Patti Smith : Twelve
I read the reviews of this album in the music press and newspapers when it was released last year and, to my shame, I believed them in their general view that this was not one of the Great Punk Poetess’s best albums to date. It was based mainly on the fact that no new Smith material was contained herein – it rather being a collection of covers. In retrospect I should have thought more about the importance of masterpieces like Bowie’s “Pin Ups” than thinking this must be one of those contractual obligation albums – Patti is, after all, above all that sort of shit. And wasn’t I first turned onto Ms Smith on hearing her cover of Them’s ‘Gloria’ [I do not care to mention the name of the writer – one of my most unfavourite rock celebs!].
What put me on the right track was hearing ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ on my favourite Radio Station – Paris’s FIP – on Thursday as I was driving around Brighton delivering medication to the town’s sick and needy. “That sounds like Patti Smith, “ methought, “backed by someone like Hayseed Dixie.” FIP has no announcements other than a couple of minutes ‘Actualites’ each hour, so I had to wait all day to get home to find details from the Internet. This confirmed the Smith theory but Hayseed Dixie were dropped from the hypothesis. It turned out it was from the previously ignored ‘Twelve’ CD. I excused myself by claiming it’s impossible to follow up every possible musical release, but determined to obtain the album asap, so went out at 8pm to track one down. The only boutique likely to supply my need in Brighton at such a time was Borders and to my joy they had a copy – on offer to boot! [I paid £10.99 – more than I normally like to part with but acceptable for such an urgent purchase!]
And I wasn’t disappointed. The album is a gem. So much so that I feel the need to comment on it track by track. Some selections are quite obvious choices for Patti, given her position in the rock world – I rate her number 1 or 2 female rock voice alongside Janis Joplin, and well up there among the all time great across the board.
Anyway, here we go with the systematic analysis.
The album opens with a great choice – Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced’ – which lends itself brilliantly to the menacing dry sultry Smith vocal presentation. It’s understated yet full of hidden promise which takes me to the edge of attaining earthly paradise – and leaves me wanting for that extra ingredient which remains just out of reach. Like sex, it’s normally not quite enough!
Tears for Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ would not on my list of great songs but Patti pays it a lot of respect and I shall spend time considering whether I wish to modify my opinion on this one. So far, it remains a pretty average number.
‘Helpless’ by Neil Young is one of those songs which always surprises me with its power to grab me even though it’s probably not in my top 20 Neil numbers. Patti has the ability to mirror the emotion in Young’s delivery and backs it up by the group employing accordion as main backing instrument in much the same vane that Neil has done with harmonium for some of his work. Excellent interpretation of a very evocative number.
‘Gimme Shelter’ is totally obvious material for Patti to cover and she does it with the panache one would expect. No further comment needed, other than to say that she could’ve injected an awful lot of sleaze into it, but chose not to. Interesting.
Not so obvious is George Harrison’s ‘Within You, Without You,’ I wouldn’t have pictured it without the sitar sound, but Lenny Kaye replaces this with a ‘Norwegian Wood’ style guitar introduction. This works surprisingly well. In fact I wouldn’t mind betting that in 20 years there may be people who firmly believe this song to be a Patti Smith Group number rather than by that other lot!
Grace Slick’s ‘White Rabbit’ is one of those works that one thinks is perfect and can’t be improved upon, and I think Patti probably holds a similar opinion as this is a straight tribute to one of The Airplane’s greatest anthems – making one yearn for those long lost days when Grace was a Frontline Singer.
I’ve never really thought of Patti Smith and Bob Dylan being cast in the same mould, but the cover of Street Legal’s
‘Changing of the Guards’ points up that possibility. The song could easily have been written by Smith, and her delivery here is very Dylanesque indeed. It’s poignant and beautiful.
I love Paul Simon’s work in general but have to say that I have always found ‘Boy in a Bubble’ slightly annoying and have to admit that Patti Smith’s interpretation does nothing to improve this situation for me.
Jim Morrison’s music seems a perfect match for Patti’s persona and her interpretation of ‘Soul Kitchen’ proves the point. I wonder what she could do with ‘The End’ but I guess Nico has already done the perfect version.
I have already indicated how impressed I am with ‘ Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ This is a welcome departure from the usual grungy re-interpretations. Rock-grass lends itself so well to so many great songs and the Smith Group and Friends have the skill to carry this style off brilliantly. A new classic version has here been birthed.
The Allman Brothers’ ‘Midnight Rider’ is another song I’d not usually cite as a favourite but Patti’s drole presentation here does a lot to make me reconsider. Not only does she have a great rock’n’roll voice but unusually her diction is so precise that one cannot help but listen to the songwords. For me – one who is not usually inclined to bother – she is the perfect vehicle to bring lyrics to my attention.
The album closes with ‘Pastime Paradise’ – a haunting tune with which I’m well familiar – but, to my disgrace, I could not have told you it was by Stevie Wonder. Patti Smith has done me a great service in drawing my attention to the fact. And the song is a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful album.
Sadly that’s the lot. It’s a great, great album that deserves a lot more exposure than it’s had. I’m very sorry not to have come to it sooner, but am so pleased to have now arrived! I haven’t spoken in depth about the musicians employed in this album, but anyone familiar with Patti’s work will know that she always picks the best musicians available and that Lenny kaye’s arrangements are impeccable. All I can say in conclusion is, “Patti, give us more covers of your favourite songs soon – you do it so well!”