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Meltdown 09


Patti Smith


Photo by Mark Mawston


with Adrian Utley, Flea, Jessie Smith


and special guests The Master Musicians of Jajouka


The Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra


Royal Festival Hall


June 18, 2009





A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Patti Smith strolls unceremoniously onstage, pops her glasses on, opens a book and begins to read, sans musical accompaniment. There is an immediate, collective intake of breath because the text she is reading is her ground-breaking 1974 seminal single turned legend, ‘Piss Factory’. Having experienced this historical (yes, historical) moment in rock n roll history for myself, I can only say that to hear Smith vehemently re-affirming the anarchic views of her youth with lines like, ‘I had to earn my dough, had to earn my dough...Get off your Mustang Sally, you ain’t going nowhere’ was in itself, worth much more than the price of admission. These days you just don’t see rock legends acknowledging their working class roots onstage, much less celebrating them. The experiences Smith suffered while working in a New Jersey factory, which included having her head shoved into a toilet by a group of female co-workers lead by an infamous woman named Dot Hook, whose name and ‘mid-wife sweat’ are cited over and over again in the lyrics of ‘Piss Factory’, were the scale-tipping catalyst that inadvertently inspired her to kick-start the punk and, post-punk movements with the release of her anarchic talk-sung single, originally the ‘B’ side to ‘Hey Joe.’

‘Piss Factory’ and Smith’s subsequent first album, Horses (1975), the latter of which she performed live in its entirety when she curated her own Meltdown festival in 2005, is the single which started her off on her revolutionary career. ‘Every day like the last one, every day like a rerun....I’m gonna go, I’m gonna get on that train and go to New York City, I’m gonna go and I’m gonna be somebody, I’m gonna go and I’m gonna be somebody and I’m never gonna return to this Piss Factory...’ wild cheers and applause. Patti once again reaffirming that she’s the real McCoy. (as if we needed more proof) Her gentle ‘hi’ to each musician as they appear onstage, with a special smile for grown up daughter Jessie on piano also reminds us that at 62, she’s an ever evolving human being, whose rough edges are often, not as deeply rooted as they seem on the surface.  As she begins her set with Portishead’s guitarist Adrian Utley and later, Red Hot Chilli Pepper bass player, Flea, Smith casually states, with customary irony that ‘In the spirit of Ornette Coleman’s high pressure Meltdown, I’m going to be joining many people I’ve never seen before, or perhaps they’ll be joining me,’ referring of course to the Canadian group who’ll accompany her second set - The Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra, fitting accompanists for this improvisational concert as they themselves released a live album in March 2008, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons which featured four songs, all of which were debuted live.

Ever one to meet challenges head-on, Smith launches into a song, her shamanistic wail once again reminding us that she is without doubt the main inspiration for not only the off key warbling of most of punk’s key figures, but also, many of post-punk’s droning wailers, as well. Why has this singular individual, born in Chicago, raised in South Jersey, with no higher formal education credentials than a high school diploma become so influential? The proof is in the performance, as they say, and in this performance, which Smith freely admits is basically improvised, she is not only audibly spell-weaving, progressively reeling her audience in as she goes along, but she is also demonstrating the potent power of her still unharnessed, stream of consciousness chant-singing, which reveals something of the person behind the myth at the same time as it encourages those listening to release themselves from their self inflicted chains of repression – NOW!

In the spirit of experimentation and exploration, with the undoubted intention of raising self-awareness, Smith moves smoothly between poetry and music, with both mediums nearly always overlapping. ‘The willow swayed a greeting, ever so slightly...’ Just one of the many beautifully evocative lines of the poem, ‘Eve of All Saints,’ full of atmospheric, autumnal references, written in memory of her late husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, Mc5 guitarist,...’Trick or treat, ringing bells, draping the bushes with long veils of tissue...’No life, no love anywhere...She clipped a lock of his brown hair...And she prayed not to God, but to him, and the stars scattered like a rosary...My dove, your name is like water in my hands....My sad, sad saint, my writer who did not write.’ All the while Jessie provides a moving backup with minimal piano playing, deep with emotion. Heavy, respectful applause follows as a thank you for the sharing of an artist’s very personal, soulful space.

The next number details the pasteurisation inherent to our contemporary times...’Turn your amplifier down,’ is one line that encourages us to ‘stand’ for what we believe in, as much by the sound of what is being said, as by the words of Smith’s justifiable rant. ‘We don’t need your material things, we don’t need your banks, we stand on the banks of the rivers...A guitar weighs less than a machine gun, but I never run out of ammunition...Do you believe in God? He is my trainer, he pushed me on.’ Smith is never one for caring what others think and it’s reassuring to know she’s still her own person, even more comforting to have this reminder that she will always be freer and freer with her experimentation in the process. ‘Communication, it’s not heaven, it’s here man...’ Who could argue? Light fingering on the bass from Flea and the song ends. From the progressively louder applause, it is clear that many of us are so plugged into Patti Smith that we could listen to her perform all night. 

Smilingly aware of this, she slyly name-drops, ‘Brian Jones, William Burroughs, Brian Gysin...all of our great masters...Sometimes you aren’t able to go to the mountain at a certain time, but sometimes, the princes of the mountains come down...’Enter The legendary Bachir Attar & The Master Musicians of Jajouka with their fantastically hypnotic drumming and horn playing, which somehow, forms the perfect backdrop for Smith’s incantation like chanting, ‘Holy Ghost...Call on me brothers,’ she wails as the mesmerising musicians beat and blare on. Her voice picks up, ‘All is joy, all is motion, all is joy...The heights of man,’ at one point, she plays a clarinet. If you’ve ever been to a Patti Smith ‘concert’ (for lack of a better term) you will understand what I mean when I make reference to her shambolic ramblings. They are strangely cathartic and put me in mind of space clearing via sound vibrations on a grand scale. Move other Feng Shui, Aromatherapy and assorted other pathetically limp-wristed forms of mood alteration, Patti Smith and The Master Musicians of Jajouka are in the house! Screams and roars of appreciation at the end of this impromptu, entrancing collaboration.

Following Smith’s onstage search for a towel while the technicians prepare the stage for The Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra, she takes the opportunity to speak to the audience about something which should be of more importance to everyone in the Western world:

‘Please beware because you are heading for the New York City blight of overbuilding...Of ugly buildings destroying your culture...It’s happening all over the world. But if you can do anything, like, fill the streets with 500,000 people and protest, it might be a good idea.’

Worryingly mild applause follows these sober statements.
The first song of her collaborative set with Mt. Zion ‘Wild Leaves’ is one she says she wrote for Robert Mapplethorpe’s 40th birthday, which always makes her ‘think of him’ when she sings it. Once again, she seems to be sharing something of herself and her life with her listeners. The passionate singer of the ‘70’s re-surfaces during this number, reminding us that we are who we are inside, no matter how time may change us outwardly, ‘The coming and the going, wild, wild leaves.’

The theme of transience continues on the next song, with the experimental musicians behind her generating waves of emotive sounds with Smith on vocals as always, questioning. ‘Do animals make humans animals cry like humans, as I, loving you and having lost you?’ Though it is difficult to think of Smith as ever being OAP age, she is, and she has a very extensive back catalogue of people she has loved and lost though the passage of time including her late husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith as well as her lifelong friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The song is like an audio scrapbook: ‘Walking shoeless...This is where time stands...shoeless, crying...’and the sound shivers down to a wintery low tone. A later poem, dedicated to Mother Teresa rounds this cycle off with what seem like moments of encapsulated eternity. Smith reminds the audience, particularly those who audibly moan when she elaborates on the subject of her poem that as Mother Teresa herself had said even ‘a dying baby deserves to die like an angel...with love as the last thing they feel as they leave this world.’

But Smith is far from being a sombre person in fact she is often funny, and always, quite brave. ‘Everybody’s watching TV,’ she quips, referring to the projections of the skyline of pre-9-11 New York that are showing on the wall behind her. ‘But I thought since we’re here to try new things, I’d try out this new song. I wrote it on June 9th and I only have one chord of it...I don’t know it. Thank you for the indulgence of trying out this new song. It’s called ‘Nine,’ like the number, 3 x 3.’ In her customarily fearless fashion, she launches into the song, which is instantly intriguing in that it has an underlyingly primal feel beneath its talk sung narrative. It is about what much of her other work is about – identity, as it pertains to a woman in this case, though in her lengthily canon gender is nearly always, interchangeable, as Smith has always been one to challenge established boundaries.

The Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra who hail from Montreal, Canada would seem to be the perfect band for proto-punk Smith to work with as they are currently compiling a live release to be entitled, Fuck You Drakulas. Although the music press has referred to the group as a ‘post-rock’ band, their singer/guitarist Efrim Menuck states that he identifies more with the punk ethos and aesthetic.

A poem, ‘He did not recognise her, she came before him, she came in a dream, she was robed in black, she was robed in black...’ follows, with the orchestra effortlessly expressing themselves behind Smith, punctuating random words with swelling or lowering sounds. This reflective piece neatly paves the way for a reworking of a later day classic ‘The People Have the Power,’ and in these complacent days we definitely need continual reminding of that.

Ornette Coleman momentarily appears onstage, like a Jeanie from a bottle, to bestow his blessing on Smith and she giggles delightedly and shrugs her shoulders, like a little girl in response. Coleman and his free jazz has, admittedly been one of Smith’s creative catalysts throughout the course of her lengthily improvisational career.

On her two encores, ‘Pissing in a River’ and ‘Ghost Song’ Smith pulls no punches, vigorously reminding us as she runs down the aisles leading the singing of the chorus to the latter, ‘We Shall Live Again,’ that not only is she back in town, but that, in reality, she’d never left.


Photo by Mark Mawston






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