You have to understand: I think I’m one of the lucky ones, maternally speaking. Somehow, I ended up with one of those mothers who is far cooler than I’ll ever be. That being said, a girl has to assert her individuality. For example, when faced with the chance to buy an orange skirt — especially when her mother says, “You can’t buy that. It’s ugly.*” — she’ll buy the orange skirt.
And when her mother says, “What are you listening to? That woman sounds like she’s in labor.”, you pretty much know that you’ve found your favorite singer ever. Which is really good because if I recall correctly, my mother’s, shall we say?, complaint came on the B-side of Radio Ethiopia. You know what I mean. Though, in all honesty, it could have happened sometime in the midst of “Land”. I was totally wearing out the grooves on that album** during the time in question.
Heck, maybe it was Easter. I’ve always had a soft spot for that one.
My Patti Smith obsession was total, absolute, and about ten years too late. I grew up in one of those towns that didn’t really have radio. The nearest record store of note — meaning it sold music from a reasonably current era — was an hour away, requiring driver’s license, car, and, sigh, permission. Eventually, we got Mexican radio, or maybe Mexican radio got us. This lead to a really bad experience where I tried to buy my first Clash album, only to be thwarted by lack of life experience. Sad story.
Like all youth of my era, I was completely familiar with “Because The Night”, a song that Smith once noted (somewhere, maybe at a live show) paid the bills. The cousin who would have guided me toward Patti Smith — she’d been the first person in my world to know about this band Kiss, she’d assured me that The Boomtown Rats would save my life, and she’d been a roadie for The Runaways — had started her final descent into, well, that side of the family hasn’t had the best of luck. I had to wait for time and fate to bring me to Patti.
Of course, by then, she’d retired to Detroit and started raising a family. Like many life heroes who reproduce, she has lead to endless hours of speculation. I mean, how do you go through being the kid of Patti Smith and Fred “Sonic” Smith (no relation, but, obviously, eventually related)? You know how it with kids, they have cool-offs. How do you, the unsuspecting weenie or bully, top “Yeah, my mom’s Patti Smith.”
There is no comeback. Trust me. Don’t even try, Jim. Give it up, Tim. Sorry, Kirk, your guitar teacher was cool but he was no Tom Verlaine, if you know what I mean (and I think you do).
So, though I was older and supposedly wiser, I played Horses over and over. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have heard “Ask The Angels.” Ditto for “Pumping (My Heart)” I even felt a sense of joy when listening to Wave despite the whole “Citizen Ship” thing (this may have been a precursor to the work she has done since coming out of retirement after the death of Fred Smith; though not noted here, I have all that, too). I have seen Patti Smith — a much older, wiser Patti Smith — perform many times. My favorite was when the bimbo next to me kept yelling out for “Kenny!”
You gotta feel sad for someone who can’t recognize the brilliant Lenny Kaye.
Patti Smith, the woman who was unapologetically photographed with unshaven armpits, who epitomized the punk ethos, who made singers like Pat Benatar seem like wanna-be tough chicks, is also, in my mind, one of the most sincerely nice humans. Okay, we’ve never met personally, aren’t likely too. She has this kind of weird little girl speaking voice that’s at odds with her seen-it-all bluesy singing voice; when you’re a group of kids faced with this tall, skinny, intense woman, an approachable voice invites you to ask questions.
And when you’re a nice person who is just trying to connect with your audience, it leads you to realize that “Birdland” simply isn’t the right song and maybe “Poppies” might not send the right message, however great the songs are for more adult listeners. A nice person, a person who has covered favorite songs throughout her career, would chose something more wholesome, while making it her own.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Patti Smith, in the day, covering “You Light Up My Life”. And she’s really, truly having a great time.
By the way, she’s playing the Santa Monica pier next week. Needless to say, I’m planning to be there. I mean, it’s Patti Smith. August 16, 2007. Fun, sun(set), and, well, Patti. She has a new album of covers, called Twelve out now.
* – Close enough to the actual discussion to be true.
** – Grooves, album are archaic terms, but back when this conversation happened, I was flipping something called a “long-playing record” over and over and over again. It was made of plastic, though previous generations had used wax and the term “vinyl.” You can still purchase these objects. They are not digital.