I’m going to start this post with a story.
In the early nineteenth century there was a young woman who worked as a laundress, travelling from remote farmsteads to small hamlets, helping the housewives with their monthly wash. Her long fingered hands were raw from lye. Her arms were mottled and powerful from the scrubbing in cold water and the wringing of sheets. At one of these farms she met a young shepherd. “That’s the man I’m going to marry” she said to herself, and four years later she did. They ran on their own flock of hardy sheep on the mountain, and took on a smallholding. They had two children, a boy and a girl.
Then her husband died. Now a young widow, she didn’t want to give up the only home her children had known. They could manage the smallholding and the flock if they worked together, and she was as capable as any man. She became a shepherd, not a delicate shepherdess, no Little Bo Peep. There was grace and strength in her movements. She wore her husband’s clothes – a waistcoat, his old flannel shirt, an over sized man’s jacket, even trousers tucked into his boots. Her hair grew long. The house was down a long track, remote in the beauty of the landscape that inspired the Romantic poets, absorbed into her being in every waking moment. She was rarely seen, but once a year she took her sheep to market, reminding the farmers and their wives of her story. Each year they were impressed by her courage and determination, and her ability to survive.
On Friday night I went to see Patti Smith in Manchester. I had seen her interviewed by John Robb, at a lunchtime session at the tiny Library Theatre in Sheffield. Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos were on display in the Graves Gallery, and she was promoting her book Just Kids. She sang ‘Because the Night’ at the end of the interview, and we sang with her. She was charming, fascinating, intelligent, funny and thought provoking. It was an inspiring moment for me. One of my friends had seen her at a performance in Sheffield that same day. Another had seen her at the Apollo thirty five years before. This woman is a legend, and that raises expectations.
So – how to describe her? Her androgynous beauty is still beyond compare. There were t-shirts for sale with Robert’s iconic image of her printed on them. Her beauty has become more solid, more earthy. With her long hair half plaited, wearing her signature jacket, waistcoat, t-shirt, jeans and boots, with her wedding ring on a chain round her neck, and a ring flashing on each hand, she redefines the sexual allure of rock n roll. I’m guessing it’s her wedding ring, because she held it whenever she spoke of her late husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. Sweating, spitting, snarling, swearing, smiling, she was totally engaged with her music, the band and the audience. A poet who can sing. A punk who is both a mother and a widow. A woman who can tease about practising her catwalk walk back on stage for the encore, but who moves with grace and fluidity, acting out her lyrics, throwing her arms wide to draw us in ‘Come, Come’, and then high to remind us that we have the power. She dances like a teenager. She has balls. Eye contact and a smile for the audience members. Then eyes closed, looking like the death mask of a Romantic poet. Song after song, old and new, supported by Lenny Kaye and a great band. When Lenny and the lads did their own songs, she came down to the front of the stage to connect with the audience.
‘Because the Night’ that hymn to passion, longing, lust and love was full of power. ‘I want your babies’ shouted a man in the audience. This is a woman in her mid – sixties.’ Age shall not wither her – nor should it wither any of us. And any woman who feels the pressure to become a commodity in the music business world should take a look at her. It was hot, and as she said, we were all ‘hot’.
Beyond politics, beyond religion, she talked to us of freedom, ‘outside of society’. Becoming true, free, wise to being fooled and manipulated. ‘Work hard, stay clean’. Making her protests about so called friendly fire – the only weapon is a guitar, and sharing her support of the members of Pussy Riot.
And why the story? Well she revealed that her ancestry was Cumbrian, Welsh and Irish, launderesses and shepherds. We started bleating. She called us her flock of black sheep, and she sang the nursery rhyme to us. We sang along. Past and present, childhood memories and future associations. New fans and old, those there because they thought they should be, those there because it had been a long time coming. We all shared the power, the beauty, the air, the breath, literally inspiration. Create or explode. We were speechless when we left. I managed to articulate, ‘I know where I’m going now’. By that I mean that I have rediscovered my tribe, my flock, my calling. And coincidentally I am going to see another poet who sings tonight. More of that later.
Words: Nicky Crewe.