REM’s Michael Stipe wrote a referential article about Patti Smith for Time Magazine a year ago. He wondered why the American magazine didn’t put her on the cover in 1976 and asked to amend and do it in 2011. I don’t think he succeeded.
Still Stipe’s words centre the reason why Patti Smith is as relevant in 2012 as ever: “Patti reminds us that innocence, utopian ideals, beauty and revolt are enlightenment’s guiding stars in the human journey.“
This is not my first photographic encounter with Patti Smith, she did pass in front of my cameras about 5 years ago. I was still working on B&W film to cover her first ever visit to Cambridge. At that time she was touring a cover album, Twelve, and arrived at the Junction after a Cambridge University Fellows group invited her to attend a very English afternoon tea in some formal college hall. I wasn’t impressed by that concert, she looked more interested to the afternoon of poetry than to the revisit rock classics.
I received insulting comments by fans and gained a lot of traffic for my old post, one of the first of this blog. It happens every time I write something negative. The relevance of that album on her career, retrospectively, proves I wasn’t that wrong.
Part of my disappointment was also due to the fact that, about a year before, Patti Smith curated her own Meltdown festival in London. Among several appearances, she played an unforgettable gig performing Horses, her seminal album, in its entirety. It was one of the first gigs of the successful “Don’t Look Back” formula where albums are played in full. To be fair she forgot to play Elegie that night, but this will ever remain a mystery because in the official live recording of that concert, included as second CD on the Horses Legacy edition, the song is present. (Anyone?)
Coming to 2012. Patti Smith released one of the few good albums this year. It sounds a dull comment but it is indeed one of her best since the heydays. Banga is a solid record of classic rock. It has spoken-word passages, it has some ‘Springsteenesque’ chorus, it has violins, lyrics. And it has the songs.
She collaborates with her band plus cameos by important musicians, including Tom Verlaine of Television. It was recorded at the legendary Electric Ladyland studios in her beloved New York.
If the beef is the main ingredient of a roast, it’s the spices added to make the taste superior. That is why Banga’s songs shine, the simple yet inspired arrangements the production managed to achieve spice up the album.
Patti Smith arrives on stage at the Cambridge Corn Exchange quite early. Without a support many of the crowd are caught unprepared queuing at the bar for the umpteenth pint or still outside looking for a place in a car park.
The show opens with a magic pair. Dancing Barefoot, from her second album Wave, is on the Rolling Stone top 500 songs of all times. Redondo Beach does not need introduction does it?
I finish to snap and rush to my mezzanine ‘VIP reserved’ area because I sense this is the gig I am missing in my Patti Smith live experience. Not just Horses, not only rock covers. “A night with…” Patti Smith playing her hits. It’s giving the audience what the audience wants. I want.
The five members band it is the same for a long time. With her since Horses, the faithful Jay Dee Daugherty is on drums and Lenny Kaye on guitar at her left. The moment they have a quick chat about some issues or the way their bodies communicate, not only are my favourite photos of this set, but disclose the friendship and the mutual understanding.
Patti has a love for poetry and the words she speaks in between songs are profound and powerful. Even when she jokes with the public about Cambridge academic reputation or enquires about the habit of smoking pot “…to check the audience”. Sincere post-hippies stuff.
It’s the music that keep the show going and my mood high. Patti has new songs to play. The single April Fool or the elegy dedicated to Amy Winehouse, This is the Girl, sound nothing close to what she used to do in 1976 at CBGB years yet they sound perfectly integrated with her personality.
Free Money, Pissing in the River have become classic rock anthems since. For Because the Night the white lights switch on the audience singing along on one of the catchiest choruses ever written.
When the show gets towards the end, Patti Smith tells a story of two girls sitting in a church. A story that goes on a crescendo as she was reading a revolutionary poem and peaks on the request to free Pussy Riot condemning the shameful behaviour of Putin’s Russia. To incite Cambridge fifty-something audience to start a revolution is a bit audacious, but her appeal is the strongest and most effective I heard.
(Side note, it may now be written on tour contracts but I swear that since Pussy Riot have been condemned by a farce Russian tribunal I haven’t seen a single band live not calling for their freedom)
Gloria is the obvious song to follow such appeal and closes the gig. The crescendo fits perfectly with her story. A song published when I was still to enter primary school, it is one of the most modern tunes you can hear. Patti re-penned the verses, originally by Van Morrison, into a statement, a hymn, a symbol and a sentence now printed on my brand new tote bag. Media change, message stays.
There is space for an encore with Banga, which I learn is a dog, and Rock’n’Roll Nigger but my mind is already contemplating about the change of expectations people has from music.
When Patti Smith emerged in the 70s and all the CBGB artists were about to using rock’n’roll to revolutionize costumes, opening an unprecedented dialogue with literature, the reaction of the big public was close to indifference and devaluation rather than the excitement I witnessed tonight. The mainstream, the ‘classic rock’ was elsewhere and snubbed any avant-garde scene.
35 years later, that underground punk scene has transformed into what is today perceived as the most classic of all classic rock. The kind to be featured on Rolling Stone and Uncut.
The music hasn’t changed an inch since. Neither the poetry nor the message within. What changed is the audience’s perception and this is due to the innovation this music created in people’s mind. A shortcut that shows once again, if it is needed and indeed it is, that only a revolutionary approach can change the status-quo.
2007: One song, no flash, left side of the stage. What the hell are you talking about?
2012: Two songs, no flash, one of the sides of the stage. I know what you are talking about!
Patti Smith photo policy is well known among concert snappers. She doesn’t like photographers walking in front of her not even for three songs, not even for one.
Translation: She allows photographers in the pit but we have to stay on the side of the stage. Either left or right, but not beyond the invisible barrier a strip of tape stuck on the floor marks. Not beyond the second song.
On a general point it improved. Five years ago it was only for the first song and only on the left side of the pit. We doubled our allocated time and perspective this tour. Wow!
On my personal point improved too. I am not with two film cameras and 2 prime lenses, but with a single digital camera and a heavy telephoto zoom.
I opt for the right side for a change, I was left at the Cambridge Junction gig. It doesn’t change much. At this show I notice the right side gives me a more neutral black background than the left, even if I have to struggle with the silhouette of the bassist behind her most of the time. Annoying.
Patti Smith will embrace her guitar later in the show but is on vocals for the first two. The only enemy is the mic. The only difference is the position of the band members.
Right is better if you want to photograph Lenny Kaye. He’ll be in front of you. Left there is a keyboard also second guitarist and the bass player.
I know the Corn Exchange quite well. Shot my first of about hundred gigs here more than 8 years ago. It is possible to stay on the mezzanine after the photo slot to see the show. The telephoto proves a good tool to snap some panoramic over the crowd. It is not allowed and the security comes up very angry if a photographer is caught but experience tells me there is always a way. I waited till the end and took some shots at the end and during the encore. No one cared at that point. My set for Thom Yorke special show in support of the Green Party is shot from here when at the box office I realized to have been allocated a ticket but not a photopass.
The few photos from the back show some interesting things.
The best moments at concerts come at the end. They are generally missed by professional photography because of the modern rules. If they were in place in the 60s The Who‘s smashing the stage, Hendrix lighting up his Stratocaster would be just legends.
Photos from the back including the crowd give a nice, different perspective on a gig and a panorama on the stage which is not possible from the pit. They are not intrusive for the artist or the audience. Why to prohibit us, after the first slot in the pit, to keep shooting from the back?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind…