Sunday 18 August 2019

Barry Egan: Because the night belongs to Patti Smith

The influential Patti Smith
The influential Patti Smith
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

In 1997, before he died, the author William Burroughs described Patti Smith (in a piece he wrote for a photographic book by Michael Stipe) as like a "shaman" - "someone in touch with other levels of reality".

Born on December 30, 1946, in Chicago, Smith has long been in touch with other levels of reality, artistically and otherwise.

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In 2002 at the Theatre of the Living Arts in New York she played her 80-year-old mother Beverly's favourite song, Rock n Roll N*****. That night, the live rendition of the song (which as New Yorker writer Sharon DeLano explained, is based "on the Rimbaudian notion of the artist as an outsider - un negre") had Ms Smith ripping the strings out of her guitar as she raged: "Jimi Hendrix was a n*****, Jesus Christ was a n*****, Jesus was a true revolutionary. He was crucified in a nest of thieves. He was a man of the people. He prayed until the blood poured from his pores like sweat".

A true revolutionary herself, Patti was ahead of her time. Some would argue that Patti made the first punk record in 1974 with Piss Factory. What is inarguable, however is that Smith's Horses in 1975 is one of the greatest albums of that era. (That said, one critic noted "this music has a deeper affinity to Van Morrison lapsing into animal noises on Listen to the Lion than to the primal power of the Ramones".)

Smith's one-time lover Robert Mapplethorpe, who photographed the iconic cover of Horses, died of an Aids-related illness on March 9, 1989. On November 9, 1994, Patti's husband, Fred 'Sonic' Smith, died of a heart attack, leaving her with two young children. Three weeks later, Patti's brother Todd died suddenly.

Patti is one of the most influential artists of the last 30 years, having stirred things in everyone from Bono to PJ Harvey to Nick Cave. Excitingly, she is one of the headliners at the All Together Now festival at Curraghmore Estate, Waterford, on the August Bank Holiday weekend.

What I love about Patti is the unexpected. You don't know what you are going to get, and even then, you probably will find some of it difficult. Which is perhaps why her special friend Mr Dylan didn't have Patti on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975.

Though, as Patti put it in an unpublished interview with Barry Miles in 1977 (it eventually appeared in John Bauldie's book Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan): "I said to [Dylan] 'Look, you got 150 million people going on this tour with you, you don't need to make space for me. I'd just drive you crazy, totally crazy. And the only thing I'd ever want to do with you is to drive you crazy - to push you so far that you would start to cut everybody down verbally, that you'd play the best solo on the electric guitar, push you to see you be the best, not rehashing old folk songs and singing country harmony - I ain't interested in singing country harmony with you, I did that in a bar, where country harmony belongs'. Well, he saw my point."

As do we, Patti.

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