When I think of the ideal cover version, one song that comes to mind is Patti Smith and her take on Them’s “Gloria.” Those opening lines from her debut album “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine…” was her way of calling to the world saying “I am woman, hear me roar.” And for a generation she has stood up as a poet, rocker, activist and artist with a voice that’s equally powerful sexy and inspiring.
Every time I hear Patti’s voice I think of a former novia, Heather. I met her in New Orleans, and we were best friends for months before we got together. She single-handedly re-introduced me into Patti Smith when I was in my own poet/social activist phase in my life. Heather was a die-hard Patti fan and sees Smith live every time she plays in New York. Even if Smith plays a four night stand, Heather and her sister are there every night. When ever I hear one of Patti’s songs I think of her and the way she was too shy to sing out loud because Heather was afraid of sharing her singing voice, but that was okay, because Patti not only sang for her but she sings for all of us.
On Smith’s new album Twelve, She not only sings for us but she handpicks some of her favorite songs and reinterprets them with her unique power and glory. She starts off by taking on one of America’s giants and the best guitarist that ever lived, Jimi Hendrix. Patti singing “Are you Experienced” is the perfect introduction to Twelve. Lenny Kaye’s slow chord procession turns Jimi’s song into a bluesy tribute to Hendrix. I like the way she adds her own poetic scat calls in between Jimi’s familiar lyrics. Patti takes over this song like a poetic priestess as she recaptures the spirit of the sixties on her soulful and tripped out version of this Hendrix classic.
Patti follows “Experienced” with a unique choice by covering Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Smith and her band do a straightforward, traditional version of this Roland Orzabal composition, and this is probably one of the only missteps on this stellar record. I would have loved it if Patti would have turned this ’80s pop treasure into a post modern acoustic classic. The only part of this song that stands out is Lenny’s cool guitar riffs before the final coda. “Helpless” follows and Patti slows it down with a beautiful interpretation of this Neil Young gem. This version is akin to the Ryan Adams/Gillian Welch take that I so adore. I love how sweet Patti’s voice sounds as she croons like a chanteuse stranded by the side of the road serenading the stars.
Patti and her band turn the Stones’ “Gimmie Shelter” into the 21st anthem that is needed in these turbulent and violent times that echo the era in which the song was born. This track is my personal favorite on the collection. With Kaye’s revolutionary riffs and Smith’s howling vocals, this is Patti’s urging to the masses to rise up for our disappearing rights and fight for our country that we love and believe in. As she sings, “it’s just a shout away,” we believe her. It makes me want to run into the streets with my brothers and sisters. That’s the power of Patti.
Next comes, a fitting tribute to former Beatles legend George Harrison on “Within You Without You.” Ever since, the Love compilation came out, I can’t hear this song without also hearing the music of “Tomorrow Never Knows” in the background. It starts off with an acoustic version mixed with some sweet percussion and piano keys instead of the sitars that float through the original. Patti does her best to take it back and succeeds with a version that even Harrison would not only approve of, but might even love from above. Patti Smith’s take on “White Rabbit” begins with an In Excelsis Deo type of introduction. I love the way that the drum fills sound like one of the three member revolutionary war marchers pounding with their sticks instead of announcing the arrival of an army, these drums signal the coming of Patti Smith and her timeless reading that rivals Grace Slick’s vocals in the original.
If you’re a true Patti fan than you know that Smith loves herself some Doors. Patti and her band put the “Soul” in Morrison’s “kitchen” in this sweet version of song from the debut album from The Doors. I would have preferred Patti include an acoustic cover of “Crystal Ship.” You can find an extraordinary live cover of that one on the net. Search for it, you will thank me for this. One of the most original covers on Twelve has to be the banjo flavored strumming of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit.” I love the fact that this version sounds nothing like the original. I so got sick of this song as it became the slacker anthem for the Grunge generation. Patti makes this Cobain classic her very own. I believe that Smith’s version is even better than the original. I adore the violin strings playing throughout as Patti shares some more of her poetic improvisations before the final chorus as the band builds up to this climax. I imagine Cobain smiling from the Heavens hearing Patti’s take on his most infamous song. She did Kurt and Nirvana proud on this song.
Twelve is an amazing album, offering interpretations of works from a plethora of artists who have helped shaped the voice and spirit of one of our generation’s everlasting artists. I think it’s fitting, for Patti Smith has inspired countless bands including R.E.M. and The Smiths, who named their band in her honor. I love Patti because she’s brave and inspires me with her words in both politics and poetry.
Even though Twelve is a triumph, I have one request of Patti. I would love for her to release a box set of live shows, like the Stages collection that Hendrix estate released in the 1990s. Why you ask? Unless you have seen Patti live you’re only getting half of the experience. Patti in concert is the real thing. I remember when I first heard this amazing live version of “Gloria.” I am not talking about the one we all know from her brilliant debut Horses, there’s another version that blows that one out of the hemisphere. The one I am talking about is from a live show sometime in the ’70s that has just Patti and features the amazing guitar stylings of one Lenny Kaye. This version of “Gloria,” that I am writing about, is unavailable anywhere on any official release, and is the best version of “Gloria” ever captured on tape. Better than Van Morrison or The Doors. I love the way Patti comes alive as she sings this song with only a guitar as her guide. It’s like a rock orgasm coming to life. And at the end all you want is a cigarette and to press play and relive it all over again.
Marianne Faithfull – Before the Poison
Lou Reed – Ecstasy
David Bowie – Pin-Ups