It took Patti Smith 40 years to visit Cambridge.
In this “short while”, her career moved from New York Punk underground, sharing flat and life with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, to last year induction into the rock’n’roll hall of fame. In the middle highs and lows. A masterpiece and few more albums, a stadium rock song co-wrote with Springsteen, not a single top-ten hit and over a decade retired to family life.
Along with music, the “punk’s poet laureate” dedicated to other ways of expression from language to visual arts as well as a strong political activism standing for peace and environmental issues.
She was friend with Allen Ginsberg, awarded for her poems and invited to literature happenings. She publishes photographic books and exhibits her drawings in museums and galleries.
It doesn’t take just an “o” to make her into a hero.
As a result of this, Cambridge University Fellows, inexorably, invited Patti Smith to attend a very English afternoon tea in some formal, old-fashion, academic college.
On the same night, halfway into her cosy show at the Junction, a jovial Patti got rid of her new pair of shoes; she explained they were bought for the “tea with fellows” occasion; sadly none of them noticed.
Opening with the classic Redondo Beach, in an atypical cheery mood and with faithful “Horses era” guitarist Lenny Kaye on stage, didn’t help. A boring start, a band struggling to get it going. Then, barefoot, the concert picked up. It must have been those shoes’ bad day.
Patti Smith is touring her “Twelve” album (of covers). Not a surprise, she has been reworking artists’ music since her beginnings.
I must say I rarely recognize the value of a cover over the original.
It works well if Jimi covers someone, it doesn’t work as well when someone covers Jimi. Patti Smith fixation with Jimi Hendrix dates back to 1971, when she met him at his Electric Lady studios opening.
In 1974 her first single attempted a remake of Hendrix’s Hey Joe (already a cover).
In 2005 she coordinated the Meltdown at the London Royal Festival Hall. The festival closed with a keenly expected show called: “Songs of Experience”. A stellar guests list was put together, from Jeff Beck to Joanna Newsom, from Flea to a Siberian folk band with Patti overseeing (and singing). Not a single memorable Hendrix cover came out of that night.
She persevered in Cambridge, performing a lysergic version of Are you experienced? with Kaye’s version of Voodoo child riff included as a bonus towards the end. Useless.
The “new shoes” interlude arrives.
Back to music, pairing Stones’ Gimme Shelter with eternal P.Smith/The Boss co-written Because the night works very well. A song supports the other and both are damn good live with the band breaking in guitars as they were wild horses. Patti Smith hasn’t lost an inch of her deep voice.
Unfortunately Doors’ Soul Kitchen is absolutely soulless and Nirvana’s Smell like teen spirit does smell too teen, you are “sixty-teen” Patti.
I knew where it was going to end. Defying, although quite scared, the idea of listening to Patti Smith Group playing Tears for Fears’ Everybody wants to rule the world, I hanged around the bar, waiting for THE moment before riding my scooter back home, through a bloody freezing Cambridge night.
Valuably the high spot arrived without Tears for Fears stuff:
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine…”
Her revised verse over Van Morrison’s Gloria is my all-time best album opening.
A song as addictive as timeless, it is like Keith Richard playing Brown Sugar, Bob Dylan playin…well…transforming Like a Rolling Stone.
Suddenly I realize to be in front of a rock goddess, I forgive her for any sin, which she visibly committed and decide to stay for the encore.
She returns thanking the audience and Cambridge University Fellows (yes, she did!) for that day. Lou Reed’s Perfect Day is clearly the perfect song to close.
That was another highlight of an entertaining but often mediocre night.
I left the venue with a question: if neither Jesus nor Jimi died for her sins…who else did? I rode home carefully, just in case!
Given that I don’t like flower photography, this was, in all probability, my last chance to share a subject with Robert Mapplethorpe. I fought hard to get a pass then I discovered what a rockstar tantrum is.
Patti policy was the strictest I encountered since James Maynard-Keenan and Robert Fripp. Both, pathologically diagnosable as camera-phobics, do not allow any photographer, play in the dark or hide someway on stage and intimidate to leave as soon as a flash comes from the audience.
Patti is milder. A photographer herself, she allowed us to shoot but only during the first song: i.e. Redondo Beach – 3’26”.
In addition we were located on a precise position of the pit, left of the stage. Forbidden to move.
Secret unveiled then, now you know why these pictures look all pretty similar.
What to do in 3 minutes at a standstill it is no longer up to you.
Your only chance is to take as many photos as you can and hope that few will come out good.
Get to your place a bit in advance if you don’t want to discover that all the best spots are occupied by your colleagues. Use the time to try few lenses and to decide which best suit the occasion. Length depends on how far you are sited; 85mm and 135mm in this case.
Either take with you a couple of cameras or use a zoom (lucky you). Lens lenght variation can make one picture different from the other.
If you have your creative moment you can try out different shutter times and likely get some blurred images, but don’t exaggerate; 3 minutes are not the right while to get experimental.
Don’t forget to check in advance that your batteries are full and your memory card empty.
You will not have time to change anything, and most of you won’t have to change the roll of film (lucky you).