A dozen or so years ago, a concert celebrating the life and work of Robert Burns took place at Culzean Castle on the South West coast of Scotland, not far from where I’m typing. I’m quite into Burns, in an enthusiastic amateur kinda way. I get involved when it’s that time of year in the schools and organise the school Burns Supper. I’ll put together wee groups of kids who’ll eagerly sing Green Grow The Rashes (the Michael Marra arrangement) while I get to rock out gently with some well-rehearsed finger picking on my guitar. At home, we’ve done Burns Suppers celebrating the bawdier side o’ Rabbie that they don’t teach at school, helped along by the sort of food and drink you’d be hard-pushed to find in a school dinner hall. There are tons of Burns scholars out there who take it far more seriously and who could bore the breeks off most of us with their ability to recite his most obscure work which is why, when the concert was announced at Culzean – with headliners Lou Reed and Patti Smith – I thought I’d give it a miss. “I don’t really fancy hearing Lou ‘n Patti pretend they know the inner workings of Burns’ songbook when they could be doing their own stuff instead,” I reasoned. Big mistake as it turned out, as Lou and Patti by and large did their own stuff, regardless or not of what the promoters had signed them up for. Patti even made the Scottish news on TV the next night for gobbing on the side of the stage, offending those stuffy, ancient scholars I’ve just mentioned. Old punks, eh. What’re they like?
Oor ain Eddi Reader, herself a mad Burns fanatic, was on the bill and in the encore she sang the famous ‘doot-di-doo’ backing vocals for Walk On The Wild Side alongside Patti Smith. I know people who’ll be reading this that have wide-eyed stage-side footage of the moment. Why did I not go? Why?
I’ve grown into Patti Smith in a big way. She was always there, a trailblazer for the strong, bloody-minded women from Chrissie Hynde to PJ Harvey who have a place in my record collection, but in recent years I’ve really come to acknowledge her as one of the greats. Morrissey, Michael Stipe and any Maconie-voiced BBC4 documentary will all tell you this of course, but unless you were lucky enough to be there at the time, I’m not sure her importance shines through for generations of mine and since.
Horses is her biggie, of course. A raucous brew of poetry set to music, it’s the sound of flared nostrils and itchy, twitchy jangling nerves riffing on French existentialists, Jesus and the futility of existence – the big stuff, in other words. Wrapped in monochrome with bird’s nest hair, it’s a challenging listen, certainly more difficult to get into than, say, Patti’s contemporaries The Ramones and Blondie who were street suss enough to add some pop to their schlock. The centrepiece of the album is, wonkily, mid way through side 2.
Patti Smith – Land
Land is a free-flowing example of all that Patti does best, over 9 carefully metered minutes of what musicologists might call a triptyche, with 3 parts of music played under the one theme. Every word is enunciated precisely and clearly, given equal gravitas. She howls, she whispers, she duets with herself. She’ll rap on something deeply esoteric one moment and then she’ll be singing about the watusi and Bonie Moronie the next. The words come in floods; pretentious, populist and pure. I can’t pretend to know exactly what she’s on about and I’m not certain that the young Patti in 1975 could’ve told you either. It sounds fantastic though.
Patti has a crack band behind her, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing in time to her carefully-written prose, yet for the entire track they keep it simple. At any moment, Richard Sohl on keys could break into the most heart-stopping piano run, but he doesn’t. Lenny Kaye could easily let fly with an electric burst of pop/punk bloooze, but he doesn’t. There’s ample opportunity over 9 minutes for an Animal-esque freak out on the drums, yet Jay Dee Doherty reigns himself in. With Patti Smith, it’s all about the vocal. The words are everything.
Here’s Piss Factory, her early b-side documenting her time working a crappy job for crappier money.
Patti Smith – Piss Factory
Just Kids, Patti’s autobiography about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe continues this theme. It’s a literary ride on the A Train, taking the reader right into the centre of a mid 70s New York that most of us can only imagine. Their story is played out against a backdrop of the Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City and Coney Island and features walk-on parts from Andy Warhol, Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Art, music and fashion explode and fuse together and everything and anything is possible, doable and done. Mapplethorpe struggles with a sexual identity that would eventually tear the couple apart but (or perhaps because of this) it’s a beautiful read; a love letter to and for Mapplethorpe and the city that brought them together. There they are up there, an androgynous Keef ‘n Mick for the Blank Generation. Even without the music, Patti’s words are powerful. Read it.
It was a conversation with Johnny Marr a few years ago that made me go home and re-evaluate Patti Smith until her genius really sank in. I was charged with taking photos of Johnny and his fans after a gig. The waiting line snaked around long enough that half the folk in it ended up missing their last connection home. At the front of the line was a girl who might’ve been 13 and might’ve been 33. Small, disheveled and unkempt, she’d been first to queue outside the venue at lunchtime on the day of the show and as soon as the doors had opened she’d ran for the front of the stage where she stood holding onto the barrier and never letting go until it was time to meet Johnny at the end. Johnny recognised her straight away. “Hello again darlin’!” he greeted with a hug. “How are we today? Listen – hey, listen! – make sure you get a bed tonight, eh? No more sleeping in doorways, eh?”
“Once, I bunked off the school,” he told me afterwards, “and skipped the train to Liverpool to catch Patti Smith. Sneaked in the stage door! That night I slept in Liverpool Bus Station and it was the most terrifying night of my life. That girl at the front comes to all the shows. She comes alone, leaves alone and always turns up the next day. I kinda worry for her, y’know?”
If artists have such a hold on folk that they’re prepared to forfeit a roof over their head for the night so that they can see them in concert, they’re worth listening to.