Patti Smith‘s unique imprint on rock ‘n’ roll and the early New York City punk scene cannot be denied. Her influence on countless female rock singer/poets is indelible, and her recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was long overdue.
That said, she isn’t resting on her laurels with Twelve (Columbia), an all cover-tunes project.
The album is more of a personal statement than it appears on first glance. It’s a wide-ranging map of her musical sensibility and a celebration of an era in rock music that is moving further away with each passing year.
Smith believes in connections, happenstance and coincidences — facts backed up by her liner notes for this album. She mentions that her choices here are far different from the ones she compiled in 1978 for a possible covers album.
A dream about a seraph led her to record The Doors‘ “Soul Kitchen.” A chance meeting with Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson led to a rendition of Paul Simon‘s “The Boy in the Bubble.” (Robinson performs the dulcimer on the song.)
Singing Stevie Wonder‘s “Pastime Paradise” to herself at a sidewalk cafe made her think of musician Luis Resto, who had worked with Smith on 1996’s Gone Again and plays piano on Smith’s heartfelt rendition of the song.
Several songs were chosen because of their veiled political significance. The Rolling Stones‘ “Gimme Shelter” is a highlight, with Smith’s trademark growl extolling “Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away.” Television‘s Tom Verlaine performs slide guitar on the track, and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers handles the bass.
Some of the choices were very conscious tributes to past and present heroes. Jefferson Airplane‘s “White Rabbit” (again accompanied by Flea and Verlaine) was a homage to Grace Slick. Smith’s admiration of Bob Dylan led to an unusual choice — 1978’s “Changing of the Guards.”
One of the most haunting performances on the album is Smith’s interpretation of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. Her vocals on this rendition have a fragile delivery that feels as if it will almost break down at any moment. It is a tightrope walk that just makes it across an emotional chasm.
George Harrison‘s “Within You Without You” and Neil Young‘s “Helpless” are low-key offerings that float by like invisible, subconscious messages that need to be examined again and again for their inherent meaning.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience‘s “Are You Experienced?” is given an entirely new context. As the lines “Have you ever been experienced?/I have” are sung, Smith’s rendition appears less about sexual freedom and more about experience itself, and the wisdom it produces (or doesn’t) with age.
At 60, Smith still considers rock music to be a force for political and social change, and Twelve reflects that sentiment.
— By Donald Gavron