Over the past three years, Patti Smith (working with guitarist and rock scholar Lenny Kaye) has developed into a New York legend. Onstage, looking like a female Keith Richards (and wearing a Keith Richards T-shirt), she exudes an inimitable aura of tough street punk and mystic waif; in whose skinny, sexy person the spirits of Rimbaud and William Burroughs miraculously intersect with the mystic qualities of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, the Velvet Underground, the Marvelettes and Mary Wells, to name but a few. Patti's stage presence is phenomenal. She moves sinuously, using her frail white hands to underscore a rapt emotional intensity with incredible expressiveness. Her improvised raps, often very humorous, combine graphic sexual fantasy with surreal, extraterrestrial visions of violence and supernatural redemption, delivered in ungrammatical streetwise diction whose rhythms she instinctively elevates into stream-of-consciousness poetry.
Patti -- recently signed to Arista Records -- now works with a four-piece band: guitarists Kaye and Ivan Kral, keyboardist Richard D.N.V. Sohl and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, formerly of Lance Loud's Mumps. They play well together -- simple, unadorned rock & roll highlighted by Kaye's guitar fills and solos, which are as affectionately allusive to rock & roll lore as Patti's performing. The set opened with a biting version of Lou Reed's "Real Good Time," followed by a recent Patti Smith composition, "Redondo Beach," a delightful light reggae song about a beach "where women love other women." A high point, and one of the staples of Patti's repertoire, was her version of Them's classic "Gloria." This song she has made her own, now and forevermore, and though I've seen her do it many times, this performance still left me shaking. An old-style, triplet rock & roll ballad, "Break It Up," coauthored with Tom Verlaine, leader of the New York group Television, topped the evening. A heart-rending song about teenage love, Patti's performance showed her uncanny, total identification with the sensibilities of working-class teenagers. The set closed with a brilliant, elemental version of "Time Is on My Side," in tribute to the Stones. If nothing else, it showed that Patti has developed an impressively full middle range to her singing; she is already mistress of the upper-range early-Sixties Motown style, which she does not so much parody as embody with absolute veracity.
Many in the audience were unfamiliar with Smith and at first didn't know
what to make of her. But by the end, most were stomping on the floor for
encores (her poem "Piss Factory" and an excellent rendition of the Quin-Tones'
Fifties hit, "Down the Aisle of Love"). I hesitate to say it, but I will:
Patti Smith is the best new solo artist I've seen since Bruce Springsteen. She
seems destined to be the queen of rock & roll for the Seventies.
Copyright © Stephen Holden 1975