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Rock & Roll Digger

Five rare and essential Patti Smith moments for the fan who has it all

By Steve Palopoli

If ever there was a rock legend who lived by the axiom "Always leave 'em wanting more," it's Patti Smith. Rock & roll is littered with examples of musicians who burned out or faded away before their time, and yet Smith's premature retirement in the early '80s was a source of serious angst for a lot of people, who apparently felt that if they kept complaining about it, she might come back. "I hope she comes back and gives Pet Banatar or Pat Benatar or whatever her name is a fright," moaned John Cale in 1985, while R.E.M. punctuated a now-famous live rendition of Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner" thusly: "Patti fucking Smith, where are you?"

What do you know? It worked! Smith came back with an album in 1988, only to disappear once more until 1996's ironically titled Gone Again. In a 30-year career, Smith has released only 10 proper albums--which admittedly is better than the four that fans thought they would have to settle for when she dropped out two decades ago. But the serious Smith fan can still burn through those in no time flat--and if you're among the truly devoted, well, what the hell are you going to do when you've been through Horses 200 times, got her two-disc collection Land and tracked down official loose ends like the remix of "Rock n Roll Nigger" on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack?

To relieve temporary symptoms of withdrawal from her Pattiness' unique work, here are five rare moments worth tracking down:

1. June 5, 1974--Electric Lady Studios, New York

'Hey Joe'

Smith's first recording still has the power to floor you 30 years later. It is completely raw, as dirty and outrageous as anything Mick Jagger was coming up with that time, and yet both more poetic and more straightforward than a mainstream figure like him would dare to be. Smith transformed this traditional song, most famously done by Jimi Hendrix, into the story of kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. Her spoken opening line "Honey, the way you play guitar makes me feel so masochistic" comes on as unexpected and subversive as her more famous lead-in "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine" from Horses, and to this day it's hard to decide whether to be aghast at lines like "I was wondering, were you getting it every night from a Black revolutionary man and his women?" After repeated listens, the understated guitar strumming of Tom Verlaine from Television sneaks up on you, and so does the significance of Smith and her subject's shared first name. This song was the A side of Smith's first single in 1974, and popped up on a 1978 Sire Records sampler (The Sire Machine Turns You Up), but was impossible to get on CD for the longest time. (It's a crime that it was left off her best-of, by the way--two discs, and no "Hey Joe"?) However, it's available on the bootleg In Heat, and last year Morrissey included it on his songs-of-my-youth mix album Under the Influence. Thanks, Moz!

2. Jan. 1, 1975--St. Mark's Church, New York

'The Histories of the Universe'

"The histories of the universe lie in the sleeping sex of a woman," sums up Smith on this incredible free-form monologue/chant, in which she describes a mummification process that includes a mixture of opium, salad oil and henna; fantasizes about stealing boys' skins; and says "I was always jealous I wasn't a homosexual." Smith was known to deliver her share of bizarre ramblings seemingly inspired by Burroughs' Naked Lunch around this time, and this is the best of them. More importantly, though, this reading shows that Smith didn't take herself as seriously as the critics who labeled her "pretentious" would have you believe. Here, the audience cracks up throughout, and she slyly eggs them on--you'd think she was doing a comedy act. This first appeared on the John Giorno "Dial-a-Poet" album Big Ego, and part of it was released on Cash Cow: The Best of Giorno Poetry Systems. Another Giorno-related Smith artifact worth hunting down is the song "Fire of Unknown Origin" she did on Dec. 2, 1978--it was one of Smith's long line of remarkable elegies (this one for Jim Morrison), and showed up on Giorno's You're a Hook compilation.

3. Jan. 30, 1976--Roxy, Los Angeles

'Pale Blue Eyes'

It could be argued that Smith moved the snarl of the punk era a little closer to the more introspective and sincere age of indie rock when she changed Lou Reed's lyrics from "mostly you just make me mad" to "lately I'm just feeling bad" on her cover of this song. She also replaced Reed's cynical vocal delivery with real feeling and cut the bullshit about "the fact that you are married only proves that you're my best friend," transforming this from an ironic song about sex trumping love to a tragic love song. Tellingly, when R.E.M. covered this Velvet Underground standard a decade later, they did it Smith's way, lyrics and all. There are several recorded instances of her performing "Pale Blue Eyes," but this one (documented on the bootleg Teenage Perversity and Ships in the Night) nails it. And you gotta dig the way she always segued seamlessly into "Louie, Louie" at the end of this song.

4. Oct. 3, 1976--Conserthouse, Stockholm

'We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together'

Another Velvet Underground cover. On this one, she turns Lou Reed's rockin' but rather pointless audience-warm-up tune into a seriously twisted tale of shooting heroin in Harlem. "We're gonna have a real good time together/ We're gonna jump and shout and shoot together?" Holy shit! This show, which also featured a white-knuckle cover of the Rolling Stones' "Time Is on My Side," was preserved for posterity on the bootleg I Never Talked to Bob Dylan.

5. Aug. 1, 1996--Hamburg

'When Doves Cry'

Yet another in Smith's unrivalled legacy of top-notch cover songs, and unlike most of its unlucky predecessors, she did a studio version of this one in 2002. That showed up on Land and a promo-only CD single, and it's certainly worth getting, but you can't beat the 11-minute version of the song she unleashed live six years earlier. It's on the Shake Out the Ghost bootleg.


Patti Smith & Her Band perform Saturday, Aug. 21, at 9:30pm at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz and Sunday, Aug. 22, at 7:30pm at the Sunset Center, San Carlos Street and Eighth Avenue, Carmel. The Sunset Center show is a benefit for the Henry Miller Library. Tickets for the Catalyst show are $20 advance, $22 door, available at the box office or online at www.catalystclub.com. Tickets for the Sunset Center show are $25; call 831.620.2040.

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From the August 18-25, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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