Thursday, 13 September 2012

Patti Has the Power, By James Nuttall

Patti Smith, 2012
I have talked to a lot of very interesting people at the Hebden Bridge Trades Club, and seen some fantastic shows there.

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of re-interviewing one of the most interesting and influential people on the planet- Patti Smith.

Patti was scheduled to play the Trades that night. She was back in the UK to tour with her band to promote her latest album, Banga.

The date in Hebden Bridge would be an acoustic show, with just her and bass player, Tony Shanahan, on piano and guitar duties. Patti would be donating her £3,000 fee to the town's flood appeal; a campaign close to her heart. As she explained that evening during the show, her own house flooded in the 1980's, so she could relate to the town's troubles. "I saw all the sand bags and I just thought 'ugh, my life in the 80's".' In the end, you just pick up and start again."

Patti arrived at the venue around 5pm. Taking time out to recover from car sickness, she signed autographs for fans, and even complimented a passing child's bike! 

Once again, I found myself walking into another venue with the Godmother of Punk for an interview on another sunny afternoon. Taking me into the soundcheck in the 190 capacity venue, I was greeted with a bottle of water and the opening bars of Smith's top 5 UK hit, Because the Night, playing in the background as the duo prepared for soundcheck.

Soundcheck over, Patti went for a stroll around the town to search for a book store where, she hoped to purchase a poetry book for the evening, intending to read a Sylvia Plath poem. Plath is buried in Heptonstall, near Hebden Bridge.

Returning empty handed, I offered to go home and print off the poem from the internet in return for a slot on the guest list for the evening's show, which had sold-out within minutes. Patti was happy to oblige, but first things first, we launched into the pre-arranged interview...

This date was scheduled as a day off between dates at Manchester and Leeds Academy's. With such a tight schedule, Patti still managed to fit in some sightseeing.

"We were in Haworth and we visited the Bronte parish and the museum, and that was really wonderful because I share, with my sister, a deep love of the Bronte's. They had a very old second-hand copy of my favourite Charlotte Bronte book, Villette. That was quite moving."

"I didn't do extensive sightseeing because I'm saving it for a trip my sister and I are taking in the spring. But the most moving thing, actually, was to go to St Thomas' church yard and visit the grave of the great Sylvia Plath. I've well loved her since I was a teenager. It was very moving to visit her modest little grave, and I had to take a couple of very beautiful shots that I'm very proud of."

"Then we've been about this town, which is beautiful. It's so beautiful here that everything is sightseeing... looking out the window... looking at rolling hills, dotted with sheep is especially wonderful because I have a great affection for sheep. And the biggest cows I've ever seen! I'm from South Jersey, where there's a lot of white Jersey cows, but your cows are much bigger than our cows!"

Patti Smith plays an acoustic show at the Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 7th September 2012
In November, Patti will be back in America, touring with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. They will be playing the biggest arenas in the country, taking in the likes of Madison Square Garden. However, she says that size is not important to her.

 "Our essential duty is to prepare the stage for Neil, which I'm really happy to do because I greatly admire him. Neil and I are of the same generation, about the same age, so it's really great to be able to work with him. As a performer the difference between one room or the other is technology, often. I don't feel anymore affection for a small room than a big room. My job is to communicate whether it's 20,000 or 20 people. I'm the same person, I just will adjust."

Smith is now 65 years old. The Godmother of Punk, she has been on the road for nearly 40 years... does she still enjoy it as much now as she did then?

"Yes, or I wouldn't tour. I don't do what I don't enjoy unless it's something that has to be done... some kind of responsibility. If a cat throws up on my books I'll have to clean it up. I love touring because that's a way to communicate with a lot of people, to meet people out on the streets, to talk to people, to consider what's going on in our world and share ideas. And it's fun."

This was the first time Patti ever visited Hebden Bridge. A town famous for it's unusual shops, beautiful walks and views- it is no surprise she plans to come back.

"I'm definitely bringing my sister back in the spring. I want my sister to see the town, it's beautiful. And I want to see how the people are recovering from the flood, and visit Sylvia [Plath] again with my sister... it's beautiful around here. I hope to play here again too... I'm sure that I will."

Smith has released 11 studio albums. The first, Horses in 1975, features in pretty much any 'Greatest Albums of All Time' lists worth reading. Radio Ethiopia followed a year, under the name 'The Patti Smith Group' and her two most commercially successful albums, Easter was released in 1978 and Wave a year later.

However, there would be a nine year wait before Patti was ready to make another album, Dream of Life, in 1988. Smith states that she does not have a favourite album from the early days. "It's like asking which child you like the best. They all have qualities that I like. The first four are a long, long time ago, and they reflect when I was just beginning. I was just learning the technology of doing a record. Really, they're very fledgling. I'm proud of how the band has evolved, and how I've evolved as a songwriter and a singer. I like all the records, somewhat. They're not perfect, but there's something on all of them that I like."

Reflecting back on something Patti told me in Wolverhampton, that an album is supposed to take you on a trip, I was keen to ask whether sequencing is an important part of the trip. "Sequencing is very important. That's probably the thing that sometimes one spends the most time dealing with."

1997's Peace and Noise 
"In these times it's sort of painful because you go through so much to sequence an album, and people just buy one song and then shuffle them on an iPod. So sequencing where it might be important to an artist might be unimportant to the listener, so you have to bow to the listeners desires and needs. I still think it's important. Each song should stand on it's own, but I like the idea that you're building... it's like in a concert. Sometimes a certain song in itself is not important, but it will help to build the night."

The same goes, Patti says, for the album covers... famous for her simple yet powerful shots, Patti often takes the photographs for the CD booklets herself. 

KT Tunstall famously wrote her hit Suddenly I See about the shot of Smith on the cover of Horses. Easter famously shows smith revealing the hair under her arm- a revolutionary shot for the times.

"Album art was very, very important to my generation. We sometimes fretted as much about the album art as the album. It was always exciting, also, when I was younger 'what's gonna be on the cover of Blond On Blond, or  what's gonna be the new Stones album, what's it gonna look like? The new Led Zeppelin album... Jimi Hendrix... Miles Davis.'"

"Covers were really part of the message, or part of the aesthetic experience of buying a record. So for me it's still important. I spend a lot of time on the packaging. I have worked on the packaging of all our albums, with the design, the font, the liner notes, to make sure it's a full aesthetic experience."

"Horses... it was Robert [Mapplethorpe] who chose that cover. He shot like 12 pictures and he chose the cover. Robert knew when he shot it that that was the cover."

Famous for her raunchy, hot and energetic gigs, Smith's acoustic shows can be few and far between. However, she does enjoy both electric and acoustic performances.

My signed Easter vinyl
"The only advantage of acoustic is often I can hear myself better. So as a singer, acoustic might be a little more pleasurable, but for excitement, it's great to have a full band. I love plugging in my electric guitar at the end of the night. It's more anarchistic maybe with a full band, but, you'd be surprised what you can get out of an acoustic guitar if you have the will."

So finally, my most-asked question: does she see herself doing this in 10 years?

"I have no idea. I truthfully did not see myself doing this 20 years ago. 20 years ago I was married, I had children. It never occurred to me that I'd be back on the stage playing electric guitar."

"I actually see myself living in a little house by the sea and writing. Doing probably more acoustic things, going from town to town like we're doing now.I could see myself spending just a few weeks in the UK, going from town to town doing poetry readings or small concerts."

"I'd still like to do another record or two, but what I want to do more than anything is write. I began as a write, I'll probably end as a writer, so that will probably be the full circle of my life."

Dashing home to print out a Sylvia Plath poem for Patti to begin the night with, appropriately entitled Sheep In Fog, I returned to find the club filling with eager fans, all keen to get the best view in the house.

Once the opening act, Karima Francis, completed her 20 minute set, the room was on it's feet.

Patti took the stage a little before 9pm, and was greeted with wild applause.

Beginning with saying how happy she was to be there, Patti read out the poem, much to the crowd's love, before hitting the wrong chord going into the first song... Attempting to salvage the somber atmosphere, she tried to repeat the final line of the poem. However, she was unsuccessful, bursting into a fit of laughter before she could get the line out. "That was pathetic. It was such a wonderful setup and I hit the wrong chord!"

Smith delighred the audience with a selection of songs from her new album, Banga. Some of the songs performed at The Trades had never been performed acoustic before. A song from Banga, April Fool, was one such song.

The room was in hysterics as Patti walked up to, and then retreated from the microphone, explaining "This is where the guitar solo normally is!" As Tony repeated the bridge of the song, on piano, Smith turned to him and asked "How much longer does this thing last?"

A particular highlight was the song Ghost Dance from 1978. The audience cheered with empathy at the line "We shall live again... we shall live". Tony Shanahan playing the song on just an acoustic guitar made it even more poignant.

Patti once again said how great it was to be in Hebden Bridge. "I'm sorry you had to have a flood for me to come!"

Another highlight was a passage from Smith's 2010 award-winning memoir, Just Kids, which tells the story of Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe's years as struggling artists in New York. She even told the crowd her recipe for lettuce soup.

Pissing In A River, the signature song from her 1976 album, Radio Ethiopia, sent the audience wild  from the opening piano sequence, as did Because the Night.

My Blakean Year saw the audience clap the bass line for Patti to stay in time- a duty they were pleased to take on.

The final song was the anthem Patti co-wrote with her late husband, Fred 'Sonic' Smith. People Have the Power had the whole room swaying, repeating the refrain over and over again.

My signed copy of the Banga CD
Making my way down the staircase after the show, I heard a woman declare: "Do you know what? She's right!"

Patti's dressing room for the evening was a dressing room inside the Little Theater Company, which is next door to The Trades. 
There was a 40-strong crowd surrounding the theater, hoping to get albums and books signed,  or just to shake her hand.

Patti emerged at 10:20pm, carrying a bouquet of flowers. The audience burst into a spontaneous round of applause as she made her way to the waiting van.

Before she left, she called "Who's going to see Sylvia tomorrow?" When a hand was raised, they were instructed to leave the bouquet of flowers on the grave.

Patti Smith and her band was booked to play Leeds O2 Academy the following day, and she was already behind time. The autograph hunters were left disappointed as she was ushered into the car. However, she did stop to shake my hand and thank me for sourcing the poem for her. Reaching into her pocket and handing me some plectrums, she said "Keep in touch... email me or something, won't you?" Giving her my assurance I would email the finished piece to her, and also stay in touch, we shook hands one last time before Patti thanked the crowd again, and both she and Tony disappeared behind the black tinted windows. 

The duo were driven off in a black luxury Mercedes van. Several fans chased after it to catch a last glimpse of their idol before the van turned around the corner onto the main road. Most were content to applaud them as they drove off into the night, with calls of "come back soon" lingering in the evening's atmosphere.

By James Nuttall

All photographs copyright James Nuttall 2012 ©

Many thanks to Patti Smith for her time and assistance.

Thanks also to the Hebden Bridge Trades Club.

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