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Patti Smith has more than proved her writing credentials, but she always doubled as a superlative interpretive singer too.
Peter Murphy, 30 Apr 2007
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.