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Patti Smith - Patti Smith

  by Cila Warncke

published: 14 / 12 / 2013

Patti Smith - Patti Smith


In our series, in which our writers write about ten songs that made them love a favourite band or artist, Cila Warncke writes of her favourite songs by Patti Smith

The first time I saw Patti Smith it was like seeing a flesh-and-blood human after a lifetime among holograms. In a world where everyone is obsessed with image Patti is always, ever and gloriously who she is. Poet, rebel, musician, mother, artist, crusader, writer, warrior, deity of rock’n’roll and inventor of herself, Patti never wanted to be anyone else, never pandered, never tried to please. Her music reaches deep places because it is born from an authentic self, and that’s why it will last. 'Gloria' From the album 'Horses' (1975) Van Morrison wrote it and his band Them first recorded it in 1964, but Patti owns this song. Her visceral delivery and the addition of the line: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/but not mine” turns a scrappy burst of garage rock into a raw, exhilarating meditation on sex and sin. Hearing a straight, androgynous woman belt out “Oh, she was so good/oh, she was so fine… I’ve gotta make her mine” blew my teenage mine. It blasts dull musical and sexual stereotypes out of the water, and makes Gloria an anthem for anyone who’s ever loved, or wanted to live, outside the lines. 'Babelogue/Rock’n’Roll Nigger' From the album 'Easter' (1978) My nerves sing and chills trace my skin every time I hear the opening line of 'Babelogue'. “I don’t fuck much with the past/but I fuck plenty with the future,” she snarls, expressing her purest and most provocative self. Sexual, political, unapologetic, it’s the apotheosis of a warrior-artist manifesto. Then comes the blazing segue into 'Rock’n’Roll Nigger' which is flat-out one of the most thrilling moments in rock. The interplay of Patti and Lenny Kaye on the vocals, driven by his incendiary guitar, makes this a rebel anthem to cherish. 'Because the Night' From the album 'Easter' (1978) Patti’s biggest chart hit is characteristically brave. Androgynous punk-poetesses aren’t necessarily supposed to write love songs but she never had a lot of truck with “supposed to” – as this song proves. A glorious, full-blooded paean to desire is tense with joy and euphoric energy. It is filled both with rich adult emotion and an almost childlike wonder at the beauty of the beloved. 'Dancing Barefoot' From the album 'Wave' (1979) Patti opened her Cardiff Corn Exchange in 2012 with 'Dancing Barefoot'. Here’s how it was: The stage is small, low, close; we could hop over and perch on the edge. No fanfare, no lights-up-lights-down, just a sudden soft landing of feet onstage. Patti smiles at our delayed whoops of recognition. She opens her mouth and the world breaks open. There is no discernible relationship between that slight torso, overhung with an Electric Lady Studios tee-shirt and a too-big black blazer (red marker pen hooked in the left pocket, as if she’d just been labelling boxes) and the voice that envelops the air. It’s like being run over by a Rolls-Royce." 'Free Money' Fom the album 'Horses' (1975) In 'Just Kids' Patti writes about her years of graft in New York City as she and partner Robert Mapplethorpe struggled to become artists. She worked in a bookshop, he made and sold beaded necklaces. I don’t know if she wrote this song for him, but I like to think she did, remembering all those times when they were at the end of their wits and dollars, dreaming of the “free money” that could free them from their money worries and set their muses soaring. 'April Fool' From the album 'Banga' (2012) As charming and evocative a love song as I’ve heard, 'April Fool' is no ordinary four-minute romantic ramble but Patti’s tribute to Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, who was born on 1 April. It celebrates the freedom of art – “We’ll race through alleyways/In our tattered cloaks” and the precious fragility of the artist’s creation – “We’ll burn all of our poems/Add to God’s debris” but with winsome cheer, rather than sadness. 'Horses' From the album 'Horses' (1975) Fierce and wild as a herd of mustangs thundering across the plains, the title track of Smith’s debut album stampedes every trope of commercial rock’n’roll. It’s too long, too stark, too difficult, too aggressive, and deals with things you aren’t supposed to talk about: male rape, madness, and suicide. Yet it throbs with defiant life, teeth bared in half-grin/half-anger, prepared to plunge into “the sea of possibility.” The material would be mere titillation in the hands of a lesser talent, but 'Horses' isn’t shocking for the sake of shock value. Rather it is a sprawling, fearless articulation of the truth that, for good or ill, life always explodes through our rules and expectations. 'Redondo Beach' From the album 'Horses' (1975) There is something arresting about the jogging reggae rhythm of this tune, matched to the dark lyrics. I admit I was in the majority who interpreted it as a lesbian love-gone-wrong song on first hearing, but it is actually about her sister Linda, who took off from their shared room in the Chelsea Hotel after a quarrel, frightening her sister. Somehow, though, I don’t think Patti would mind the misinterpretation. Much of splendour of her music comes from her delight in subverting expectations and baffling easy explanation. It’s her way of reminding us that self-definition is always, exclusively the privilege of the artist. Selah. 'People Have The Power' From the album 'Dream of Life' (1988) Patti’s incorruptible authenticity lets her get away with saying things that would sound cheesy or self-serving coming from anyone else. 'People Have The Power' was co-written with her husband Fred Sonic Smith, and it hums with a rare amalgam of defiance and optimism designed to stiffen spines and warm the huddled bodies of protesters. Released in 1988 at the height of the “greed is good” years, it remains a powerful rallying crying in a world spun off its axis by “the work of fools”. 'Jubilee' From the album 'Trampin' (2004) 'Jubilee' demonstrates that Patti’s voice has grown richer with age, both literally and metaphorically. She sings an invocation, full-throated, with power to spare, to young and old, summoning them to gather in a spirit of jubilee. “I see hawks circling the sky/Scattering our glad day,” she warns, but this is cause for vigour, not despair because “We are love and the future” – and, as Patti’s life and music show – as long as we embrace those two things there is always cause for celebration. Read Cila’s review of Smith’s 2012 Cardiff show here: http://www.cilawarncke.com/patti-smith-cardiff-coal-exchange/

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