In Patti Smith's poetic and political church
October 8, 2007, The Globe & Mail
Patti Smith At St-Jean-Baptiste Church
In Montreal on Friday - Pop Montreal Festival
Patti Smith first started to hone her singular performance style in a church, at humble St. Mark's in the Bowery in New York in the early 1970s. On Friday night in Montreal she handily dominated the more outsized, Italian-baroque setting of the St-Jean-Baptiste church, with its enormous altar, egg-cluster chandeliers and vaulting ceilings, through the profane sacrament of rock 'n' roll. To the thousand-plus Montrealers and visitors for the Pop Montreal festival who shared more than two hours with her, the 60-year-old icon was as good as sainted.
With long-time cohort Lenny Kaye by her side on guitars, Jay Dee Daugherty on drums and Tony Shanahan on bass and keyboards, Smith gave a set heavy on classics - her own and the cover versions she sings on her most recent record, Twelve - as well as her signature improvisations, poetic flights and political rallying cries.
The covers were all canonical, from the opener, the Beatles' Within You Without You, to Neil Young's Helpless - dedicated to her late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith - Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced?, Lou Reed's Perfect Day, the Doors' Soul Kitchen and even Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, not to mention Allen Ginsberg's very dirty little incantation, Footnote to Howl, which Smith read and then restated sonically on clarinet in flutters and yips partway between Albert Ayler and a Turkish shawm.
But when Smith sings them, they all become Patti Smith songs, as surely as her own Ghost Dance, We Three (a song memorializing CBGB at the peak of the proto-punk era, which she dedicated to the New York club's recently deceased owner Hilly Kristal), Dancing Barefoot (which saw her dancing out into the church, between the pews), Pissing in a River, Because the Night and People Have the Power, among other high points.
It is not only that even in the covers she frequently departs from the lyrics to interpolate her own visionary monologues. Nor is it just her unmistakable seventies New York hipster cadences and slurs, the way she has of turning music into spoken word and word into music. It is that to her they are all in a sense one song, each another dip into a stream running through everything. Smith is as masterful a showman as a Mick Jagger or a David Bowie, but with her, the tricks of the trade, down to the most flippant remark, seem purposed to pull her audience into her spiritual vibe.
Smith came to Montreal a few days early and played a semi-secret show on Wednesday at the small Ukrainian Federation with musicians from the local collective A Silver Mt. Zion, and was impressed enough to improvise a song about it on Friday, strumming an acoustic guitar and sing-speaking, "I came to Montreal three days ago, though it feels like three weeks ... I went to the Ukrainian Hall and I met Silver Mt. Zion. I didn't have time to get to know their names and yet we travelled together in the realm of trust, in a great swirl of love."
She sang Montreal's praises a half-dozen other times, and there is no surer way to get Montrealers to eat out of your hand than to join their one true common religion, the love of their city.
It doesn't hurt here to damn George Bush's regime, either, and Smith made plenty of time for that, saying people needed to march by the millions against war and for "brotherhood, a simple revolutionary concept that ... is the best of what this church celebrates."
During the second-last encore number, Babelogue from 1978's Easter, she amended her 30-year-old self's words: "Once I said, 'In my heart I am an American artist and I feel no guilt,' but now I say, 'I'm an American artist and I feel guilt every ... day.' " Without contrivance, she fell to her knees and screamed.
By now she'd whipped the room into a delirium, and segued into Rock 'n' Roll Nigger, a song whose language (using African-American oppression as a metaphor for human alienation and dubiously attempting to reclaim the epithet as a proud universal badge) was far more shocking to hear in a church than all the profanities and sexual references. Yet however flaky or wrong-headed some of her thinking can seem on paper, when it is woven into Smith's performances, a deeper intention becomes clear and luminous.
At the climax of the song she held her electric guitar up like a cross and said, "This is the weapon of rock 'n' roll. And it's the only weapon we need."
Patti Smith in Montreal by Ida Jorgensen
John Nichols: Patriots can 'wrestle the world from fools'
John Nichols — 10/11/2007 10:46 am
MONTREAL -- At the close of an impassioned performance, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Patti Smith recalled a declaration from three decades ago, telling the crowd of thousands, "I once said, 'I am an American artist, and I have no guilt.' Now, I must say, 'I am an American artist, and I feel guilt. I feel guilt every day.'"
Smith, whose conversation is laced with references to Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine, is about as patriotic an American as you will find.
Yet she spoke of guilt. And the multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-generational audience, which adored her, understood precisely what she was saying to them.
Americans who travel the world invariably find themselves explaining why their country's current leadership -- and its media -- fail the planet so frequently and so miserably.
It is not just the war in Iraq, although the damage done to the United States by that conflict is much better recognized by the people of foreign lands than it will ever be by George Bush or Dick Cheney. It is the looming disaster in Afghanistan. It is the neglect of global warming. It is the folly of trade policies that damage workers, communities and the environment in the U.S. and abroad.
But something more immediate pressed the consciences last weekend of Americans who were in Canada, where Patti Smith and I had come to participate in a seminar on her career as part of the Pop Montreal International Music Festival.