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“She is the only girl singer I have ever seen spit on stage,” a newspaper reviewer said of one of Patti Smith’s two shows at the Roundhouse in 1976.
At the time Smith was touring her debut album, Horses, an emissary from the New York punk scene that inspired London’s then-nascent version. Last week she arrived back at the same venue for another pair of shows, this time celebrating Horses’ 40th birthday.
It opened with Smith, 68, holding the record sleeve and reciting the poem written on it. “I am truly ready to go,” she declared, before volleying an enormous globule of saliva on the stage. There were cheers for that — she remains a formidable spitter — and then louder cheers as her band struck up the first song, “Gloria”, with its unimprovable calling-card of a first line, uttered in a fearless New York drawl: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”
A disciple of artistic wildmen such as Arthur Rimbaud and Jim Morrison, Smith has always placed vital importance on living in the moment, or “racing through the eye of the needle”, as she declared in the opening poem. Now, however, she is best known for reliving past moments. As well as her current Horses tour, she published an acclaimed new volume of autobiography earlier this year, M Train.
As both writer and performer, Smith brings a seize-the-day intensity to the act of memoir. Joined by a band including two members of the original Patti Smith Group — guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty — she gave “Gloria” the full foot-on-monitor treatment, her voice an undimmed roar, the audience chanting along. “Birdland” and “Land” found her entering a shaman-like state of abandon, all beatnik verses (“Got to lose control!”) and ecstatically trembling hands, the music a tumbling torrent of psychedelic rock.
Horses’ funereal closing track “Elegie”, originally written in memory of Jimi Hendrix, showed that even at the start of her recording career Smith had an eye for the past. Tonight it was updated to include a litany of fallen comrades, including her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of underground rock band the MC5.
The last half of the show ranged through her back catalogue, the highlight being the mesmerising drone-rock of 1996’s “Beneath the Southern Cross”. The finale involved Smith holding aloft a guitar with broken strings during a cover of The Who’s “My Generation” and declaring it her generation’s “weapon”. As an act of theatre it was rather hokey, but the message was taken. Her version of nostalgia is electrifying, not soothing.
Tour continues in the US, pattismith.net