Saturday, May 05, 2007

Kat's Korner: Patti from the Mount


Kat: Patti Smith. Jesus died for somebody's sins but, you know, not hers. G-L-O-R-I-A. Patti got big and Patti got bigger. One minute, she was dancing barefoot, the next, because the fame, because the fame, she was pulling a Laura Nyro in Detroit. The priestess of punk returned, as Ronnie Ray-gun was up to the neck in Iran-Contra, to demonstrate that "People Have the Power" and then she was gone again until the 90s. 1997, she's making Peace and Noise, an album that really felt like one, that held together, that you could put on and not skip tracks. 2004 she drops Trampin' on America and it's the finest thing she's done since her 70s work. Three years later, she's putting out Twelve just as she's inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and is she wood shedding? Is she phoning it in?

Twelve is an album of twelve covers. And, of course, she's on Sony these days, which used to be Columbia, where Clive was once fond of keeping dying careers on life support by insisting the middle of the roaders do covers. "Unless you want to leave your career in San Francisco, you need to remember the kids listen to Simon & Garfunkel, Tony!"

So is Patti phoning it in? Is this just another attempt to pull in some easy cash and coast on the legend? People who know the unreleased "Without Chains" are grumbling about how Patti should have released an album of originals. And a sub-set of that group's greeting Twelve with a wrinkled nose and attitude of "What is this sh*t?"

The ones screaming "Heretic!" are probably lost for a few years. The ones who are just skeptics? Give it a listen, this is no cheesy Self-Portrait.

What is it? Ten. It's Ten. It's not Twelve. Maybe she didn't want to give a nod to Pearl Jam?

"Midnight Rider" will have some Allman Brothers Bands fans nodding to the beat but mainly reminding you of how much the late Duane Allman brought to the band (and to rock) while Gregg Allman (who wrote the song) was mainly able to come up with the sort of catchy chorus that sounds good in the background while a Scorsese trains the camera on a crew of mobsters.
Patti doesn't disgrace herself and grabs the song's only moment worth knowing ("Not going to let them catch me, not going to let them catch me"). Listening, you realize that Gregg Allman is the perfect artist to sample because a rap song featuring one line over and over isn't destroying any art, it's just zooming in on the only thing worth knowing.

Then there's "Changing of the Guard." Bob Dylan at his worst. Even the mash notes stopped with Street Legal. Why is it here? Does Sony own a chunk of Dylan's publishing? Patti and the band run with it like they think they've got something impressive. Someone should have told them they didn't. This is among the worst of his songs making up Street Legal and, for the uninitiated, Street Legal was so bad that Slow Train Coming (the dubious follow up) was actually greeted with praise from some corners.

The other ten tracks are worthy of inclusion and even Dylan comes off well in track three. Probably one of the finest songs Bob's ever written. Or ripped off. It's Neil Young's "Helpless" and it's the standout. First listen was with Dak-Ho and when the track came up, he smiled and nodded, "Knocking On Heaven's Door." Made me realize how successful some of Dylan's thefts have been. No, it's "Helpless" which first appears on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Deja Vu in 1970 but it does musically sound a great deal like Dylan's song three years later. Can't blame Dak-Ho for being confused. Even Rolling Stone praised the derivative while ignoring "Helpless" but, hey, they only had 500 slots, right? No time for "Helpless" but Dylan's right under the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive" at 190. Not sure which is the worse insult.

"Helpless" really is the stand out for me. It's not the only standout. But you could purchase this CD (or download it) and just for the one track feel satisfied. Patti's got the always inventive Lenny Kaye on guitars and Jay Dee Daughterty's back on drums along with Tony Sheanahan on bass (and keyboards). It's the tight group she's been working with throughout her re-emergence in the 90s and if the four decided to call themselves "the Patti Smith Group," only purists could argue the point. If you're paying attention the five has dropped to four. The sound doesn't suffer but, as I grow older, Patti with a hot young thang was a source of hope.

"If you can just get your mind together," Patti intones in that voice that still sounds like no other. It's the opening track, it's Hendrix and it's bass heavy. I'm a huge fan of Hendrix and there are few covers I enjoy. Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix had me laughing my ass off like nothing since one of the classic Nichols & May lps. "Bold As Love" was the only cover that worked (not a surprise, it was done by Pretenders) and it seemed to have been included just to make the miserable covers even funnier.

But Patti and the band nail it. Not in a note for note imitation and anyone expecting that may also be ignorant of the fact that the opening track on Horses is Patti adding to a song by Van Morrison.

Patti adding to? See that's the thing I don't get from the set that's screaming she's not doing anything original. Have they listened to Twelve? When Patti's doing this amazing chant two-thirds of the way through "Smells Like Teen Spirit," they aren't really thinking, "Man, Kurt Cobain really had a way with words." -- are they?

Maybe they are? Maybe they really don't know the originals?

You don't need to know the originals to enjoy the CD. But if you're whining that Patti's wood shedding, it probably would be wise to know what you're talking about.

With people who've listened, the most debated song in our conversations has been track two, Patti's cover of "Everybody Wants To Rule The World." Some wonder why Tears for Fears' "Sewing the Seeds of Love" wasn't chosen instead since it is a nod to the Beatles and George Harrison's "Within You Without You" is done to spooky perfection -- spooky because of what Patti brings to it?

Like Carly Simon (who is also on Sony), Patti's doing a covers album and trying to make a cohesive statement about the world around her. Myself, I would've preferred "Sewing the Seeds of Love" (or even "Shout" -- Patti could've done something amazing with that) but "Everybody Wants to Rule The World" fits in with the mood she's creating.

"Gimmie Shelter" may be the closest to a note-for-note recreation and, if so, it's forgiven because when you're touching on the Stones at their finest, why monkey around with that?

Music buffs and historians can find another point of interest in the album with songs like that and "Soul Kitchen." Though it's often forgotten today (we have come a short way -- at least), the general consensus since the beginnings of rock was that women just couldn't sing it. It took too much vocal power to get in front of that big rock sound. (Apparently, they'd never heard of Kate Smith though -- with each subsequent album -- it seems like Bono's bound and determined to rescue her from the just derision her name now conjures.) A girl, a chick, just didn't have that kind of power. Didn't have it or wasn't allowed to show it?

Grace Slick, who more than any woman shredded that fallacy in the sixties, is represented here with Patti's cover of "White Rabbit" (you need to read Patti's notes on that song and I'm not going to spoil it for you but I will tell you she notes some women who came before). Janis Joplin did so as well. If Janis had been African-American, she would have gotten the same White critical reception the equally amazing Aretha Franklin did -- "Oh, yeah, but that's soul. I'm not saying a chick can't handle soul." Janis was doing a rocked up soul & blues sound but in White face and that chipped away at some of the nonsense. But it was really Grace, with a stage persona that bordered on hostility, who started the burial (it was a long grave yard dig and a longer funeral) for that nonsense.

So here's Patti with her band, in 2007, soaring with 60s hard rock classics by Hendrix, the Stones and the Doors. She's carved out the space she inhabits, no question. But it really does demonstrate that women can rock out and could have in the 60s. Women didn't have some sort of genetic mutation, they just broke down barriers.

The barriers have been broken though sexism still exists. A strong case could be made that rock suffers a severe case of sexual panic whenever a woman's work equals (or, heaven forbid, surpasses) her male peers in popular recognition. So, for instance, when all the blossom boys of the 90s were 'whining' over a woman they lusted after from afar, Alanis shows up with "You Ought To Know," singing about the very up close reality -- so close you can see the sweat on the skin -- of a sexual breakup, the 'natural' response is for the boys to throw in the cards and declare rock is now a mishmash of heavy guitars and rap -- as led by the very aptly named Limp Bizkit.

Patti's been there before. She's lived through it all. For instance, she's seen "Because the Night" go from a co-composition to a Springsteen song -- even though Springsteen couldn't have written the lyrics. (If he had it would have been titled "Because the Wee Wee Hours of the Night.") Springsteen didn't try to strip her of her credit but, let's note, he could have been more vocal in her defense.

Rock gods get a lot of help attaining their legendary status. Women, still, largely climb the mountain alone. Patti Smith's at the top of the mountain again. Twelve continues the growth of Peace and Noise, Gung-Ho and Trampin'. Twelve is two tracks that she and the band give more life than they deserve and ten that come roaring down the Mount of Rock.