June 3, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Caryn Rose brings the knowledge of a critic and the heart of a fan to Why Patti Smith Matters, one of the most informative and engaging music books of the year.
Vol. 1 Brooklyn wrote of the book:
"If you’re looking for a distillation of Smith’s importance and influence, there are few writers who seem better-suited than Caryn Rose, making this new book a perfect blend of author and subject."
In the process of researching and writing Why Patti Smith Matters, I rotated between listening to Patti’s catalog, listening to live unofficial concert recordings, listening to random playlists of her CBGB’s cohorts, and making playlists of the influences and cover songs she’s performed throughout her career. Patti and her band are unabashed music fans themselves, and saw themselves as carrying the rock and roll banner forward from one generation to the next. The covers weren’t throw-away moments or goofing off, but rather integral parts of the message they wanted to transmit as they journeyed from city to city. That didn’t change after she returned to public performance in the mid-90’s; the old covers were still around, but joined by new ones. A rundown of some favorites follows.
The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game - The Marvelettes
It was an article on doo-wop written by Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith’s guitarist and second in command, that connected the two initially back in the '70s. They would hang out in the record store in Greenwich VIllage that Lenny worked in, and when things were slow, they’d play old records and dance. The Marvelettes aren’t doo-wop, but they’re part of the early rock and roll cohort that is beloved by both of them. Most people won’t think of Patti Smith as a soulful ballad singer, but she can be when she wants to. “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” was an integral part of early setlists and it also appeared when the band shut things down the last night of CBGB’s in 2006.
We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together - the Velvet Underground
The VU were the elders of the kids that got together at the corner of Bowery and Bleecker. Patti sang the song with less ennui than Lou Reed did in the Velvets’ original, and the Patti Smith Group meant it as a declaration of intent, usually showing up in the setlist at the start of the evening.
Satta Massagana - The Abyssinians
Reggae was introduced to rock and roll culture in the United States with the release of the soundtrack from the movie The Harder They Come in the early 1970s; the genre’s function as music of the oppressed and in defiance of the establishment put it closer to what would become punk rock than most outsiders understood. Patti and Lenny were huge reggae fans, to the point that they released two records by Tapper Zukie on their own Mer Records. (The only other releases on Mer were records by Patti and Lenny.) I would kill or die to see this show up in a setlist in modern times.
Time Is On My Side - Rolling Stones
Patti adored the Stones, and never pretended she didn’t. There’s a great review of the Stones’ concert in Atlanta in 1978 where the PSG opened, and Lisa Robinson reports that Patti spent the Stones’ set dancing in the photography pit. There were other Stones covers -- Lenny often did “Connection” in his solo sets -- but this was the most popular one.
Gimme Shelter - Rolling Stones
Patti recorded a great studio version of this for Twelve in 2017, but my favorite live version was on the last night of CBGB’s, when it was hot, the sound had problems, and the place was packed, and she beseeched us to sing along with her if we knew the next number: “Feel free,” she begged. We obliged.
Gloria - Them (feat. Van Morrison)
At the Van Morrison tribute at Carnegie Hall in 2019, it probably wasn’t at all surprising that Patti and the band were on the bill to deliver their version of “Gloria,” Patti noting as she introduced it that Van always hated their version. Too bad.
My Generation - Live - Patti Smith Group
Recorded at the legendary Agora in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1976, this version (featuring Horses producer, and former Velvet Underground member, John Cale on bass) was the b-side of the “Gloria” single. “We created it, let’s take it over,” the Field Marshall declares at the end of the song, a message she delivered night after night as they toured the U.S. in the early days. There’s faint print at the bottom of the sleeve that reads, “NOTICE: ‘MY GENERATION’ CONTAINS LANGUAGE THAT MIGHT BE CONSIDERED OBJECTIONABLE.” That’s a pretty mild warning for “We don’t need their fucking shit/hope I die because of it.” I’ve always loved how in recent years she’s amended that statement to “Hope I live because of it.”
Not Fade Away - Buddy Holly & The Crickets
“Not Fade Away” has served many roles in Patti Smith setlists; it’s been a golden oldie, presented with '50s era heart and soul; it’s been a vibe, cool and bouncy, much like the Grateful Dead would generate. And it’s always been a whole-hearted, unironic declaration of intent: “Love is real / not fade away.”
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall - Bob Dylan
By now, even your grandma knows the story of how Patti temporarily blanked out and had to start the song over when she performed it at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2016 in honor of Dylan being awarded the prize. I saw her play the Tibet House benefit at Carnegie Hall a few months after the incident, and was glad that she included it in her set -- kind of like getting back on the horse. I walked out thinking, well, I’m glad I got to see her perform it, not realizing that it would become part of the set on and off over the next few years, including an evening in Evanston, Illinois, where she sang the song with power and conviction as a storm began blowing in off the lake, growing in intensity to the point where one might have wanted to point out that it felt a little like she was conjuring the weather. She had to end the set as soon as she finished and the crowd was evacuated immediately afterwards.
Caryn Rose is a longtime music journalist whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, MTV News, Salon, Billboard, the Village Voice, Vulture, and the Guardian. Her essay on Maybelle Carter was included in Woman Walk the Line.