Patti Smith


Tucked into the modest seats of the Apollo’s circle, and the second song in is a cover of ‘Paint in Black’ by The Rolling Stones. It’s an impromptu addition. Patti reads the lyrics from a sheet of paper and misses a vocal cue, having to re-join the song a few bars down the line. “Ah we messed that up,” she says when the song comes to an end, before adding “if you wanted it played right, you should have gone see the Stones do it”. The Stones are indeed down the road, at Old Trafford. “And their ticket prices are too damn high,” Patti adds, which is undoubtedly a fair point.

Perhaps more apt for the Apollo would be to paint it grey. Patti Smith is the very epitome of aging well: long grey locks, uniform of jeans and white T, with a dark jacket over the top. It’s the same radical chic look that – in its male equivalent – is the sartorial signature of Bruce Springsteen. ‘Elegant Scruffy’, by John Varvatos. And that’s an interesting route into this story. A couple of years back, staying in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I went looking for the legendary gig venue CBGBs, located on the Bowery. And I found it, only guess what… it is indeed a John Varvatos store where you, too, can look as casually ripped and torn as Bruce and Patti, for the modest price of several hundred bucks.

Patti Smith – poet, performer – burst onto the scene with 1975’s Horses album, with perhaps the greatest opening line ever… “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”, which cuts straight into a take on the Van Morrison track ‘Gloria’. And ‘Gloria’ is one of the defining moments tonight, when the multiple guitars – three, sometimes four – reach the kind of shared, joyous climax you usually only see in movies of dubious provenance. Erupting at the very genesis of punk rock in New York, Smith was at the vanguard of a more angry, edgy, raucous answer to the outgoing 60’s dreaminess. Patti spells out Gloria, just like Van, but also spells out ‘Manchester’, genuinely happy, it seems, to be back in town.

In a sense, the covers are the defining moments of the evening, including a take on the Midnight Oil track ‘Beds Are Burning’, through to the mood-loosening ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ by a chap called Elvis Presley. And then there’s the wonderful ‘Because The Night’. Sometimes erroneously attributed as a Springsteen cover (Smith contributed lyrics to the track, when producer Jimmy Iovine – working in adjacent studios for both Smith and Springsteen – snuck it out of the sessions for the Darkness on the Edge of Town LP), the song remains as powerfully and energetically romantic as it was when freshly pressed in 1978, a call to all lovers to take ownership of the night-time. Tonight, Smith dedicates it to her deceased husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, guitarist for the MC5, original inspiration for the lyrics and also father of Jackson Smith (or perhaps were his name to be double barrelled, Jackson Smith-Smith), one of the guitarists for the evening.

Smith is also partially defined by her relationships – photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Fred Smith, actor/playwright Sam Shephard – as well as her influence and connection with everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Michael Stipe. We are in the presence of rock royalty, no doubt. On occasion Patti steps out from behind the mic and approaches the audience, her grey falling forward and concealing her face so that she stalks the stage like a wild thing. You’ll need to read the book to discover where the wild things are… but I know where the wild things were: on the Lower East Side in 1970’s New York… in St Mark’s Place, reciting poetry.

And now an admission. I have seen Springsteen a bunch of times but Patti Smith is one of those characters that kind of washed over me, like The Fall (Mark E. Smith also gets a shout out tonight). But her songs come alive, live. Her voice is almost more engaging and immediate when in a live venue, not a studio. And boy, she grooves: she digs the grooves of her music with her hips and hair, belying her years. Tracks like ‘Ghost Dance’ and ‘Ain’t It Strange’ pour forth like spells cast from the stage. And at moments – like ‘Beneath The Southern Cross’ – the guitars once again weave that dense texture of sound that comes from multiple instruments joined in harmony. At one point that track moves into a Beatles passage that reminds you of Smith’s on-going commitment to countercultural impulses and causes, such as the environment. “We are free people,” she implores; infectious, but problematised when you have to get up for work on a Wednesday morning. But the spirit carries through to the final track – ‘People Have the Power’ – and an amusing attempt to get the audience to join in the whoo whoos from the Stones’ ‘Sympathy For The Devil’.

It’s straight ahead lock & load rock & roll. It’s loose and liable to mistakes. It’s Varvatos-styled vintage. The stage is bathed in red, in front of swirling, rotating psychedelic backdrops, a single T-shirt on the drum riser perhaps a vague nod to modern notions of the demons of merch and marketing. If the stage is in red, to look over the circle balcony reveals a sea of grey hair, as grey as Patti’s. Nothing wrong with that, of course. At least she doesn’t dye it (eh Mick?). Smith is amusing between songs, at one point roasting journalists (being a sometime scribe herself, of course) before conceding “we need journalists to get to the core of things, and take that core to the people”, adding a hashtag joke that involves Morocco. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.

I hope Patti will feel assured that that is precisely what I’m doing. Because who needs the Stones when you’ve got Patti next door.

Patti Smith: Official | Facebook

Simon is a writer, broadcaster and countercultural investigator. Over the last 15 years he has written for everyone from The Guardian to Loaded magazine, presented television for Rapture TV and hosted radio programs for the likes of Galaxy. He has also found time to earn a Masters Degree in Novel Writing and write three books (a collection of journalism, a guidebook to Ibiza and one on financial planning for young people – the most varied publishing career it’s possible to have) and establish and run a PR company, Pad Communications, looking after a range of leisure and lifestyle clients.He currently splits his time between researching his PhD at Leeds University, looking into various countercultural movements; consulting freelance for PR clients; writing for the likes of Marie Claire in Australia, The Big Issue and the Manchester Evening News, where he reviews concerts, theatre and is their Pub & Bar Editor. He is also broadcaster, appearing regularly on Tony Livesey’s late night 5Live show for the BBC, and also for BBC Radio Manchester Gourmet Night food and drink show.Simon’s main focus has been music and travel. His career has included editing Ministry of Sound’s magazine in Ibiza for two summers and also writing two long-running columns for DJmagazine – ”Around The World in 80 Clubs” (which took him everywhere from Beijing to Brazil, Moscow to Marrakech) and “Dispatches From The Wrong Side”. A collection of the latter was published in the UK and US as the book Discombobulated, including tales as varied as gatecrashing Kylie Minogue’s birthday party, getting deported from Russia, having a gun held to his head by celebrity gangster Dave Courtney and going raving in Ibiza with Judith Chalmers. He has recently written for the likes of Red magazine, Hotline, Clash, Tilllate, Shortlist and the Manchester Evening News. Pad Communications has recently consulted for clients as varied as Manchester nightclubs and New Zealand toy companies.On a personal note, Simon is a Londoner who left the capital at the age of 18 and never looked back. He sees himself as a citizen of the global dancefloor having lived in Sydney, Los Angeles, Ibiza and Amsterdam. However his life is now rather more sedentary. After all his adventures he bumped into and subsequently married his highschool sweetheart from their North London Grammar. They now live in Stockport with their four children and four chickens, trying to live the good life. Simon recently turned 40 and is steadfastly refusing to have a midlife crisis – as in, growing a ponytail and buying a shiny red sports car.OK, maybe he’ll buy the sports car…