We can be assured of only three things at any given Patti Smith concert; ferocious screaming, insightful poetry, and some kick-ass covers.
We’re taking a trip down memory lane to explore the most amazing homages Smith has done to other artists.
“I’m drawn to women who aren’t painted in history as sweet figures. Patti Smith was prickly, she was frustrated. She didn’t take people’s shit. There’s no better music idol for young women because there is a lot of pressure for us to be really positive all the time,” – Lorde.
One of the few bright moments of a pretty crappy 2020 so far has been seeing 73-year old rock’n’roll icon Patti Smith having sort of a resurgence in popularity, doing the rounds on the internet almost every week à la Billie Eilish. Her latest book Year of the Monkey has enjoyed critical and commercial success, her appearance on The Tonight Show was a total hit, and she is set to perform at Carnegie Hall at this year’s Tibet House Benefit concert along Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, Bettye LaVette among others.
The last time Smith played in Australia was at Bluesfest in 2017, a gig that was thought to be her last one on Aussie soil due to her recurrent bronchial problems. The venue had a sad, yet mythic shroud of farewell and has gone down as one of the best sets in the festival’s history.
Last October we got the fantastic news that Smith and her band would be back in Australia as part of the Bluesfest 2020 lineup, alongside other luminaries of the likes of Lenny Kravitz, The Dave Matthews Band, Eagles of Death Metal and Morcheeba, before it was taken away with us due to COVID-19.
Apart from her inexhaustible energy and unclassifiable repertoire, one of the strongest attractions of a Patti Smith concert is her habit of surprising the audience with really unusual covers. In fact, her amazing ability to reinvent the music of other artists has been one of the staples of her career.
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Check out ‘Gloria’ by Patti Smith:
When Patti Smith broke into the scene in 1975 with the landmark album Horses — ranked 44 in Rolling Stone’s list of “500 best albums of all time” — the biggest single in the record was ‘Gloria’, a reimagining of Van Morrison’s garage anthem from the 60s. In its original incarnation, the tune is a dangly, crude rocker with pretty basic lyrics that talk about how hot some chick Gloria is.
Smith somehow remade it to appear more complex and cruder at the same time. On one hand, she inserted a piano introduction, blues and country guitar arrangements, and on the other, she added heavy distortions and a vocal performance full of roaring growls and screams. She also rewrote the lyrics and turned it into a profane tune with contrasting allusions to religion and sexuality. Gloria’s initial line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” is today one of the most famous in the history of rock.
Patti Smith grabbed the attention of audiences in the early years of her career with cracking covers of The Who’s ‘My Generation’, and a twist on the famous ‘Hey Joe’, turning it into a torch-bearing hymn with a sexually charged introduction in reference to famous fugitive Patty Hearst.
“Honey, the way you play guitar, makes me feel so, so masochistic… the way you go down low deep into the neck… I would do anything,
“…Patty Hearst, you standing there in front of the Symbionese Liberation army flag with your legs spread, I was wondering if you were gettin’ it every night from a black revolutionary man and his women…”
Check out ‘Hey Joe’ by Patti Smith:
Since her groundbreaking debut, Smith has evolved into an eclectic performer and multi-talented artist, with a respected output in poetry, literature, painting, and photography. Her musical tastes have always been equally as diverse, not only delving into different genres throughout her career but covering an assorted pack of artists that go from The Beatles and Lou Reed, to Rihanna and Christina Aguilera.
Australian rockers Midnight Oil have also been the target of Smith’s affections with her blues-infused rendition of their mega-hit ‘Beds are Burning’, expanding the original song’s pledge for aboriginal rights into a poetic environmental clamour for action.
“Long before the beginning of time / The gods formed a great rock that grows through the desert / And this rock was ruby in the sun / Red as blood when the sun smiled upon it / And from its essence man created Dreamtime / And they slept in its shadows / But they did not walk upon it / But then, the settlers came and the tourists, and those who did not believe / And they tramped upon it / And some fell to their death pulling the red skin of the great rock down into the desert / Creating the dust of sorrow all the way to the sea / And beneath the sea, so many leagues beneath the sea / The Great Barrier Reef, red as blood, red as a ruby / Until man infused it with his toxics, with oil, with his plastic / And choked the life out of it / Until that great red reef bleached white like the bones of saints in the sun.”
Check out ‘Beds Are Burning’ covered by Patti Smith:
Whether it’s Bruce Springsteen, Rimbaud, Prince or William Burroughs, paying homage to the artists that have inspired her has become an essential part of her body of work. The highest point of this fascination was her 2007 album Twelve, comprised exclusively of covers.
Patti Smith approaches the material of other artists always with profound respect, managing to achieve a balance between the song’s original intention and her own. Her reversions bring the words to the forefront, and despite her limited range and unorthodox technique, she adapts her voice to the original singer, most of the time giving the songs an enhanced power through her trademark intensity.
In Twelve she strips down the programming effects and keys of Tears for Fears’ 1985 hit single ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, giving it a surprising gravitas not evident in the foot-tapping original.
Check out Patti Smith’s cover of ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’:
In the late 60’s psychedelic rock powerhouse Jefferson Airplane released the trippy hit ‘White Rabbit’, one of the most distinctive songs of their whole career. Written by singer-songwriter and model Grace Slick, the song uses imagery from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and lays it over marching drums inspired by Ravel’s ‘Bolero’.
Patti Smith takes Jefferson Airplane’s hippy anthem and makes it even more haunting and disorientating with a ghostly new introduction and multiple vocal and guitar layering. It’s the same song, the same essence, but Smith somehow makes it her own.
U2, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and The Doors, Patti Smith has paid her dues to all the greats, many with whom she has developed strong personal relationships over the years. But of all the cast of legends she has covered, there are five cases that strike as particularly special. Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Kurt Cobain, Neil Young, and Michael Stipe.
Check out Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’:
Patti Smith has a long history of admiration for Bob Dylan, with his influence most notable in her phrasing and lyrical explorations. In many interviews she has told the story of learning music in the early 70s going through a Dylan songbook on a guitar gifted to her by actor Sam Shepard.
“I was influenced by Bob Dylan in so many ways as a young person,” a starry-eyed Smith said in 2015 in a clip to promote the Criterion release of D.A. Pennebaker’s quintessential Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back.
“I remember the first time I saw Don’t Look Back, I had just come to NY to live, I guess it was 1967. It was such a pivotal moment because it encompassed everything for me. The hubris of youth, art, poetry, the perfect sunglasses… I saw it so many times I knew all the words just like you know all the words to a rock’n’roll song, or you know the first page of Little Women.”
Patti has done tons of Dylan covers throughout her career in her live presentations, revisiting tunes like ‘The Wicked Messenger’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. In her album Twelve, she took ‘Changing of the Guards’, one of Dylan’s most divisive, and should we say, cheesier songs, stripped it down from its pompous choruses and infused it with a pressing road-movie vibe that almost smells of dirt and hot pavement.
Check out ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” by Bob Dylan:
Probably her biggest and most heartfelt homage to Dylan came in 2016 when she was tasked to perform ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ at the official ceremony where he was awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature.
Visibly moved, Smith blanked on the lyrics of the song half-way through, apologised with incredible honesty and humility, and began to sing again to the acclaim of the audience.
“I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.” She said of her performance at the time, “This strange phenomenon did not diminish or pass but stayed cruelly with me. I was obliged to stop and ask pardon and then attempt again while in this state and sang with all my being, yet still stumbling.”
“It was not lost on me that the narrative of the song begins with the words ‘I stumbled alongside of twelve misty mountains,’ and ends with the line ‘And I’ll know my song well before I start singing.’ As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure, but also the strange realization that I had somehow entered and truly lived in the world of the lyrics.”
Check out Patti Smith performing ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’:
Patti Smith might be strongly associated with the punk scene for her epic performances at CBGB’s, her unhinged energy and DIY ethos. But musically, most of her output has been closer to staples of classic rock from the late 60s and 70s like The Doors or Jimmi Hendrix.
And among all those emblematic artists, The Rolling Stones is probably the one she relates to the most.
In photographs of the early stages of her career, we can see her wearing Stones’ T-shirts and posing with their albums, and the long-defunct Rock Scene Magazine once included a poem of hers titled ‘Poem for Keef” dedicated to Keith Richards.
Shortly after the release of her third record Radio Ethiopia, Smith opened for the Stones in their gig at the Fox Theater in Atlanta in June 1978. Legend says she stood by the stage absolutely entranced during their whole set, and at the end, Mick Jagger splashed her with a bucket of water for the amusement of the audience.
Patti Smith told rock journalist Lisa Robinson at the time, “I saw the Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan Show and it changed my life… no matter what happens, this night represents the completion of a cycle for me”
Throughout the years Smith has included many Stones’ covers in her live performances with versions of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, ‘Salt of the Earth’, ‘Paint it Black’, among others.
When the historical landmark music club CBGB closed in October 2006 after years of legal disputes, Patti Smith was the chosen one to play the last show. In her frenzied performance she included a cover of none other than ‘Gimme Shelter’ with the support of Flea on bass.
The performance was so memorable it might have convinced her to include a studio version in her cover album Twelve the following year.
Check out Patti Smith’s cover of ‘Gimme Shelter’:
Patti Smith has always had a deep admiration for the frontman of Nirvana, an empathic connection that probably can only exist between two broken souls that know the meaning of pain. In 1996 as part of her album Gone Again, Patti recorded a tribute to Kurt called ‘About a Boy’,
“When Nirvana came out, I was really excited. Not so much for myself – my time had passed for putting so much passion into music and pinning my faith in a band.” confided Smith to Rolling Stone Magazine in 2014, “I’d had the Rolling Stones. I was happy for the kids to have Nirvana. I didn’t know anything about Kurt’s torments or personal life. I saw the work and the energy, and I was excited by that. It was a tremendous shock – quite a blow to me – when he died.”
If there is a song from Twelve with a blank expiration date, that’s Patti’s mesmerising cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. She took the angst, the pain and the effervescence of the original, and transformed it into a gripping bluegrass epic with no drums, acoustic guitar, violin, bass and a banjo played by her long-time friend Sam Shepard.
What is amazing about this rendition is how Smith was able to take a song that nine out of ten people on the planet have heard to exhaustion and transform it into something that is genuinely fresh. Smith did here for Nirvana what Johnny Cash did in 2002 for Nine Inch Nails with his dramatic version of ‘Hurt’.
Patti Smith had seemed to make her connection with Cobain a permanent piece of her live performances, often including equally accomplished versions of ‘Heart-shaped Box’, ‘Come as you are’, and ‘On a Plain’.
Check out Patti Smith covering ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’:
Neil Young has certainly earned his place in the Mount Rushmore of American rock and culture ever since the ‘60s when he broke into the scene with the now legendary group Buffalo Springfield. Activist, tech entrepreneur, author of a handful of the best albums of all time, his mark is indelible, touching everything from comics to film.
Patti Smith has covered many of his songs throughout her career, from ‘It’s a Dream’ to ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’. In Twelve, she delivered a gentle version of ‘Helpless’, with a vocal performance that’s so sweet and rejuvenated she almost sounds like in her early recordings from the ‘70s.
Early in January, Smith made the internet headlines with a performance of the classic ‘After the Gold Rush’ on The Tonight Show. She opened her rendition with an absolutely beautiful poem in which she reflects on the current political turmoil of the world, capping it off with a glimmering high note of hope:
“And I dreamed of our world / A spinning ball of confusion / Heart-wrenching injustice / Unconstitutional arrogance / Fires raging the Earth… / Yet I still keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen / Maybe tomorrow, a tomorrow following a whole succession of tomorrows.”
“Life is an adventure of our own design, intersected by fate in a series of lucky and unlucky accidents” Smith narrates in the opening scenes of her documentary from 2008, Dream of Life.
Her entire career can be seen as a brave example of how to face the perils of existence and come out on the other side triumphantly. First, her former roommate, lover, and longtime friend, lauded photographer Robert Mapplethorpe died from AIDS-related complications in 1989. Just a few years later, in 1994, her husband Fred Smith succumbed due to a heart attack.
At the time Jesse their daughter — now activist and musician in her own right — was only seven, and Jackson their eldest son was only 12 — now accomplished guitarist and ex-husband of Meg White —. Patti’s brother Todd volunteered to move in with the family to lend her a hand with raising the children but unexpectedly died just a few weeks later of a stroke.
It was her friends Allen Ginsberg and R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe who surrounded her in these hard times and urged her to come out of her semi-retirement to tour again and record a new album. Stipe chronicled Smith’s first experience on the road with a book of photographs titled Two Times Intro: On the Road with Patti Smith.
The punk poet bounced back in 1996 with Gone Again, her first album in eight years, and collaborated with Stipe that same year on R.E.M.’s song ‘E-Bow the Letter’ from their record New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which she has also performed live with the band.
Check out Patti Smith’s cover of ‘Everybody Hurts’:
Since then Patti has incorporated many R.E.M. tunes in her live repertoire, doing covers of ‘Undertow’ and ‘New Test Leper’.
In Twelve she pays tribute to her friendship with Stipe with a tear-jerking reversion of ‘Everybody Hurts’, in what is probably the most emotional performance of the album.
“Build a good name,” rock poet Patti Smith advises young generations in a 2012 lecture at the Louisiana Literature festival in Denmark. “Don’t make compromises… protect your work and if you build a good name, eventually that name will be its own currency. Life is like a roller coaster ride, it’s never going to be perfect. It’s going to have perfect moments and rough spots, but it’s all worth it.”
Yup, Patti Smith is a friggin’ living legend and we’re lucky to have one of the most revered songwriters in the history of rock back in Australia.