Rock'n’Roll Animal: An evening with Patti Smith

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An evening with Patti Smith in Berlin, as she celebrates 40 years of Horses.

“It’s better than the first Roxy album, better than the first Beatles and Stones albums, better than the Doors and Who and Hendrix and Velvet Underground albums.” – Charles Shaar Murray on Horses, NME, November, 1975

In rock there are singers with voices so powerful and primal they knock you off your feet. Others possess voices so sonorous and lilting, tears spring forth readily as rain.

And then there’s Patti Smith.

Patti Smith’s voice not only flouts convention, it transcends gender, genre, generation and class.

Battered in what scholar Philip Shaw calls a “characteristic New Jersey burr”, Patti Smith’s voice defies categorisation. It’s all of the above, but sizzles further inside a roiling deep fryer of adjectives.

‘Powerful’ alone just doesn’t cut it. ‘Urgent’, ‘girlish’, ‘bluesy’, ‘elegiac’, ‘furious’, ‘brutal’, ‘sneering’, ‘sexy’, ‘playful’, ‘rapturous’ – sometimes all in the one song – is more like it.

Suffice to say, Patti Smith’s voice not only flouts convention, it transcends gender, genre, generation and class, ultimately demanding that we listen.

This epic voice summoned me inside Berlin’s famed Tempodrom music venue one warm summer’s evening a few months ago.

At 8.15pm the concert suddenly started. Stragglers galloped to their seats as Smith howled the first mighty strains of ‘Gloria’ - Side 1, Track 1 of her 1975 groundbreaking debut album, Horses.

It was the record she and her trusty band of four – including original collaborators Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty – were in town to perform on the 40th anniversary world tour.

Smith burst onto the (mostly-male) '70s rock scene like a force of nature, dragging with her everything and the kitchen sink: poetry, profanity, permissiveness, spoken-word, dramaturgy, androgyny, religion, street culture and high art. Destroying the joint, she helped pave the way for punk and a slew of latter-day icons.

In 1975 she fused the past and future into one perfect ‘present’: Horses. It was an album that changed everything.

Forty years later, she wasn’t waiting for anyone.

 

Patti Smith has really long arms. As she kicked ‘Gloria’ into high gear they seemed to reach way out over us, in an embrace that carried us back into the music.

This magnanimous gesture made her larger than life, and kind of magical.

In her memoir Girl In A Band, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon also notes the “intensity and sorcery of [Smith’s] performance”, and the beguiling effect it had on some of her male counterparts, including then-partner Thurston Moore.

Patti Smith’s voice roared above the rock. In the 40 years she’s been on stage it remains pure and powerful. Nothing has been sacrificed.

Around me in the Tempodrom, as Patti Smith and her band effortlessly – and with the raw power in which it was originally recorded – played every song from Horses, back-to-back and in track order, I watched men and women, young and old, spring to their feet.

As song after song touched their souls they sang alongside Patti with the fire and emotion that could only come from experiencing this ‘album of albums’ performed right in front of them, as they had never imagined.

That was pretty magical…

Patti Smith spat four times during the Horses concert, just as an elite athlete might on the field in the midst of a game. Stifling in the humidity she threw off her jacket. “Boy am I smelly!” she giggled as her dutiful roadie snatched sweaty towels from under her feet.

She also made a “parental announcement” for anyone who’d brought children to “come to the front and get your kids ear plugs!” It was a couple of songs into ‘Side I’ (between the sweet-sad reggae of ‘Redondo Beach’ and epic UFO elegy, ‘Birdland’). Things were getting loud. The Godmother of Punk had spoken.

The sound couldn’t have been better. The huge console in the middle of the room blinked furiously with every beat, melody and distorted note.  Patti Smith’s voice roared above the rock. In the 40 years she’s been on stage it remains pure and powerful. Nothing has been sacrificed.

And she danced like a kid of 19, not someone about to enter their 69th year.

"People often ask me how I escaped a lot of… the physical abuse that people suffer and I can only say it's because I love to work," she once said about her tenure in music.

"For me, being involved in rock n' roll was not about getting rich or famous… What I'm always pursuing is illumination..."

Patti Smith and her band worked hard that night, dressed in Smith’s favoured black-and-white uniform of dead male poets. They tore up ternary ‘Land’ (Side 2, Track 3), later launching into hits ‘People Have The Power’, ‘Because The Night’ and an encore. It felt good to be in their joyful, disciplined hands.

Before disappearing into the cool blackness backstage, sweating beneath the lights, punk’s Poet Laureate shared one last thing with us.

“Life is the best thing that we have. Life and life only,” she whispered in her Jersey lilt, cracking from having just sung her guts out.

Now it was my turn to tear up.

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