she must buy jackets with the elbows already worn through—though she is anything but; and, as the acoustic show progresses, she becomes so animated that Kaye and Ray have to duck from her swirling arms. Death suffuses the new material—the album was recorded less than a year after the death of her husband, musician Fred "Sonic" Smith; while one of the show's opening songs, "About A Boy," is apparently a tribute to the late Kurt Cobain.

It is not Smith's way to play the helpless widow, and it's to her credit that she resists sentimentality. She has a useful deflationary trick—the more charged the material, the more aggressive her between-song patter. Although she has spent the best part of the past 15 years retired in the Detroit suburbs, taking care of her kids, she retains the manner of a bar-room fighter, greeting her audience's cries of devotion as if she'd just been asked to step outside. "You what? You love me? Bah."

In song, however, Patti the Punk turns all purplish. Her material has always boasted a high level of portent, a record maintained by the new songs. "Beneath The Southern Cross," we're told, is a meditation on existence, no less, and she wishes, she sings: "To be / not here / but here."

Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, Smith has gained a reputation as a fine wordsmith who happens to work in rock. The truth, however, is that although a great songwriter and performer, many of her words, naked on the page, have the gauche insistence of a fourth-former discovering self-expression. Which is fine, since when her one-off voice—part Bob Dylan with a decent range, part keening banshee—gets to work on them, they sound just right. She could sing the telephone directory and transform it into a grand drama.

At the ICA Smith reads as well as sings. Her performance is the climax of a conference on Genet and Artaud, and a few of her poems, or "meditations," punctuate the songs. The one undeniably good thing about the poems is that you know when one ends a song is sure to follow and, judged as a pared-down run through of her upcoming series of concerts—when Smith will be accompanied by a full band—the evening is a triumph.

Grown men weep at the concert's close, and so bowled over is Smith by the acclaim that the trio eventually reappears to try out a "work in progress." Smith reaches for her notes and for a minute your heart sinks. Then a guitar rings out, and you know everything is going be all right. It's not a poem.

Copyright © Robert Yates 1996

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