Patti Smith and her band at Tempodrom, Berlin
By Sascha Krieger
On December 13, 1975, Arista Records released an album that many count today among the best ever. At the time, the record sent ripples through the musical world that are still visible today. One reason was the record’s cover: an androgynous woman in men’s clothes, photographed in black and white by now legendary Robert Mapplethorpe. No glamour, no bright colors, a harsh relentlessnes reflected in the music. Even more groundbreaking was what was on the record: It opened with the programmatic words „Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine“ that transformed a catchy but relatively harmless Them song, Gloria, into a straight in your face assault. Horses was characterized by its revolutionary mix of simple, three-chord music that developed an almost vortex-like drive and the aggressive, metaphor-rich, lyrics that were almost a throwback to beat poetry with a massive dose of anger and revolutionary fervour thrown in. Horses would go on to influence generations of musicians: the lyrical and political side led to poetic rock and roll bands such as R.E.M. and rock preachers such as U2, the music has often been cited as one of the major sources of the US side of the punk rock movement which would sweep away traditional rock music two years later. Those days are long gone, but today, Patti Smith, a poet and artist as well as musician, remains one of the world’s most exciting rock and roll performers whose lieve appearances still breathe the raw energy that led to Horses.
Her concert in Berlin’s Tempodrom is no exception. Whether she dives into the melodic pop poetry of her latest album, Banga, or the rough violence of her earlier work, Smith’s presence fills the room as is unrivalled even today. Smith opened the night with Dancing Barefoot from her 1979 album Wave, a good example of what was to come. The song is a crowd pleaser, performed with a relaxed attitude that makes the song appear almost as a memory, a museum piece at times, a relic from another time. At the same time, Smith’s voice has never been fuller, more expressive, more there and infuses the song with a contemporariness which clashes excitingly with its noticeable age. When Smith plays her old material, she never denies the fact that they’re from a time long gone, and yet they happen in the hear and now. Her best songs have a universality that make them as fresh and as relevant now as they were then.
For no song is this truer than for Free Money, Smith’s punk ballad that is both social analysis, sneering condemnation and forceful self-assertion. Tony Shanahan starts it with some tender piano notes that seem to come from far away before Lenny Kaye’s guitar gives it an almost dream-like quality. But when Jay Dee Daugherty’s drums set in, Free Money crashingly lands in the present and continues with a brutal directness that makes the Horses original seem almost tame at times. Gloria has lost nothing of its violent spite, Pissing in a River is as snotty and at the same time touching as it ever was.
And the political drive is still there, whatever it was she screamed out against in 1975, is still there, is left unresolved. Banga, her new album’s title song seems to come straight from the seventies in its dirty raggedness, People Have the Power has picked up in aggressiveness in the last few years and Rock N Roll Nigger is more punk than most of what one now regards as the heyday of punk rock, a song that in its almost unbearable intensity would put the Sex Pistols, who famously joked about Smith’s rock poetry, to shame. It still shocks and explodes and makes no prisoners. Smith yells at the audience to „be free“ and there is no doubt she is serious. The museum feel has long gone, she means business and the state of the world is still her construction site.
And yet, there is something else. Smith is in her sixties and she has lost may companions along the way. Her latest record features to tributes to artists who passed away recently, Maria (dedicated to late actress Maria Schneider) and This is the Girl, her tribute to Amy Winehouse which she plays as intimate farewell in Berlin. The painful staccato-like chant that is Beneath the Southern Cross is dedicated to Christoph Schlingensief and ends in such a cacophony of grief, pain, loss and anger that one fears for the safety of the building. In this sense, Ghost Dance becomes the evening’s theme song, as this concert, as Patti Smith’s entire work is a meditative as well as rebellious song of old and new ghosts – people gone and dreams destroyed, ideals lost and heroes long-forgotten. For a moment they crowd the stage and in some way they seem to have re-invigorated Patti Smith as she launches herself into fights that she might not win but won’t, can’t, mustn’t give up.