Writers Influences 7: Grae J Wall on Patti Smith

I used to have a friend who dragged me down to see Patti Smith do a poetry reading once. ‘She’s a singer, a punk singer’ I can remember complaining to them being familiar with her music a little, but not a massive amount but was left spell bound by the sheer poetry that was in her words which must have stood out back from anything then and also now.

I don’t remember Gloria being played there, but Grae J Wall’s memories of Patti Smith are just as striking as mine certainly were as he begins “‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine’ Patti drawled to me he remembers before carrying on “it’s quite an introduction. No shrinking violet this cool beat spitfire in the boy’s shirt and braces. Not so much a cover as a whole reimagining, Patti subverts the machismo  of Van’s three chord classic to make ‘Gloria’ her own – strutting in to the party to find that ‘sweet young thing’”.

“Patti was an outsider in a world of outsiders and that struck a chord. “ He recalls “Emerging from the Bowery scene like she stepped out of a Kerouac novel and ripping up the rule book – ‘the words are just rules and regulations to me’. Amongst the CBGB’S cabaret of hipsters, freaks, degenerates and junkies she melded poetry with visceral rock ‘n’ roll mixing up Elvis, Lou Reed, Rimbaud, Keef,  Jim Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Baudelaire and The MC5 – creating something wild and dark and beautiful and deep and this small town 14 year old English kid fell.”

“It started though with ‘Piss Factory’ – that brutal burning poem of escape that still has the power to shock and inspire to this day.” He carries on discussing Piss Factory which if you have ever heard it is still frankly a shocking and surprising song even to this day “Nothing had ever sounded quite like it before, like a be-pop punk-prayer rolling down the gutter with a desperate eye to the stars – a clarion call to disaffected small town ducklings like me – ‘I got something to hide here called desire and I will get out of here’.  This four minutes forty two second calling card is for me one of the defining artistic moments of the twentieth century, still inspiring and enthralling and essential.”

“Although the wonderful (Bruce Springsteen collaboration) ‘Because the Night’ became a bona fide hit there was never really any concession to trend or fashion on Patti’s path, defiantly true to herself and her muse. “ He changes topic talking about the Bruce Springsteen collaboration which was a massive hit for her “You get the feeling that a little part of that struggling artist holed up with Mapplethorpe in the Chelsea Hotel still remains – that driven desire to create something real, that passion and integrity. The amazing ‘Just Kids’ documents that period so evocatively, written as a promise to Robert on his deathbed, a love letter to their emerging selves. As Patti once said ‘I don’t believe any artist who says, “I had to do that because DJs will tell me I can’t play that music. I will lose my job.” Well, lose the job and create a new job. If your label won’t let you have the cover you want or sing the songs you want, then leave!’”

“I love that there is no sense of artistic confinement – poet, author, songwriter, photographer, activist, artist – whatever medium suits the moment.  When she needed to take a break, she took a break and then came back driven and strong as ever.” He talks about next when she took a break for years after Wave before doing Dream of Life and then only coming back after her husband Fred Sonic Smith had died with Gone again in 1996 “Patently affected by the sad early death of her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and others close to her heart Patti’s writing has somehow always retained a sense of positivity – quite a Zen approach to life and death. Each moment is the only moment and as such should be lived and cherished. I share her love of returning to a favourite cafe where they know your order before you open your mouth – just sitting at your favourite table and watching the world – that is life right there.

“There is something wonderfully approachable about Patti that connects – her concern for the planet and love of daytime detectives.” He brings the story up to date “During the recent presidential election, a clip emerged of Patti and Lenny Kaye busking ‘People have the Power’ outside a local polling station. Standing next to a waste bin and beaming at a little girl standing to her side (filming on her phone). As they finish Patti raises her fist and implores “don’t forget it, use your voice, vote!””

“I have been fortunate enough to see Patti Smith perform live on a few occasions and her shows are imbued with a spiritual quality – she remains modest and at times self-depreciating but her words and music wash through you, uplifting and beauteous. “ He recalls bringing back memories of my own experience of seeing her live “You travel home on the tube grinning like a mad thing and stay buzzing for days – ‘some strange music draws me in, makes me come up like some heroine’.”

“I have pretty much all the albums and books and after forty five years, any news of a new release still fills me with giddy anticipation.” He concludes “There are very few artists that have maintained careers of such quality, creativity, diversity and integrity and I have no doubt she will continue to inspire for years to come, and I think she intends to – ‘I want to be around a really long time. I want to be a thorn in the side of everything as long as possible’.”

Grae J. Wall Grae is a poet, songwriter, lomographer and front-man of Los Chicos Muertos. He has performed at festivals big and small all over the UK and on countless tours of the back-room bars of Europe. During lock-down Grae retreated to the bottom of the garden to record a lo-fi album of poems and songs entitled Mouseclubvirusblues. Recent virtual poetry performances have included Paris Lit Up and The Festival of Ideas. A new collection of poems – The Sound of Revolution – will be published later this year. Grae is also involved in running The Poetry Underground at https://www.facebook.com/groups/thepoetryunderground/. You can hear the complete Mouseclubvirusblues recordings at www.graejwall.bandcamp.com and find out more at www.facebook.com/trashvilleuk

Patti Smith aka Patricia Lee Smith (born December 30, 1946)[5] is an American singer-songwriter, musician, author, and poet who became an influential component of the New York City punk rock movement with her 1975 debut album Horses.

Her most widely known song is Because the Night  which was co-written with Bruce Springsteen. Other albums have included Dream of Life, Gone again and Easter.

Her books have included Seventh Heaven. Babel, The Coral Sea and Strange Messenger.

Andy N is the author of four full length poetry collections - the most recent being the Streets were all we could see. He is also the host / creator of 'Spoken Label' - a author / writer chat series as well as Podcast series such as Reading in Bed, Comics Unity, Wrestle-Up and the Koll, Andy N and Amanda show. He also ambient music under the name of Ocean in a Bottle. His official blog is onewriterandhisplc.blogspot.com Occasionally he does sleep.