Patti Smith: a dream that's over
by Chris Bohn
Patti Smith had a vision that became her obsession and our nightmare.
Patti Smith used to be a great rock 'n' roll singer, imagined herself to be an artist, and thereby took artistic licence. We fell in love with her first album, waited patiently through the dribbles of Radio Ethiopia, were revitalised by Easter and let down by Wave. Love is no longer blind.
It's all too easy. There are no risks involved, the Patti Smith way. The would-be rock 'n' roll commander's strategy is to create the great divide between critical and popular opinion, to become the misunderstood artist of our time who is nevertheless loved by the masses. But she is not Edith Piaf's "Little Sparrow" - more the (scare) crow of New York.
Meanwhile, her art, which was once her rock 'n' roll, continues to suffer from neglect. We could forgive her enthusiastic invocations of Rimbaud and Verlaine - until she wanted to be them, too. The word-rushes and the clattering amateurs of her group were once wildly exciting, but on Wednesday they were woesomely dull.
The innocence is gone. Recreate it, and it sounds contrived - just like Smith's child-poem, "Hymn", or her teen romance, "Frederick". Or her band's efforts to revive the naive Sixties with "For Your Love" (a terrible, misplaced Lenny Kaye guitar solo), "All Along the Watchtower" (ditto, horribly shouted by Sohl) and a silly "5, 4, 3, 2, WAVE".
It was actually the Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" which ushered in the second half's indulgence, with even an extended fuzz feedback workout towards the end. "Kimberly" plodded (where did the pop go?) and "Citizen Ship" and "Because the Night" fought temporary rearguard actions, but Smith's clumsy clarinet posturing had previously done its damage.
The first half was cautiously promising. The great rock 'n' roll voice sang properly, though without passion, and the band was dull but consistent and controlled. Not what I would choose, yet maybe it was an attempt to come to terms with the past and lay down firmer foundations for the future.
The Voice gave way to the mouth - a touching tribute to Mountbatten's funeral wishes, a closing of the gap between audience and stage performers, the adulation, the clutching hands.
The best reminds us how it used to be - namely "Set Me Free". Yet the mediocrity of the first half sums it all up: not capable of making a contemporary 'Horses' or 'Easter', her band no longer has the gall to do what it used to. A little knowledge can be deadly.
This is not meant to be a crucifixtion. I hoped for a resurrection and
saw only a wilful martyr. "We created it . . ." Patti, you asked for it.
Copyright © Melody Maker 1979