“I’m shrouded in the lives of my heroes.” Patti Smith, Please Kill Me (Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain)
Patti Smith always felt a deep connection to the famous. She seemed to simultaneously crave the company of beautiful people and feel awkward in it – as if she belonged there but wasn’t sure why. In the brilliant oral history of New York punk, Please Kill Me, Penny Arcade related a story about Patti hanging around with Eric Clapton not long after she’d arrived in the city. Eventually he said to her, “Do I know you?”. “Nah”, she replied. “I’m just one of the little people”.
Patti first began to make a name for herself in New York by performing poetry and impressing everyone who counted in the punk scene with her intensity and vulnerability. When she’d finished reading a poem she would scrunch up the paper it was written on into a ball and drop it to the floor. Sometimes she would throw chairs.
It was a concert by The Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden that turned Patti towards music. According to Patti, Mick Jagger was “fucked up” that night. “He was not a rock and roller that Tuesday night. He was closer to a poet than he ever has been, because he was so tired, he could hardly sing”.
Patti the poet could sing. Her combination of passion, powerful voice and vivid poetry cemented her status as a punk star, right from her 1975 debut album Horses. She’s been there ever since. As a survivor of the original New York scene, she’s now practically royalty.
In 2007 she released Twelve, an album of covers featuring versions of songs by artists as diverse as Hendrix, Nirvana, The Doors, Tears For Fears and Stevie Wonder. Patti’s low-key take on Teen Spirit is great, but it’s when she gets to grips with the work of her long-time heroes that her charisma takes things to another level. Gimme Shelter is something of a sacred cow for Stones fans, and it took balls to take it on. That’s something that Patti’s never lacked. Musically it’s pretty close to the original but the raw emotion in Patti’s voice in her cover version adds a new emotional authenticity to an enduring classic and adds yet more weight to her enduring legend. Even when she’s covering other artists, she’s a complete original.
I discovered Patti Smith through a cover version. Birmingham-based, Bleach-blond indie-rockers Birdland released a version of her Rock ‘n’Roll Nigger as a single in 1990 and the 7″ of this was one of my earliest vinyl purchases. This was at a time when I had no money and was rifling through bargain bins to boost my meagre record collection. It’s a pretty good cover; I certainly made a lot of worse purchases in those days.