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Patti Smith, Union Chapel, Islington, March 21st 2010

March 22, 2010

I’ve seen Patti Smith several times over the years, but I’d forgotten one aspect of her performances until my friend Mom Of Kong from the States reminded me, ‘She hacks ’em up like a truck driver… so stand or sit five or so rows back and have a blast!’ Indeed, she does have a wonderful way of clearing excess spittle, shall we say. Patti the punk-art poetess has never been one for the niceties, but there’s something else about her that I want to reflect on later – it’s her absolute seriousness as an artist.

Patti’s on tour promoting Just Kids, her memoir of life in New York with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and much of tonight’s gig was taken up with her reading extracts from the book. What struck me was how personal, humorous and relatively light the memoirs are – relatively light compared to her songs and poetry, that is. The musical tone was set with the opening number, a stripped down, austere My Blakean Year, followed by the chugging drive of Redondo Beach, with Patti spitting out the lyrics.

She was joined by band member Tony Shanahan on acoustic guitar and piano, and – after a fine Wings – by My Bloody Valentine main-man Kevin Shields, also on acoustic guitar. This was possibly his quietest gig for a long time, though Patti enjoyed the righteous ranting of Birdland:

Take me up, daddy, to the belly of your ship,
Let the ship slide open and I’ll go inside of it
Where you’re not human, you are not human.

She followed that with a touching recollection of Robert Mapplethorpe’s last days and I felt pulled again by a nagging string of thoughts about art, artists and America. I’ve always had a fascination for the art of postwar USA, whether it’s the paintings of Rothko and Johns, the poems of Ginsberg and Berryman, or the music of Cage and Glass. But what these have in common is a seriousness, an austerity, about their vocation that borders on the solemn and quasi-religious.

Now you can argue the toss about how ‘the muse’, artistic inspiration and discipline share much with spiritual belief and practice, but the world of postwar metropolitan modern art in America seems to me a strangely humourless place, peopled by artists whose apparent distaste for the real, grimy world often led them either to severe austerity or headlong into hedonistic enjoyment of what ‘the streets’ had to offer.

We in Britain had little of this ethos, not only because postwar Britain was grey and relatively dull, but also because of the ingrained British habits of self-deprecation, mocking humour and a real fear of being seen to be pompous. And there is something ever so slightly pompous about Patti’s name-dropping – Blake, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Ginsberg and the rest – but it’s also quite touching (the same goes for Lou Reed and his reinvention as A Serious Artist rather than brattish rock-star). I’d go so far as to say it seems to be a defence mechanism, with Patti holding up cherished books as fetish objects against the ugly philistinism of American consumer culture.

I don’t think for one moment that Patti needs to be defensive about her art – it’s just that I think she sees her important work differently. I love the rant of Piss Factory, for instance, but much of Patti’s strident poetry leaves me unmoved, as do (whisper it softly) many of her songs. Her anecdotes, observations, stories and memoirs, however, are a different matter: pertinent, emotional, personally brave, funny, beautifully written and shining with the simple ring of truth.

So perhaps Patti herself is the object and purpose of her art. Her life of truth-telling and singing is more important and valuable than the works themselves. This was, I think, also true of a great American postwar artist not mentioned above – Andy Warhol, whose crowning achievement was his own path through life. Here’s to Patti and her life.

Finally, despite myself, I can’t resist a little bit of her ranting in an outtake of an interview she gave in 2002… ‘You don’t need anything…’

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