Patti Smith in Manchester: spirit in the night

The rock’n’roll spirit soared and raged last Friday night in Manchester, as if thirty years had not passed and reduced the flame to a flickering ember.  The reason?   One of the few artists left with any credibility from the time when rock and poetry fused was in town, a battered survivor still raising a fist to power, corruption and greed who stirred up a powerful, spiritual, shamanic experience: Patti Smith.

Sauntering on stage in a sweltering O2 Academy, Patti launched straight into every fan’s favourite ‘Dancing Barefoot’, taken at a stately pace. It was soon clear that this was going to be a great night: Patti in top form, as was the band (longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye on guitar, Jay Dee Daugherty Trilby-hatted on drums, Tony Shanahan on bass and keyboards and Jackson Smith on guitar), and the sound balance perfect.

Patti dedicated ‘Redondo Beach’ to Morrissey, ‘who made it his own’.  The song has an incongruously jaunty reggae rhythm for something so sad.  ‘I went looking for you, are you gone, gone ?’ she sang, the words actually a sort of morbid fantasy, written in remorse when she and her sister Linda were living at the Chelsea Hotel.  They had quarrelled, and Linda had disappeared: the song was written as an anguished response.

‘April Fool’ was the first song taken from her new album. It’s one of the prettiest songs on Banga, full of a sense of freedom and a joy in being alive:

We’ll tramp through the mire
When our souls feel dead
With laughter we’ll inspire
Then back to life again

She sang it beautifully, at the close repeating and emphasising the refrain: ‘We’ll break all the rules’.

Three more new songs followed – ‘Fuji San’, ‘Mosaic’ and ‘This Is The Girl’, the sixties-style pop ballad based on a poem she wrote about Amy Winehouse after her death at the age of 27 in July 2011. Smith told Uncut magazine:

The little song for Amy just blossomed in the studio. We were at [New York studio] Electric Lady doing a whole other song and I wrote Amy a little poem when she died and my bass player, Tony Shanahan, wrote a piece of music and the two matched perfectly.”

In Manchester, there was nothing mawkish about Patti’s introduction to the song.  She pointed out that September 14 would be Amy’s birthday – and also that of her husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, who died in 1994, aged 45. ‘It will be a happy day, a day of celebration’, said Patti.

In an interview for Spinner, Patti explained that the purpose of the song was not to glamourise self-destructive behaviour.  She didn’t actually know Winehouse:

I wrote it out of respect for her artistry and her youth.  A lot of people think that because I admire a lot of musicians or artists who did have a self-destructive bent that I romanticize self-destruction. Well, I don’t at all. In Amy Winehouse’s instance, I really admired her as a singer. That girl was amazing. She sang songs from my generation – R&B songs and jazz and doo-wop – with no sixth degree of separation. She really comprehended this music and delivered something extra.

But for myself … I always wanted to be an artist. I was always just enthralled with the possibilities in life: Books and art and music and architecture and travel and love. There’s so much out there. Also, I was a very sickly child. I was sick quite a bit and my mother had to nurse me through everything from tuberculosis to scarlet fever to measles and mumps and influenza. By the time I was a teenager, I was just happy to be alive. I certainly wasn’t going to destroy what my mother spent almost two decades preserving. [So] I never really developed any vices – except coffee! I guess the simplest answer would be, I love life. I’m very grateful to have the imagination that I have, and the children that I have. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.

After this, Patti moved straight into one of her most shamanic songs – ‘Ghost Dance’, with its incantatory refrain, ‘We shall live again’.  This was a powerful performance, with Lenny Kaye contributing vocals on one verse. Patti had also sung ‘Ghost Dance’ in Glasgow two nights earlier: this is a video of her performance there:

Announcing that ‘reality is over – after this show you will return only to semi-reality’, Patti withdrew to leave Lenny Kaye to lead the band through a fiery medley of garage classics that included the Strangeloves’ ‘Night Time’, the Seeds’ ‘Pushin’ Too Hard’,  and the Blue Magoos’  We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet – all of them featured on the classic 1972 double LP Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 that Lenny Kaye helped to compile.

Returning to the stage, Patti spoke a little about her family history – she had recently been delving into it a little, and had discovered that her antecedents included Irish and Liverpudlian, some of them lacemakers.  Then she gave a stunning performance of ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’, urged on by ay Dee Daugherty’s muscular drumming.  It’s one of the songs that represent the ecstatic strand in Patti Smith’s work  – songs that express a yearning for freedom, spiritual epiphany, and true communion.

Oh to be not anyone – gone
Oh to owe not anyone – nothing
Words that echo that most beautiful of her poem-songs, ‘Wing’, where she writes:
I was a wing in heaven blue
Soared over the ocean
Soared over Spain
And I was free
I needed nobody
It was beautiful.

By the time we reached ‘Pissing in a River’, the musicians on stage and everyone in the audience was drenched in sweat.  The song featured a blistering guitar solo by Lenny Kaye, and there was no let up as ‘Because the Night’ followed.  Is there something about New Jersey?  Born in Chicago on the last day of 1946, Smith spent the bulk of her childhood in southern  New Jersey; in the same years, not so far away, a young Bruce Springsteen was growing up.  They would write this song together.  This is Patti’s performance in Glasgow two nights earlier:

As the notes died away, Patti leaned into the microphone: ‘In this world there is so much strife, stupidity, sorrow, corruption’, she said. ‘We sing of these things – but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time, too.’  And then she began to sing one of my personal favourites, ‘Peaceable Kingdom’, inspired by and dedicated to Rachel Corrie and first performed ten days after her death in 2003:

Yesterday I saw you standing there
With your hand against the pane
Looking out the window
At the rain

And I wanted to tell you
That your tears were not in vain
But I guess we both knew
We’d never be the same

Why must we hide all these feelings inside?
Lions and lambs shall abide

Maybe one day we’ll be strong enough
To build it back again
Build the peaceable kingdom
Back again

This was a powerful and moving performance, enhanced by the segue into a spoken verse from ‘People Have the Power’ that Patti has taken to including (the song would return in blistering electric form during the encore). Then Patti and the band tore into her iconic take on Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ that opens with its ringing assertion that ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine’. On this night Patti changed the last verse, spelling out not GLORIA, but PUSSY RIOT, and yelling  ‘Ask Jesus Christ – he would fucking forgive them! Youth and truth should not be imprisoned!’ This is how she did it a few days earlier in Stockholm:

At the close, Patti speaks with anger about the coroner’s ruling the previous day in the so-called ‘friendly fire’ incident in 2009 when two US Apache helicopters attacked a British base in Afghanistan, killing a British soldier.  ‘What the fuck is friendly fire?’ she rages. ‘ This is friendly fire, this is our weapon’, she yells, raising high her guitar.  What a way to end the show!

Patti returned for a three-number encore. ‘Banga’ was up first, preceded by Patti’s explanation of the story behind the song – a story of ‘the true loyalty of  the canine’.  Banga was Pontius Pilate’s dog in Mikhail Bulgakov’s satirical novel The Master And Margarita (a novel I bought when I was at university when it appeared in paperback; I still haven’t read it, but that same paperback is still on my bookshelf). ‘That dog was loyal for 2000 years, sitting at the edge of heaven while Pilate was waiting for Jesus Christ to speak to him,’ Smith explained. ‘It’ll take me 2000 years to finish telling this story’.  It’s a song that is especially suited to live performance with its repeated shout, ‘Banga – Say Banga’.  Towards the end Patti has us all barking like dogs.

Then we got the full electric version of  ‘People Have the Power’, with Patti raging, ‘look what they are doing to our earth – the corporations and the banks’.  ‘Use your voice!’ Patti shouts;  ‘You are the future, and the future is now!’  She screams the opening lines of ‘Babelogue’  – ‘I haven’t fucked much with the past but I’ve fucked plenty with the future’  over the opening chords of ‘Rock and Roll Nigger’. The three imprisoned girls in Russia come to mind again as Patti sings the refrain:

Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me.
Outside of society, that’s where I want to be.

She ends by kneeling, Hendrix-like, guitar aimed at the audience to fire an arrow of love: straining on the string of the guitar, it wails, then snaps with an explosive sound.

‘I’m done, man, she gasps. ‘Manchester, you fuckin’ wore me out!’  And with that she’s gone.

This was a night of rock’n’roll that raised a banner and asserted that its music and words could really mean something – and matter. It was emotion, ecstasy: Jim Morrison’s ‘scream of the butterfly’.  It was a rallying cry, that proclaimed change will come not from the barrel of a gun, but from the pen and from an electric guitar.

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2 thoughts on “Patti Smith in Manchester: spirit in the night

  1. This gig sounds so f’ing marevellous that it brought tears to my eyes. Wow. If I get the chance to see Patti locally – ideally Reno NV, our closest city at 3 hours by road! – I will not hesitate. Thanks Gerry, you brought the show alive, again.

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