Patti Smith has more than proved her writing credentials, but she always doubled as a superlative interpretive singer too.
With the advent of auteur rock ‘n’ rollers in the late ‘60s, it became standard practise to dismiss interpretive singers as mere lounge acts or second-class artists, never mind that some of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century – Elvis, Sinatra, Billie Holiday – rarely, if ever, lifted a pen in anger.
Patti Smith has more than proved her writing credentials, but she always doubled as a superlative interpretive singer too. More than that, she blurred the lines between cover version and composition. From the B-side of ‘Piss Factory’ onward, her approach to canonical material involved makeovers so radical they constituted rewrites. Only a handful of vocalists could’ve stamped their mark so indelibly on old chestnuts like ‘Gloria’ or ‘Hey Joe’. Her biggest hit, ‘Because The Night’, was probably the straightest cover she ever attempted, and even that came replete with lyrical amendments, Bruce’s blue-collar romanticism empurpled by Smith’s French Symbolist imagery.
In later years, she’s kept her hand in, revising Dylan’s ‘Wicked Messanger’ and ‘Dark Eyes’, Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ and the old spiritual 'Trampin''. One night in Belfast a few years ago, she ripped out an acoustic ‘Be My Baby’ so ragged-haired and charming it sounded like the natural heir to The Ronettes’ definitive article. The point being, this covers album was always a candidate for an essential addition to the Smith catalogue, rather than a mere digression.
That said, it begins inauspiciously. I’d say some songs just shouldn’t be covered, only she’s proved herself Hendrix’s equal before, but her take on ‘Are You Experienced?’ is superfluous at best, the band’s lumpen stodge-rock no match for the dayglo psyche-out of the original. Same goes for the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’. The original recording was a menacing war dance and Dionysian rite. Here, after a promisingly spectral beginning, it dissolves into a by-the-numbers bar-room bashabout.
Stick with it though. Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’, against all odds, gets away with it: a committed vocal and creepy arrangement that renders the lyric as weirdo death trip rather than acid fantasia.
Tears For Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ couldn’t be more different: a crystal-clear vocal with a firm grasp on the melody, the players’ tough but restrained performance adding muscle to the original’s synth pop sinews. Cut from similar cloth, Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy In The Bubble’ substitutes Soweto swing for southern blues shuffle, and the lack of clutter showcases a razor-sharp lyric.
Elsewhere, Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ and George Harrison’s ‘Within You Without You’ are recast as gentle, open air Appalachian folk tunes – from ragas to reels indeed – and Dylan’s ‘Changing Of The Guards’ is stripped of the Street Legal big band sound and a hair or two faster than the original, migrating through successions of labyrinthine verses. It sounds like Smith studied, analysed and metabolised the near novella of a lyric (“She shaved her head, torn between Jupiter and Apollo”) – in other words, she knew her song well before she started singing.
Ditto The Doors’ ‘Soul Kitchen’ and the Allmans’ ‘Midnight Rider’, which are both wonderfully funky, low slung and bang on the money, while Stevie Wonder’s ‘Pastime Paradise’ – better known to some of you whippersnappers as Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ – is tailor cut (it’s worth pointing out, her voice is in better nick than at any stage in her career).
Arguably the most controversial choice on the record, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ also boasts the most sinister banjo since Deliverance, the bass and guitar lines detecting previously hidden Zeppelin and Sabbath strains, the opening “Load up on guns/Bring your friends” line sounding less like Gen X sardonicism than a scarifying rallying cry issued by the rednecks who blasted Hopper and Fonda off their hogs at the end of Easy Rider. It almost works, but at a crucial juncture seems to slacken, the tension seeping out of the performance at the point where the obligatory spoken word passage kicks in. Mind you, the backwoods instrumentation frames Smith’s wood-grained voice so aptly one wonders what she’d do with an all-Dylan album, or a Johansen-style stab at arcane blues, gospel and folk rarities.
Twelve is a solid enough collection, but one can’t help wondering if it would’ve been better had she made like Fellini and called it 8½.
"We're uncompromising. We're uncompromising to a fault I think. Because sometimes we're wrong. Sometimes we wind-up up blind alleys. You know. Maybe Radio Ethiopia sucks. I Don't know. Me and Patti are the only ones that like it in the world. But I don't care 'cos when we put that on we feel great." - Lenny Kaye [First Published in Hot Press Volume 2 No 7, September 1978]Read More
Spiritualized and Ariel Pink will join her in The Royal Hospital Kilmainham this June.Read More
The stars were aligned and and the sun shone at Electric Picnic. It was the least we deserved at the end of a long, wet summer...Read More
Patti Smith is one of modern rock’s iconic figures. A poet, songwriter, visual artist, photographer and writer, she is at heart a revolutionary spirit. With a new album out and an appearance at Electric Picnic on the horizon, Hot Press is granted an audience…Read More
Strong effort from punk's elder stateswomanRead More
She'll be joined by a famous actor...Read More
New order bassist Peter Hook revisits the seminal Unknown Pleasures recordRead More
Patti Smith and Nick Kent have both penned flawed but nevertheless evocative memoirs, which make you pine for the degenerate rock ‘n’ roll days of yoreRead More
Spoken-word tribute to late photographer to be released in JulyRead More
Patti Smith gives her Twelve covers album a live airing when she visits Dublin’s Vicar St.Read More
Patti Smith has been an avant-garde icon and punk poet idol for more than two decades. We thought it would be interesting to see what Cathy Jordan, the stylish singer with folk supergroup Dervish, would make of her recent performance in Jordan's hometown of Sligo.Read More
Patti Smith is the subject of a major exhibition, which is taking place in the Model Arts and Niland Gallery as part of Sligo’s Critical Voices 3 season.Read More
Patti mightn’t be leading from the front anymore, but she does wear her own legend, like everything else she’s sporting tonight, with authority.Read More
Christmas comes early for Patti Smith fans when the legendary songstress plays shows in Dublin and BelfastRead More
Muscle gets stronger when it encounters resistance. On her ninth album, Patti Smith’s music is sounding buffer than it has in years largely because the singer has redefined herself in political and aesthetic opposition to the Bushwhackers.Read More
It’s the all-singing all-dancing Patti on duty tonight.Read More
Good as her word, Citizen Smith let the people have the power in selecting the track listing for this Best Of kiss off to/from AristaRead More
For those who feel that the music scene of today is in desperate need of both talent and substance, a dose of Patti Smith's own brand of intelligent individualism comes as a welcome relief.Read More
When Patti Smith came up with Rock N Roll Nigger in the 70s, she marked herself out as one of the most articulate and confrontational performers of her generation. On the eve of her visit to Ireland, the High Priestess of American Punk Poetry talks to Peter Murphy about art, music, the people she s lost and why she ll never give in to political correctnessRead More