It's halloween 2015 and Patti Smith is playing The Roundhouse, London for the 51st outing of her set based around her classic debut album, 'Horses'.
‘Horses’ is – and for me this is beyond doubt’s shadow - the most important album ever, as well as the most loved in my lifetime to date. For me it’s much more than an album. Even after 40 years, I still haven’t quite plumbed all of its depths. It’s a beacon, a manifesto and a reckoning; a vision of the possible and a call-to-arms; a slice of pure poetic magic.
Magic is a good word for Patti. She’s a quester – for her own sake and for ours, searching for the magic that can be summoned out of an energy that's at once poetic, sexual, musical and spiritual. Her gods are both grubby and elevated; of the dirt and the sky: Burroughs, Baudelaire, Ginsberg, Rimbaud, Dylan, Mishima, Della Francesca, Verlaine, Murakami, William Blake, Keith Richards. And, beyond them all, art itself. Further away still, she bends her knee to the great creative force itself, whatever you choose to call it.
Towards the end of the concert, Patti gives a moving elegy for those we and she have lost, including recently-departed butterfly souls Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, overwhelmed by the world and by their own talent too. There’s a marked pause before one name - Fred Sonic Smith – and its heartbeat duration, like a missed musical beat, is touchingly eloquent.
I’m pleased to hear Sylvia Plath’s name in the litany. Most of Patti’s heroes are men. I understand that. Most of mine are too. Patti aspires to a masculine scale of ambition and creative freedom and who has done more than she to accelerate its dawning for other women too? And she’s a tomboy of course too, a classic daddy’s girl, never happier than when she has a hero to worship - and worshipping is absolutely what Patti does best. Still, it's good to hear the name.
Tonight it’s Patti’s turn to be worshipped and The Roundhouse is the ultimate devotional space. We stand around the stage in a non-hierarchical circle, participants at a rock’n’roll Quaker prayer meet, weaving between the cast-iron columns to gaze at our hypnotic preacher on her soapbox stage.Patti truly merits such devotion, because tonight she’s an artist at the top of her game, in complete command of her own gift, her canon, her purpose and us, her audience. It doesn’t matter if she’s speaking or singing, incanting, joking or anything else besides, because she's absolutely in the groove tonight and shaking her Mustang (Sally).
She absorbs the rapture of the crowd, uniting us with her for one brief moment, before she solar-reflects that love straight back at us. The message is clear. She’s every bit ours as much as we’re hers. ‘Such great energy’ one of my gig-going-gang says and that’s exactly right. You can feel it in the air, like spiritual electricity.
Her band – and that’s how they’re billed, ‘Patti Smith and her band’ – fall in behind her in a clear line of command. They’re just grateful to be there and we’re grateful they are too. Each is a master of his craft, there to further vision; self-contained gentle-giant warriors, just like Patti herself.
For someone like me, whose Patti devotion began back in the ‘70s, the irritating itch of the once-underground-gone-overground secret has to be resisted. Patti’s the wise-jivin’ darling of the broadsheets these days; the soothsayer of youth; the icon of the fashion journals. Part of me hates this shorthand reductionism – the one album, the one style, all that pretending to be in-the-know that waltzes furiously around the ordained great-and-good. The cult feeling of ownership by us, the near-originals, has gone forever. Then I have to remind myself she was never ours to start with and whatever she has coming, it's her due at the very least. We have no rights over her and must learn to share her graciously with each new generation, as she has always shared herself with us.
I dance wildly as the music takes hold and sing loudly to the songs I know so well alongside my night’s dance partner, my beautiful 30-year-old sister-in-law. I don’t begrudge her one iota of more recent Patti-love, because she totally gets it – she’s a musician herself; no explanation needed. Pride still claims me once or twice though, as I sing just a little louder to post-script songs that not everyone in the crowd knows quite so well.
For days after the gig, snatches of lyrics echo in my head. A miniature Patti is still gigging away in there on reverb; ‘Bats with their baby vein faces’; ‘I feel like just some misplaced Joan of Arc’; ‘Your soul was like a network of spittle’; her words sewn into my very fabric; part of who I am, spinning spirals of my cultural DNA.
And what of the audience? I was way curious, at this ultimate tribal gathering, to see who else had been as inspired by Patti as I. I asked my husband what word he’d use to describe the girls and women here. ‘Stylish’ he said and this was true. Pretty or plain, tall or small, younger or older, they all had an understated cool, expressed via a pair of scarlet shoes, a streak of green hair, long, Patti-style plaits, soldier boots, cool pea-coats or a well-knotted scarf. ‘Intelligent’ was my first summation, but, on reflection, what really knitted Patti’s girls together was self-possession. They all had the glint of a mission in their eye and one particular star, hovering not too far above us in the night-sky, dressed in monochrome and waxing lyrical with a generous and intense yearning, put it there.