by Erick Trickey
Classic rock has always inspired Patti Smith, even in the 1970s punk years when she was defying and blaspheming the mainstream with her Beat-poetic visions. Her 1974 B-side "Piss Factory" included a character talking in rock references: "Get off your mustang, Sally! You ain't goin' nowhere!" Her debut album, 1975's Horses, began with "Gloria: In Excelsis Deo," a radical half-cover. The opening-line manifesto, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine," was hers, but the climax was the chorus of Van Morrison's "Gloria."
So Smith's new covers album, Twelve, feels inevitable. The surprise is how unsurprising her renditions of rock classics are. Nothing gets amplified or made more aggressive. Her versions of quiet songs such as Neil Young's "Helpless" are faithful to the originals, while an attempt to bring back the joyous South African rhythms of Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" with a dulcimer has mixed results. But when Smith slows down Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" the years of familiarity fall away, so the listener can rehear the "trumpets and violins . . . calling our names." Smith gets closest to a "Gloria"-like transformation with "Smells like Teen Spirit," following up the original lyrics with "Our Jargon Muffles the Drum," her poem about "exploited raging children of the mills" and "children of the junkyard malls," like a rock godmother mourning Cobain as a lost youth. A banjo player re-creates Nirvana's tormented riffs and ends with a rambling solo, communicating chaos like a squall of feedback.
Smith, sixty, proved she still has plenty of rebellion in her when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. She admitted, in her speech, to ambivalence over joining rock's institutional elite, but she said her late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5, had predicted she'd be inducted and asked her to accept it gracefully and not curse or get feisty. Then, with her band's amps cranked up, she sang the Rolling
Stones' antiwar anthem "Gimme Shelter," a highlight of Twelve, and her most controversial song, "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger," which demands respect for the "black sheep" artists and nonartists living "outside of society."
Expect just this mix of rock-as-revolution passion and revelatory reverence at her Michigan Theater performance on Thursday, August 2. On the European leg of her tour, she's mixed songs from Twelve with her signature 1970s work, ranging from the defiant glory of "Gloria" to a version of "White Rabbit" that compares well to Jefferson Airplane's original to her biggest hit, "Because the Night," cowritten with Bruce Springsteen. Her sons with Fred, guitarist Jackson and drummer Jesse, are performing with her, a poignant reminder of her links to rock's past and her elder-stateswoman's role in inspiring its future.
[Review published August 2007]