First Encounter: Patti Smith, 1976
(Just came back from seeing Patti Smith and her band performing live at the Roxy. It’s now 2007, which makes her 60 years old. Made me want to dig up the following, which I clunkily penned 31 years ago, and which I now find slightly amusing in that context. Hint: In about three months the first Ramones album would be coming out. –dd)
Patti Smith isn’t into “typical” rock ‘n’ roll.
When she rocks, she picks up an electric guitar and plays it sideways. Very loudly.
When she rolls, she usually does it all over the floor.
Smith is one of very few artists who give credence to the warning “This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll, this is genocide!”
Wednesday night, the Patti Smith Band gave two performances at the Silver Dollar Saloon. Both were very crowded, which in itself is extraordinary, considering Smith’s relative newness to rock ‘n’ roll performing. Yet the media blitz that she has received prior to and upon completion of her Horses debut is an unprecedented event of its own, and probably very responsible for both packed shows.
Because of Smith’s late entrance as a rock ‘n’ roll performer, it is quite difficult to evaluate her and her band without noting the many obvious (and a few not quite so obvious) influences they clearly have. Both Smith and her lead guitarist, Lenny Kaye, were respected rock critics just a few short years ago–Kaye still is, in his own way–and as always seems the case with critics turned performers, it occasionally becomes difficult to differentiate what is spontaneous and “real” behavior on the stage, and what is “put on” merely because the performer, as a critic, always wanted to see someone else behave similarly.
In the case of Patti Smith, what she thinks is neat is pretty obvious–Lou Reed, Jim Morrison and, most importantly, Iggy Pop. Because of her almost groupie-like worship of such people, which was certainly evident in one phase of her career, emulating them all comes as no problem. The only difficulty in appreciating Patti Smith, it appears, lies in one’s ability to accept her stage rambling (and floor rolling, too) as behavior that is purely her own, and again, spontaneous.
Her performance Wednesday night was certainly an energetic one, and her choice of material likewise showed an energetic fascination with rock ‘n’ roll proper, delivered with an almost biblical reverence. Though the Bible is the last thing anyone thinks of while watching Patti Smith moan and grimace on the stage floor, her incorporation of Lou Reed’s “We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together” (which, incidentally, opened both shows) and “Pale Blue Eyes,” the Stones’ “Time Is On My Side” and the Who’s “My Generation” gives ample indication of all that Patti Smith considers holy in rock ‘n’ roll.
With her combination of “Gloria” and “Land of A Thousand Dances” to her own poetic pieces, Smith demonstrates that certain select songs live on by themselves, in the truest sense, transcending their authors and floating about waiting for others to reach out and grab.
To evaluate Patti Smith’s performance is not such an easy task. One’s first impression is that Smith is living in such a rapid time frame that her metabolism is rapidly approaching a cathartic burnout. Of course, Iggy Pop has been considered a major candidate for such oblivion for years and, despite occasional respites at sanitariums, “rest homes” and the like, Pop is still going strong. And Smith, unlike Iggy, has a tremendous amount of poetry to fall back upon.
The difference between Smith’s early and late performances was readily observable: She had twice as much energy and was much more eager to talk with the audience her first time on the stage. Asking “Is Lansing just a big bus station?” Smith revealed a wonderment that inadvertently indicated her own amazement at being a rock ‘n’ roll attraction on her own. Second shows are rarely as good as opening sets, particularly in the case of bands like Smith’s; much–in fact, almost all–of her material was repeated for both shows, with only a surprising intro to “Birdland” significantly different. When it is clear that much of her stage chatter and even her “choreography” is carefully rehearsed and repeated almost verbatim, one’s initial impression of lyrical improvisation quickly dissipates.
Patti Smith’s talent should not go unstated, nor should the talents of her band. While both Kaye and Ivan Kral were fair guitarists at best, they fit beautifully into the structure of the band. Kaye, in particular, with his feedback squeals and tremolo bar abuse, provided most of the musical substance to be found in the group’s efforts–though drummer Jay Dee Daugherty was fine on his own in “My Generation.”
While not exactly doing anything new, Smith is significantly different and certainly very entertaining. Her overly long monologue on Shredded Wheat certificates to Yukon Realty, and Chunkies, and shapes, and pyramid foundations, and pyramids, and Wilhelm Reich, and orgone boxes and Jean Genet, etc.–all of that rambling was indicative of
a rebellious spirit that is rising in Smith even while she is performing on the stage.
Who wants to pay to see someone undergoing the “talking cure” onstage?
This, and the fact that the audience for both performances went crazy for Smith and her band, should make clear that whatever she is doing, it is new and different for a lot of people. She can be different as much as she pleases, certainly; but the fact that she is one of the few rock performers who can sing Jagger/Richard, Pete Townshend and even Cannibal & the Headhunters, and sing them all convincingly and all as her own, proves that she deserves a lot more credit than she’s getting.
(Michigan State News, 3/12/76)