The very real excitement of seeing the first of Patti Smith's two London comeback concerts was given an additional frisson by the Tube Strike, which meant that I, like many of the audience, had to battle through ranks of long-faced commuters to find a bus to Shepherd's Bush Empire. Tempers fraying with the heat and filth, the traffic jams nearing gridlock, London was seething like NYC. How appropriate. Outside the venue, a pack of ticket touts, all beerguts and bullying voices, slobbered like hyenas with the scent of the rich pickings to be made.
Inside the theater the crowd consisted of a spread from the very definitely middle-aged to younger more exuberant punters wanting to know why so many people still hold the candle for Patti, and more importantly whether she can still cut it. I find myself bang in the middle of the floor and next to an unashamed Deadhead, replete with tape recorder, who also I find out happens to be a barrister. Curious.
The Doors tape fades, the lights go down, and Patti and the band come on. Patti is beaming, and is sporting a thrift shop jacket and tie, Horses style. Jay Dee Daugherty is a born again punk with bleached crop, and Lenny is still stick insect thin, his wiry legs encased in leather strides. Oliver Ray and Tony Shanahan are the new boys, and Oliver has a very cool white teardrop guitar. Instantly recognizable too is the gangly frame of Tom Verlaine, who crosses the stage and disappears. For the rest of the gig I will be unable to see him, but there will be no doubt about which songs he plays on -- the trademark vibrato and harmonies are too distinctive, resembling the playing of no other guitarist except perhaps Richard Thompson when he was young. (Listen to Fairport Convention's A Sailor's Life to check this out.)
Having perched a pair of gold-rimmed reading glasses on her nose, and opened a copy of Early Works, Patti opens the gig with a spoken "Piss Factory." The need and desire to transcend the conveyer belt existence of life on the production line expressed in the piece still strikes a chord in the audience. We already know that this will be a performance to treasure. A stately "Wing" follows with an aching bottleneck and then "Redondo Beach" with its odd juxtaposition of jaunty reggae beat and dark lyric. I give up trying to write the set list down on my arm.
Much to our delight, Patti then recites "Dylan's Dog" and warmly retells, complete with an impressive nasal impression, the familiar tale of how she met Bob in the street one time. The band take this as the cue to launch into the scolding heavy blues of "Wicked Messenger." Few covers of Dylan songs equal or improve on the original -- usually artists are content to prettify the melody or regiment the beat -- but Patti's rendition of this song is laden with portent. By the time she is growling the final pay-off line -- "if you can't bring good news then don't bring any" -- Verlaine is running out of frets at the top of his Fender Jaguar.
For light relief, Patti next introduces her son, Jackson, floppy fringe and slacker slouch, who with Lenny singing, cranks out the crusty old riff to "Smoke on the Water." Patti ambles round the stage, grabbing the microphone to screech the fire in the sky-eee chorus. It is good fun, and we allow this indulgence -- I for one remembering making my mother go into a record shop and buy Made in Japan for my thirteenth birthday!
"Dancing Barefoot" is given a rockier treatment and gains an anthemic feel. "People Have the Power" and "Summer Cannibals" are next up, both of which if there was any justice in the world would be worthy hit singles, and the crowd is as far as the crush allows, dancing/pogoing itself silly.
For "Babelfield," Patti reads while Lenny and the band kick up a storm with some Yardbirds number. Her actual words are inaudible but the overall effect is awesome. Tony Shanahan thumbs the thunderous bass riff and all are thrilling at the sheer noise.
The whole set is well paced, so that the acoustic "Ghost Dance" that follows is both mournful and celebratory, with the whole audience chanting the "We will live again" mantra. Even the man next to me yowling like a coyote doesn't detract. "Beneath the Southern Cross" is better than the album version for the simple fact that Verlaine's beautiful guitar, which is way back in the lp mix, is to the fore.
It is Verlaine's guitar too that makes "When Doves Cry" such a joy. There was a discernible Prince influence on his singles, "Kaleidoscopin" and "Shimmer" on the underrated Wonder album, and here he doffs his hat (which incidentally happens to be a trilby with brim pushed up like a music hall comedian) to the purple elf. Given a reggae bassline, it comes as no surprise when the song melts into "Ain't It Strange" and Patti spins some yarn, before re-finding itself. Who said Tom Verlaine ain't funky?
The opening chords of "Free Money" bring instantaneous cries of happiness, and even in the song's fevered rush, I find myself thinking how this song is in tune with the current zeitgeist. In the UK -- where the divide between the haves and have-nots is ever widening -- dreams of winning the new National Lottery fuel the hopes of even those who don't buy tickets. Ain't it strange.
"About a Boy," the pivotal track on Gone Again, is a second experiment in noise which echoes round the theater's balconies and scalloped alcoves before quieting again with Verlaine's guitar emitting those same ghostly noises and clicks that made "Little Johnny Jewel" such a revelation.
Dedicated to the memory of Robert Mapplethorpe, "Wild Leaves" is introduced by Patti with an AIDS awareness speech reminding us to educate ourselves (and our enemies even) and show compassion. Delicate guitar and a moving vocal make it a fitting tribute.
To end the main set, Patti finishes with a spoken "People Have the Power," in which she summons every ounce of energy from her body to invest as much as she can in her vision of hope. This elides into the valedictory war dance of "Gone Again."
There was no way we were going to let her go again having only just got her back, so we are rewarded with a number of encores. She first surprises and delights us with a tender version of the Doors dark lullaby "The Crystal Ship," with Jay Dee and Tony strumming complimentary acoustic guitars. Back behind his kit, Jay Dee's pounding drumming helps propel a brutish "Because the Night," stripped of piano, to a dirty solo from Lenny. Having tied and torn off a blindfold during this song, Patti is now pure energy, which brims over in the finale that is an extended version of "Land" and "Gloria." The band is joined by John Cale on second bass, which just adds to the riotous noise. The crowd has finally lost all its inhibitions, and those that can are mauling Patti, who is off the stage and by the barrier, wild-eyed and shaking, and everyone is roaring the initials that make up the name of every garage band's favorite girl.
Patti bookends the gig with a second encore of "Farewell Reel," seated with a very battered acoustic. She fumbles chords, she sings, she stops, she starts again, fails and to a slow hand clap sings acapella before finally finishing on guitar. She tells us that the gig is being recorded and that this one won't make it but is for our memories...
Before finally walking off, she stands on a monitor and waves madly, knowing that this has been a wondrous gig. Embodying so many paradoxes -- awkward New Jersey girl, visionary poet, proud mother and rebellious rocker -- she has given us more of herself than most performers. In her unscripted raps she has genuinely tried to make contact with the audience, and if sometimes she doesn't come across, at least she's tried. (Why did she bother with her rant at Mojo magazine for running a speculative piece on REM splitting? Her put-down of one heckler with "haven't I seen you before ... in the San Diego zoo" was just plain daft.) Most importantly, her music has regained an edge of daring again and what she's lost in youth she has gained in self-knowledge, evident in the way she centers her performance. When some bloke had shouted "Patti, you're the fucking coolest!" she had answered with a prim "Pardon.". Only to follow it with a knowing drawl "Ain't I just." Ain't she just.
The second night I arrive early enough to secure a place in the front row, crushed against the barrier, so I can really watch Patti and Verlaine, who'd been invisible to me the night before. He had no strap on his guitar and seated in front of an old Vox amp he clearly had no intention of standing up. For the whole gig he looks like he is sitting in someone else's session, just trying stuff out, but he never blunders.
The set is similar but shorter, with Patti's voice obviously suffering despite a vocal spray given to her by Michael Stipe. She is smaller than I had expected and what I watch most are her hands and her eyes. Most of her effort is concentrated into ensuring that she made the notes when they most counted, but in a couple of numbers she misses the beat and the band have to wait for her to come in. It is pure effort of will that pulls her through.
The set is virtually the same, but includes a sweet
"Jackson Song" and a version of "Not Fade Away" for Jerry
Garcia. The encore of "Rock N Roll Nigger/Gloria" is
fantastic, ending with Tom Verlaine unwinding his bottom
E string to play otherwise unavailable notes. I am so
fascinated by this that I miss how Lenny manages to knock
the headstock off his Fender. I see, however, Jackson
pick it up and hold it in front of Verlaine. Verlaine
shrugs and gives an expression that says "Well I guess
that's rock n roll for you"....Someone no doubt has that
headstock, a most fitting memento for two glorious gigs.
Copyright © Richard Page 1996