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All Souls’ Day

Patti Smith 1975 by Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989

Patti Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe (1975)

Today is the day the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was born in 1946. Today is the day the guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of the MC5 died, a quarter of a century ago. Today is the day Patti Smith’s grandchild was born. Patti was married to Fred, and was best-friends with Robert.

Coincidences is one of the things I write often about on this blog. It feels like there’s a pattern in the coincidences of these dates. It’s the kind of thing that makes me think of myself as a pantheist.

Two days ago, on All Souls’ Day, I went to see Patti Smith at the Central Hall Westminster aka Methodist Central Hall, a two-thousand seat domed venue near the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey (and Channel 4) which served as venue for a number of key Suffragette events around 1914. It is also the building where the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly took place (in 1946). Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Churchill have all spoken there.

On Saturday evening Patti Smith spoke about her work and life and read from her new memoir ‘Year of the Monkey’. She also performed six songs with her bandmate Tony Shanahan.

1 Wing

I was a wing in heaven blue
soared over the ocean
soared over Spain
and I was free
needed nobody
it was beautiful
it was beautiful

After the UN General Assembly used the hall on 10th January 1946 with 51 nations attending it repaid the venue by paying for it to be painted light blue – perhaps heaven blue.

The song comes from ‘Gone Again’, Patti’s 6th studio album, which was released in the wake of various losses in her life – Fred, Robert, her brother Todd and her pianist Richard Sohl among them. All Sohl’s Day.

2 Beneath the Southern Cross

Oh
To be
Not anyone
Gone
This maze of being
Skin
Oh
To cry
Not any cry
So mournful that
The dove just laughs
The steadfast gasps

This song is from the same LP – it features Jeff Buckley on backing vocals. Tony Shanahan played bass on the record. ‘Gone Again’ came out in the summer of 1996 – Jeff died in the summer of the following year. All Souls’ Day.

3  My Blakean Year

In my Blakean year
I was so disposed
Toward a mission yet unclear
Advancing pole by pole
Fortune breathed into my ear
Mouthed a simple ode
One road is paved in gold
One road is just a road

I’m not sure which year was Patti’s Blakean one – it might have been 2004. That was the year ‘Trampin’ ‘ came out, her 9th studio album. I am sure that her Year of the Monkey was 2016 – a trying year for many of us – Brexit, Trump, illness in the family, it was one you celebrated reaching the end of. The day after this gig I broke out this T-shirt from 2017 to mark the memory:

2016 survivor tshirt

on the floordrobe

Blake is a big presence in Patti’s life, as he was in Allen Ginsberg’s. I met Patti Smith briefly once not far from Blake’s grave in Bunhill – it was after a concert she gave at St Luke’s church/concert hall in Old Street. We talked about Rimbaud and his time living in London. Rimbaud is another big literary figure in her life. In the wake of the All Souls gig I went for a walk yesterday with the member of my family who had been unwell in 2016 and we passed the house where Rimbaud lived for a couple of months with Verlaine.

verlaine rimbaud camden town plaque

8 Royal College Street, Camden Town

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Chanson d’automne (Paysages tristes – Poèmes saturniens) – Paul Verlaine (1866)

[Autumn song from Sad Landscapes]

4 After The Goldrush by Neil Young

neil young patti smith

Neil & Patti

This song appears on ‘Banga’, Patti’s 11th studio album from 2012. It was co-produced by Patti, Tony Shanahan and others. Both her children with Fred – son Jackson and daughter Jesse – played on it.

Well I dreamed I saw the knights in armor comin’
Sayin’ something about a queen
There were peasants singin’ and drummers drummin’
And the archer split the tree
There was a fanfare blowin’ to the sun
That was floating on the breeze
Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 1970s
Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 1970s

A timely anthem for the climate emergency. She changed the lyrics towards the end to:

Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 21st Century.

5 Because the Night

patti smith bruce springsteen

Patti & Bruce (1977)

This song was co-written by Patti & Bruce Springsteen, fellow New Jerseyites. Patti said at the gig that it is about Fred. It was on ‘Easter’, her 3rd studio album, the first one I bought, after having picked up a single ‘Hey Joe’ / ‘Piss Factory’ out of intrigue at the cover and the B-side title. Inside the ‘Easter’ vinyl sleeve is a photograph of Rimbaud, a First Communion portrait with his father Frédéric.

Take me now, baby, here as I am
Pull me close, try and understand
Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe
Love is a banquet on which we feed

Come on now try and understand
The way I feel when I’m in your hands
Take my hand come undercover
They can’t hurt you now
Can’t hurt you now, can’t hurt you now

6 Pissing in the River

patti smith hey joe piss factory single record cover

1974 debut single

Two years after her debut single (Piss Factory) came another piss song (Pissing in a River).

Pissing in a river, watching it rise
Tattoo fingers shy away from me
Voices voices mesmerize
Voices voices beckoning sea
Come come come come back come back
Come back come back come back

It appeared on her second studio LP, 1976’s ‘Radio Ethiopia’, which followed her ground-breaking, landmark debut ‘Horses’. ‘Horses’ features a classic photo by Mapplethorpe on the cover:

horses-cover_patti smith

1975 debut LP

Patti got most into her stride performing this song, which is perfect for All Souls’ Day

Come come come come back come back
Come back come back come back

She spoke most movingly about working with her friend Sam Shepherd on his final publication. He passed on in 2016. As did her friend record producer Sandy Pearlman who produced Blue Oyster Cult and The Clash’s ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ among others. I remember walking through the snow on New Year’s Day down to Loppylugs in Edgware to buy that record in the days when you had a delicious wait for things.

I always associate in my head BOC’s ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ and ‘Because the Night’ – I’ve no idea why, they were released two years apart (1976 and 1978). Patti didn’t talk about Pearlman although he was one of the key losses behind ‘Year of the Monkey’. But she spoke at length about Shepherd and made it clear that he didn’t really fear the reaper – he got to the end of his book with Patti’s help – he could no longer hold a pen or type on a keyboard, or play his Gibson in the corner of the room where they worked together on his Kentucky ranch – so she had to capture his voice and ten days after finishing he went to the big farm in the sky. One thing that really struck me about what she recounted about Sam was that they had written together back in the early days in New York so it was familiar to do it again at the end of his time in Kentucky. They had always been able to write side by side on their own things, alone and together at the same time. I love being alone but together – for example, in the house when all the family are sleeping like this weekend just passed, all souls as one.

patti smith at central hall westminster 2 nov 2019

Soul music: Patti & Tony at Central Hall

 

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