Andrew Eaton-Lewis: Despite all the lives she’s touched, there’s still no-one like Patti Smith
A REVIEW of Patti Smith’s most recent album, Banga, raised an interesting question.
Why is this woman – who hasn’t had a hit single since 1978, who then stopped releasing records altogether for almost a decade in order to raise her children, and whose music since then has mostly stuck to the same template as her early work – still getting to release albums on a major label, Columbia?
She is, I agree, an anomaly. The answer is probably a combination of friends in high places and breadth of influence (on everyone from REM and Morrissey to Madonna, KT Tunstall and Shirley Manson). Smith may not sell a huge number of records, but she’s a prestigious “property” for any label that wants to look artistically credible.
Given how many lives she’s touched, though, it’s strange that there is, still, nobody else like her. I was struck by that thought all through her gig at the ABC in Glasgow on Wednesday. What other heterosexual female singer, of any age, takes the stage the way the 65-year-old Smith does, in old, shapeless jeans, baggy white shirt and waistcoat, and – as far as I could see – no make-up, looking entirely comfortable in her own skin? In other words, exactly the same way her male bandmates do (yes, Smith dyes her hair, but that is about as far as her vanity goes). Even PJ Harvey doesn’t do that.
In fact, what other singer, of any age and either sex, gets away with doing any of the things Smith does? Combine rock’n’roll and dense, verbose, heartfelt poetry and you’ll be accused of pretentiousness. Write about ecological disaster (as she does on new song Fuji-San) and you’ll be accused of jumping on an environmental bandwagon. Shout political slogans and you’ll probably be accused of naivety, hypocrisy or an ulterior motive Dress like Smith does and, well, see the Sun’s recent interview with Nicola Benedetti for an illustration of what every woman who doesn’t want to be treated like a sex toy is still up against.
Smith, through a combination of consistency and longevity, has somehow kept hold of something that most older musicians lose, and most younger musicians never get to explore or express. She embodies a fierce political, sexual and cultural idealism that was formed in the 60s, and refined in the 70s (in punk rock, in particular), before being slowly killed off by cynicism, irony, apathy, and market forces. The ABC on Wednesday felt like a kind of time capsule, one that, as it climaxed with a rousing People Have The Power, screamed “where did we go wrong?” and “what can I do about it?”
It was, in short, a good gig. «
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