Thinking about Patti Smith

When friend and fellow Mountain Music Club member Dan from coastal Massachusetts recently sent a link to The Guardian newspaper’s Patti Smith profile, the powerful poet-singer came into sharper focus than that background awareness her 1970s work earned. It’s a good overview, in the U.K. paper’s ongoing series recommending entry points into recording artists’ work.

I came late to that party, but the admiration of others, particularly musician friends brought me back to her like the Guardian story. Link, below.

One musician fan, New Yorker City kid Tom Dimopoulos, led a highly theatrical 1980s punk band here called bx721, after its post office box. He told me about seeing her early on, in lower Manhattan. Coming up out of the subway into the light of daybreak on his way home, uplifted by her show, he felt inspired to believe more strongly in himself and his possibilities than he ever imagined. That feeling has powered his art ever since. bx721 was a hoot, fronted by Jack Nemier who wore an electric suit – conventional office garb glittering with hundreds of tiny Christmas tree lights. Dimopoulos now lives in Saratoga Springs, works mainly as a scribe and shows up often at the same concerts I do.

Another musician/Patti Smith fan is Michael Eck, sometime music writer, former publicist and now marketing writer for the Oregon musical instrument crafters Two Old Hippies. He revered her and once got to play a show with her. More than the late great Greg Haymes, more than I, Eck was a tough crowd when writing about music for the Times Union. After seeing Billy Ray Cyrus in his “Achy-Breaky Heart Days,” Eck wrote, “I bet Billy Ray Cyrus voted for the fat Elvis stamp” – best lead I ever saw on a concert review. He said Patti’s close-up presence empowered him in much the way Tom D. describes.

Michael Stipe (ex-R.E.M.) is another fan. He turned up, surprising the audience, at her show last year in New York’s Webster Hall. Stipe told Ethan Kaplan of a Smith fan site that he discovered Smith at 15 when her “Horses” album hit him hard. The album, he said, “tore my limbs off and put them back on in a whole different order. I was like ‘Shit, yeah, oh my god!’ then I threw up.”

Now, that’s a fan.

As Rolling Stone reported in January, Stipe also has objected to trump using R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” as his rallies and that he once told trump off for talking during Smith’s set at a late-90s benefit at Joe’s Pub in New York. Stipe told him to “shut up” and trump left instead. But I digress.

I’ve seen a handful of Smith shows, most notably at MASSMoCA in N. Adams, Mass., early in that venue’s history; and at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. MASSMoCA was really lucky, or discerning, setting the stage for Wilco’s Solid Sound and FreshGrass festivals. Their first-ever show was by Los Lobos. I wrote in the Gazette that, “Los Lobos played the first-ever concert at MASS MoCA on Memorial Day weekend in 1999, masterfully christening a performance space that shouldn’t work half as well as it does. They played in a (13-sided) courtyard surrounded by brick and glass walls that I expected to echo the music in all directions, a cacophonous blur.” 

Smith’s show there a year later confirmed the place worked for music. Her setlist: 

One Voice

Beneath the Southern Cross

Boy Cried Wolf

Dancing Barefoot

Lo and Beholden

Spell

Dead city

Don’t Say Nothing

Because the Night

Pissing in a River

Gone Pie

Strange Messengers

Be My Baby

Glitter in Their Eyes

Free Money

Dancing Barefoot

Pissing in a River

Be My Baby

Free Money

Land/Machine Gun/Gloria

As for Patti Smith at Jazz Fest, I love seeing stuff happen there that’s outside the New Orleans tradition or sound, and watching it work anyway; including Richard Thompson and, surprisingly, Tower of Power. Both debuted there in 2008, my first Jazz Fest; I saw Smith play there in 2013.

Patti Smith at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, May 2013. Michael Hochanadel photo

However, I missed a mid-70s Smith concert at Union College Memorial Chapel. Michael Patnode (class of 1977), reported in a college mag, “Another concert we booked was Patti Smith, whose appeal we thought was more confined to the New York City area. A large number of black-clad audience members appeared on campus, showing us there was a hunger in the area for a diverse range of programming.”

I like the moral force of Smith’s shows. I’ve always liked the band, too. Maybe the most New York ensemble this side of the Ramones, Willie Nile borrowed some of her guys for his first albums and tours. She has that thing I admire most. When she steps onstage, you know in your soul that she means it. And she somehow gives other artists (Stipe, Dimopoulos, Eck) permission to mean it, too.

In this, I see her as a sort of lesser Bob Dylan – professional poet, amateur rocker, masterly persona, towering inspiration – until they welded those parts together so tightly we can’t see the seams any more. Dylan may be better – or, was – at the creative component of myth-making, but she became his equal in self-promotion.

I haven’t kept up with her records since the earliest ones. When I get them in the mail, I put them on the listen-shelf for later and sometimes take years to retrieve and listen to them. Maybe she deserves more immediate attention, as Stephen, host of the Mountain Music Club, has suggested.

Though I’ve enjoyed her books “Just Kids” and “M Train” maybe more than her later albums, when I grabbed some recently she opened my ears again.

I started at the beginning and leaped forward with “Patti Smith Horses/Horses – Legacy Edition.” This two-CD set stands her original 1975 album alongside a 2005 live show of the whole album in London’s Royal Festival Hall – to thrilling effect. 

The original has the home-made fervor that made punk so exhilarating, inspired amateurs blowing past rules of composition, arranging and performance they hadn’t taken time to learn yet.

The live versions, 30 years later, retain all that adrenaline, plus assurance. We hear obvious differences in craft. Her voice has thickened some but still soars and she whips it just as hard. The band plays better but respects the original arrangements. 

Both versions of her first songs stand tall with undiminished conviction, a now-weathered but still defiant optimism. The originals rise from the lower Manhattan CBGBs funk-frantic fog on the effortless faith and impatience of youth. The later live ones carry something harder and smoother, polished by effort and endurance, stoic and earned over time.

If the deluxe two-CD decades-apart “Horses” testifies to her enduring relevance; so do “Trampin’” (2004) and “Twelve” (2007) – in effect another two-fer. “Trampin’” is originals, “Twelve” is covers; both made with guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, with her from the first; plus bassist Tony Shanahan. (Original bassist Ivan Kral [1975-78; “Horses,” “Radio Ethiopia,” “Easter” and “Wave”] died in February. Guitarist Tom Verlaine [Television] and bassist Flea [Red Hot Chili Peppers] guest on the live “Horses” 2005 tracks. Guitarist Oliver Ray joined the Patti Smith Group on “Trampin’”. But we digress.) 

Here, let me yield to Robert Christgau – greatest record reviewer in print. 

Trampin’ “No, she hasn’t regained her sense of humor, but aren’t you fast losing yours? ‘I’m no Sufi but I’ll give it a whirl’ makes light enough of the mystic path her political obsessions follow. And if sometimes her hymns vague out like ‘Trespasses’ or over-generalize like ‘Jubilee,’ the boho reminisce of ‘In My Blakean Year’ represents where she’s coming from, the sweet solemnity of ‘Gandhi’ and ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ sings the sacred, and the amateur-Arabist rant-and-release of ‘Radio Baghdad’ speaks poetry to power. It won’t prevail. But it’s a comfort. B+”

The stand out “Trampin’” songs for me have a lighter touch than the machine-shop rockers: the guitar chiming “Cartwheels,” the relaxed stroll of “Gandhi” and “Trespasses,” the cozy atmospherics of “Peaceable Kingdom.”  “Radio Baghdad” gives both, a Cowboy Junkies intro to a punchy build echoing “The Other One,” down to a recited lament, then a re-rant, then back to Cowboy Junkies’ tree-lined Toronto. The title track maps a pilgrimage to hard-won peace.

Twelve “Three decades after Smith made the transition from poet to rock & roller, we still don’t think of her as a singer, exactly — more a reciter who can carry a tune, kind of. So a covers album showcasing her interpretive gifts is a questionable vehicle. And like most such albums — there are dozens by now — it’s somewhat hit-or-miss. But when Smith hits, it isn’t just a bull’s-eye — the arrow splits the apple and then brings down the bad guy hiding behind the tree. It takes a poet to extract the lyricism of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ from its guitaristics and an avant-gardist to validate a middlebrow tour de force like Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy in the Bubble.’ And though other winners are more obvious, you’ll be convinced that this woman felt ‘Gimme Shelter’ very deeply — and many years later, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ too.”

OK, these are can’t-miss tunes, time-tested by a billion radio plays; but that doesn’t mean every cover will work. These do, for the same reason the 2005 live “Horses” tunes are good as the 1975 originals. She means it, in an act-her-age way. That’s more important and powerful than how she pans her voice left to right in the same cheap-trick-but-it-works way that Hendrix does in “Are You Experienced?” – great guitar noise, too – оr sings a mix of pinched pop staccato and poet’s flow in “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” against Kaye’s Jerry Garcia-like curls and swirls. We might quibble with her mannered, too-on-the-nose Neil-isms on “Helpless,” but she can do Mick all day long on “Gimme Shelter” and even gets the soul bounce of “Pastime Paradise” – love Shanahan’s James Jamerson bass-isms there, too. 

She knows just what to do with these songs she loves as much as those who made them, and those of us who wore out our vinyl originals.

We’ve talked mostly about the sound of her music, but what about the sense of it, the message and meaning?

Four words: “Power to the people!”

Patti Smith is still a punk, a poet, a provocateur. She still feels like coming into the sunlight from the subway – or up from troubles, from confusion, from doubt. 

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jun/10/patti-smith-where-to-start-in-her-back-catalogue?

Rock in Peace, Little Richard

Late in Sean Rowe’s 80s-themed live-show-from-home Sunday afternoon, a lyric grabbed me by the throat. 

In his now-familiar dining room festooned with tiny hanging lights, he stepped to the mic right in front of the camera, strummed quiet chords on his Takamine acoustic six-string, decorated with bold bars of colorful duct tape and sang this:

“For seven years I could not cry, but that has left me now.”

Me, too.

I hadn’t wept since my parents passed, until last Saturday night when I sat next to my son, stream-watching “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and sipping the good stuff. Then, for no reason relating to the movie or the Woodford Reserve bourbon, I started thinking about Little Richard.

And the dam broke.

And I sat weeping, gasping, shattered.

There was no stopping this, no way to rationalize away the devastating sense of loss I felt. 

Sitting here now, trying to make sense of it, I reach back almost in vain for some predecessor moment that felt anything like this. 

The first time I mourned a star going out as a personal loss was Nat King Cole, who passed in 1965. But this had a delayed impact for me. In spring 1968, I sat by myself in a barracks on Goodfellow Air Force Base in west Texas, a closed SAC base where I was training in electronic intelligence. Gacked on Dexedrine smuggled from Ciudad Acuna, I wrote a fast blurt. I addressed it to Nat Cole’s spirit, telling him how I felt the world now had a huge, aching hole in it, left by his departure and the silencing of his elegant, polished music. 

Now, Nat’s smooth sound was anything but rock and roll.

He chose songs and sang them in such a restrained, mainstream, low-pressure way that our parents could dig him, and did.  

Yet there I sat, a year after Monterey, when music grew hair and mighty moral force to become a giant noise, and I mourned Nat Cole in words I wrote right to him.

No other loss hit me so hard, not Bob Marley, not John Lennon; not the holy trinity of the Iowa crash: Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. I was in Seattle when its neon native son Jimi Hendrix died, in the rainy sadness of a whole city in tears. I don’t recall where I was when Janis Joplin followed just a month later.

But I’ll always remember I was quarantined in my house by the trumpandemic when Little Richard died.

Is that it? I thought at first that maybe I felt his loss so acutely because of all the other loss we all feel and fear now.

But, no.

I realized it’s really all about him, the Georgia Peach, the self-proclaimed Architect of Rock and Roll. 

Where Nat Cole was slick and cool, Little Richard was hot, a human high explosive. He came onstage (or screen) with his eyes wild, wide in joy and mischief. You knew on sight that he was trouble of the most delicious, shocking-to-our-parents power. Just check the clothes. Nat wore tastefully narrow lapels, Richard’s reached out to grab you, to cut through the air and close the distance to your pleasure centers. Hair heaped high in a sculpture of challenging effrontery, he was more than bold. He was a walking, strutting, howling, piano-pounding outrage – exhilarating and uniquely empowering, whenever and however I saw or heard him. He was raw, a shout of possibility. He made me feel free, or at least free-er.

At first, I didn’t quite understand it; I knew how his music made me feel, but at some point I wanted to know why. Wikipedia reminded me the answer was New Orleans.

Little Richard’s father was both a deacon of his church and a bootlegger who owned a nightclub; so how could Little Richard have turned out any other way? 

He preached a gospel of forbidden fruit, of in-your-face-transgression that felt righteous because it was so inescapably real. He toggled between the uplift of the divine and the dive bar all this life. His was the church of raw exultation, his nightclub one where forgiveness lived. 

In an early 90s phone interview, Little Richard told me of his famous re-conversion to devout Christianity aboard a plane to Australia as if it had happened to him yesterday. He spoke of the joy of performing with the same immediacy, and I wish I’d known to ask him about meeting Sister Rosetta Tharpe. When she heard him singing her songs outside a Macon concert in 1947, she asked the 14-year-old singer to open her show. Little Richard said he’d decided to play piano after hearing Ike Turner play “Rocket 88;” so he learned from perhaps the two most influential pre-rock and roll giants of his time.

When Little Richard started recording, producer Bumps Blackwell saw him as a new Ray Charles, but Little Richard instead wanted to sound like Fats Domino. So Blackwell recorded him at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studios in New Orleans with drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen and others from Fats’ band. When I pilgrimaged there during Jazz Fest, I found the building was a laundromat, as shown in “Treme.” When those records didn’t hit, Little Richard wrote “Tutti Frutti” in the Dew Drop Inn, but Blackwell had to hire songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to clean up his sex-charged lyrics. In September 1955, Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” and cracked open the radio.

Of course, he went to New Orleans to make that music. 

I should have recognized its Fats-inspired rolling swing right away, but I thought of it then as fully Little Richard’s invention, totally original. I didn’t know for years that it came from South Rampart Street just outside the French Quarter. I just knew how it made me feel. For me, after “Tutti Frutti,” nothing was the same. It was the Big Bang that let that wild, raw, explosive, brash and beautiful man and his music out of the bag, loose into an uptight world where Elvis was just starting to make his mark. Little Richard’s stardom was even more startling, a blast of joy, at once engaging and confrontational.

Others could play his songs – even that whitest of white-bread imitators Pat Boone. But even his most ardent and talented admirers couldn’t sound like him.

I didn’t know until I read Charles White’s authorized biography that Little Richard was gay or, as he described himself, “omnisexual.”  But I wondered if ignoring conventional gender borders liberated him to become the person he invented. 

He arguably invented others, too. Paul McCartney learned his scream from Little Richard and the first song he ever sang in public was “Long Tall Sally,” Little Richard’s follow up to “Tutti Frutti.” As “No Direction Home” shows us, Bob Dylan wrote in his yearbook of his ambition: “to join Little Richard.”

However wide his influence has been, even in those years when McCartney was learning Little Richard’s scream and Bob Dylan was learning his fearlessness, we somehow knew we’d never see another one.

In a moment of humble self-awareness, Elvis once reflected that he’d been fortunate to come along when there was no trend. Little Richard came along when there was nothing like him, and there never will be.

Getting back to Sean Rowe for a moment, let’s give another original his due: the Troy-born troubadour of bottomless voice and spooky resonant guitar.

Rowe was doing house concerts long before quarantine time, so he moved easily into performing from his own dining room. These shows feel all the more human for those moments when he pauses to adjust something; using the clasp of a pen to clip a folded bill into his guitar strings, say; or visiting the bathroom.

As he wrote on his website:

“This is why I do house shows: I want to connect…I want to take you on an intimate musical journey that you and your friends will remember forever. Do I love club shows? Hell, YES. I love the vibe, the energy, the lights, the heat. I want to see you out there, too. But this is a different beast. Maybe a gentler, more homey beast.”

In his May 10 show, Mother’s Day, he sang 1980s pop and indie rock songs, and his own.

And the one that hit me with a vivid evocation of Little Richard – though Rowe writes and sings nothing like him – is “Flying.” Little Richard performed with big bands in matching outfits. A human trumpet himself, he surrounded himself with saxophones. In dark t-shirt and two-tone beard, Rowe is a bass, a cello; and he sounded glorious singing these tunes, familiar or not. He helpfully listed them for his listeners in an email after he put his guitar away.

Gone Daddy Gone (Violent Femmes)]

With You or Without You (U2)

Surprise

Wrong Side of the Bed

Lady in Red (Chris DeBurgh)

We’re Not the Same

I’ll Follow Your Trail

Squid Tattoo

Never Tear Us Apart (INXS)

You Don’t Have to Worry

A Forest (The Cure)

Psycho Killer

Tornado Head

It’s hard, if exhilarating, to imagine Little Richard singing in your house, in ANY house. 

As young confined Catholics, brother Jim and I would imagine a loud rock and roll takeover during mass. The Rolling Stones or the Mothers of Invention would burst onto the altar, elbow the priest aside and rock the joint, to the gaping horror of the pious multitude. 

Now, I believe that seeing prime and primal Little Richard do that would be even better. In clothes you could see from Vancouver, hair up to THERE, pounding the piano as if to demolish it, howling octave over octave, he’d give the congregation something to worship, all right.

In June 1995, Little Richard played here for the last time before retiring. A bit incongruously, he was on whatever SPAC’s Jazz Festival was called that year, a non-jazz box office classic-rocker added to the line-up to sell tickets to mainstream fans; like Chic this year before that Fest, like all fests, was canceled. Though he had to grab a band member’s hand for stability, Little Richard still climbed on top of the grand piano. He was still a force of nature. All the voice was still there – like the clothes, like the hair – and he seemed likely to pound the piano down through the stage. 

It wasn’t 1955, or even 1975, but it was “Tutti Frutti,” and it was glorious.

I didn’t know then that I’d never see Little Richard again.

And so, when the full, awful wrenching pain of that recognition hit me – beside my son on the couch in my quarantined house – I had no way to dance past the grief. 

There’s no hiding from our loss of Little Richard. There’s only gaudy, funny, fierce memories of his brilliantly engaging and noisy nonsense, blurred through tears.

A wop boppa looma, a wop bam boom.