Patti Smith has been rattling around my birdcage for a few years now. Last week I read her book Just Kids, which deals with her long friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and was reminded yet again of what an enduring talent she is and what a remarkable person.
As I say, we go back a long way. We first made our acquaintance when I was a blinkered 15-year-old and her hairy armpit leapt out at me from the cover of her 1978 album Easter.
The armpits didn’t work for me but the music did. Much of it was too mature for my pea-brain but I was hooked on Because the Night, the single she borrowed from Bruce Springsteen. It was a bit more poppy than the rest of the album which is probably why it appealed to my sachinerined musical tooth.
Since then I have gone back over the Patti catalogue and added many other favourites but, even now, Because the Night conjures up wet afternoons in the fourth form cabins at Pangbourne, Jonny Hanscombe, Gordon Arthur, James Cookson and myself discussing England’s chances against Pakistan and which out of Debbie Harry and Kate Bush we would rather have as a girlfriend. Wishful and unrequited thinking on all our parts.
Patti didn’t figure largely in these conversations. Posters of her never adorned our walls in the way that Debbie and Kate did. Or that perfect crime-fighting trio of Kelly, Jill and Sabrina. Maybe it was her armpits or maybe it was because she never joined the ‘music as sex trade’ game. Patti was serious. And clever. A bit too much for the boys we were.
Fast forward 27 years – a long time for both of us – and our paths finally met in the concourse of Athens International Radio.
The station was sponsoring a gig that she was playing at Lykabettus, a wonderful open air arena carved into the side of the largest mountain in central Athens. As a part of the deal, she came to the station the night before – on July 12, 2005 to be exact – to do a short unplugged session and sip a few glasses of wine with the great unwashed.
My colleague Theo Ioannou had the best of it that night. His show of music and chat ran from 10pm to midnight and Patti agreed to step into the studio to do an unscheduled live interview. Here was no brash pop star high on her own publicity but a measured, thoughtful human being, aware of the world around her and her own small place within it.
Her daughter Jesse hovered in the background, a gentle unobtrusive minder. My own kids were just three and two at the time and buzzing around like whirling dervishes. Jesse stopped to chat and then Patti also came across to talk kids and family, intrigued like many others to find someone who had made their home in a foreign clime.
She signed a book for me, not one of hers but a 1937 publication History Through ‘The Times’ – a collection of leader articles from the Thunderer since 1800. It sounds odd, I know, but it is a habit I have picked up over the years of asking people to sign whatever book I happen to be reading when we meet.She admired the mottled, dog-eared book.
“It is so important to understand history and learn from it,” she said before producing her fountain pen and inscribing the book. I discovered from Just Kids that she had taught herself calligraphy during those early years she shared knocking around New York with Mapplethorpe and it shows in her hand.
We only chatted a few minutes. She certainly wouldn’t remember it. And even I cannot recall the exact words apart from that one phrase about history. But I caught the impression of this mother figure a quietly spoken little lady with long greying hair. She is 59, I was thinking; fragile. I wondered at the back of my mind whether she was up to performing the following night.
Twenty-four hours on, Patti was up on stage. Or was she? The gentle old lady was gone. In her place was a snarling, barefoot rock chick, chewing her guitar and spitting it out across the groundlings. The atmosphere was electric. Athens is always on the brink of one revolution or another; Patti was like the great preacher as the mountainside roared along to People Have the Power.
And when she sang Because the Night I thought back to those fourth form days with Debbie, Kate and all of Charlie’s Angels with a tear of nostalgia in my eye.
It was a memorable night; I felt as audiences in another century must have felt when they watched Mozart or Beethoven in the flesh. Tingling excitement. Breathless stimulation. Aware they had witnessed and experienced something way beyond the ordinary.
©Barney Spender 2013