| DAVID SHEPPARD: A private view for the opening of an exhibition by the late New York photographer Robert Mapplethorpe called A Season In Hell, inspired by the so named work of nineteenth century poète maudit, Arthur Rimbaud, might have been a discreet little affair. That is had Mapplethorpe’s erstwhile lover and noted Rimbaud-phile, Patti Smith not been invited to lend her agelessly hip imprimatur to proceedings.
In the event, the Alison Jacques gallery proved way too bijou to accommodate a horde of over a thousand inquisitive souls come to have a cursory glance at Mapplethorpe’s imagery (a practical impossibility for those not possessed of x-ray vision, such was the throng) but mainly to commune with the 63-year-old singer and enduring poetess laureate of the CBGB generation. Thus, the discreet little affair became a major event, spilling out onto the Fitzrovian street where the grey-tousled, bird-like but instantly transfixing Ms Smith, having parted the crowds like a boho lady Moses in order to set up a microphone on the gallery steps, delivered a short but utterly compelling impromptu set.
The usual habitués of Berners Street W1 – taxi drivers and posties from the nearby Royal Mail depot - looked on somewhat bewildered as the crowd of geometrically tonsured art groupies, thin, pale Patti wannabes and dark-clad music fans d’un certain age massed at Smith’s feet. As spontaneous musical ‘happenings’ go it wasn’t quite the Beatles on the roof on the Apple building, but a sense of London ‘normality’ being temporarily suspended was palpable. As the beguilingly genial Smith pointed out, enfants terribles Robert Mapplethorpe and Arthur Rimbaud would have each adored such “happy chaos”.
The performance proved utterly disarming. Smith’s voice remains an instrument of transcendent power, the signature glottal yelp first heard on her 1975 debut album, Horses, still a thing of spine-tingling wonder. Her guitar playing is contrastingly rudimentary and she has to stop a mistake-ridden opening song, a rather misplaced homage to the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia called, er, ‘Grateful’, and start again. There was no such problem on an intense, dirge-like reading of her 2004 song ‘My Blakean Year’ (dedicated to another New York outsider poet, Jim Carroll, who passed away on 11 September this year) - Smith’s typically florid call to metaphysical arms whose sage advice to: “embrace all that you fear,” would surely have met with the maverick Carroll’s approval (not to mention that of Monsieur Rimbaud).
She delivers the similarly rousing ‘People have The Power ‘as an unaccompanied recitation. It’s a stentorian performance that serves to remind why she was already a celebrated Greenwich Village ‘performance poet’ long before immersing her words in downtown rock’n’roll. She prefaces a closing ‘Because The Night’ (“…my one little hit record”) with a charming story about walking the streets of Manhattan with Mapplethorpe as said song burst forth from every car radio. She professes herself unable to play the chords which Bruce Springsteen wrote for the song, so puts down the guitar and delivers it, hair-on-the-back-of-the neck-sensitizing, a capella; the rapturous choruses buttressed by a hearty singalong from the crowd. By the end even the posties are swaying along in time.
You really had to be there.
(Ed: ...be there, kind of, with Art & Music TV) MORE BLOGS BY THIS AUTHOR
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