Jun 032020

I feel like I should be but I’ve never been a big fan of Patti Smith. She certainly has cred. And when I see videos like this, I love her:

So respectful, so humble, so human, so pure. And then there are the rave-ups like “Gloria”; who could not like those?

And there’s PJ Harvey. Townsman Geo has suggested I check her out and mentioned this video:

It is a pretty short list of Dylan covers that I love and this makes that list.

Please advise me Rock Town Hall. Patti Smith: yeah or nay? PJ Harvey: yeah or nay? Why? Where to start?


  11 Responses to “Please Advise: Patti Smith &/or PJ Harvey”

  1. These are two artists that I would never profess to be an expert on. But they both have created albums that I cherish and consider essential.

    Patti Smith: I really haven’t explored anything past the initial four albums from the first part of her career. But I love or like all those albums, especially HORSES, of course. What an amazing debut — a kick-ass statement of purpose. Great album cover that matches the sound of the album. Probably John Cale’s greatest production for another artist. Also, I like her books, especially JUST KIDS.

    PJ Harvey: Someone who’s unafraid to completely change course from album to album. So there’s bound to be stuff a person won’t like. But if you’re looking for someone with unwavering stick-to-your-guns integrity (like, say, Neil Young in his cussed prime), she’s an excellent choice. My favorite album of hers easily is STORIES FROM THE CITY, STORIES FROM SEA. Arguably her most accessible album, but also the one that maybe makes the most room for differing emotions, from terror to joy, desperation to lust. Also LET ENGLAND SHAKE from a few years back is excellent, a folky rumination of the UK’s role in WW1 but much more approachable than that sounds. Of the early ones, lots of people like RID OF ME or TO BRING YOU MY LOVE, but I actually prefer her debut DRY. Also certain sects of RTH may appreciate the longstanding influence Captain Beefheart has had on her music; I think she actually got to meet him during his later, recluse years.

  2. I’ll second a lot of what Oats said. For starters, I learned about 7 or 8 years ago, when I went up to New York to see her play a show at a small club on her birthday, that Patti Smith is a life force to be reckoned with. By “life force,” she’s an artist who should be experienced live. If she were performing anywhere near you this week, I’d suggest that you read no further and go see her. The one show I saw was so great, that she’s the kind of artist I might be tempted to hop on a train or plane to see again.

    You know that humility, that humanity that you appreciate in some of the performances and interviews you’ve watched? She’s got it in spades. She’s also completely full of herself, her own myth-driving force. I love that about her too. I’ll never forget having to read Beowulf in 9th or 10th grade English. It was one of the most godawful, boring things I had to read for a class. It’s probably why to this day I still have no interest in any kind of fantasy genre stuff involving brave, bearded men in animal skins and hot women with long, curly hair and elf ears peeking through. “You should try Game of Thrones,” friends have told me, “for the nudity, if nothing else!”

    I slogged through Beowulf and did my best to tune into my beloved English teacher, who was previously a 5th grade teacher who had to set me straight numerous times. The last day of class, he had us read aloud some passage at the end of Beowulf, where the hero boasts that he wants his deeds to be known through the ages. Our teacher asked, “Do you find that expression odd? Does it contradict the notion that a hero should be humble?”

    He hooked us with that thought. He explained that Beowulf couldn’t count on recorded history to mark what he’d achieved. He had to carve out his own legend. Being a kid who was both down to earth and anxious that my deeds wouldn’t be recognized, that struck a chord. It felt kind of DIY, kind of punk rock, and all that jazz that was in the air. I hope to never revisit Beowulf, but that value our teacher highlighted still resonates for me. One of the things I love most about Patti Smith is that she aspires to a sense of the visionary. She aims to leave a trail of legends in her wake. That Just Kids book is such a loving example of those qualities. Seeing her live, the way she communed with the crowd, was inspiring. I still get chills thinking about it.

    I’ve got 4 or 5 of her albums. She can’t be judged by her music alone. Horses sets the template with 3 song variations: the “Gloria”-type song, the vaguely Caribbean-style song, and the jazz-poetry song. Horses, like most of her albums, has at least one killer execution of each of these 3 song styles, but musically, that’s about all she’s got. Her voice can be funny. Her band can be stiff. However, listen to “Gloria,” “Redondo Beach,” and “Land” from the first album. Check out “Ask the Angels” and “Rock ‘n Roll Nigger.” The two big songs from Wave – “Walking Barefoot” and her cover of “(So You Want to Be a) Rock ‘n Roll Star” – are in that pocket. It’s easy to construct a meaningful greatest hits album. Other songs might pop. She’s got that anthem song, “People Have the Power,” which I think is actually a pretty bad song on its own merits, like medium-quality John Mellencamp, but when she plays it live and gets into her shamanistic thing, it’s surprisingly lovely.

    She put out an album after her husband, Fred Smith, died, called Gone Again. Next to Horses, that may be my favorite. This song is a good example of what she can cook up. I think my man Tom Verlaine is playing some subtle, atmospheric guitar along with her and the band. I don’t know why, exactly, I like this song best from that album, beside my old friend Repetition at work, but it hits me.


    As for PJ Harvey, I say start with her second album, Rid of Me. It’s got a dry, in-your-face production that I like a lot (“Steve Albini..soft-loud…blah, blah, blah…” chime in the Ghosts of Rock Town Hall Past). You may best hear her love for Captain Beefheart in the song “50ft Queenie.”


    She can go all over the place dramatically, including some overly dramatic places that don’t appeal to me, but her first album and Rid of Me hit the spot a couple times a year. That Let England Shake album is good, too. And I love the vibe and humor of “Down By the River” and its accompanying video.


    I imagine she may be, like Smith, an artist who’s better appreciated in concert.

  3. Happiness Stan

    Horses, if you can’t get on with that then Wave or Easter. I just love Patti Smith, her integrity just shines through. Only seen her live once and was blown away. I wrote to her once and got a reply by return of post, which was about as unexpected as the note I got back from John Cale. Don’t listen to her often these days but just glad to know she’s there.

    I have all the time in the world for PJ Harvey, she’s got the same honesty and integrity as Patti, but my word I struggle with her music. I worked hard to get into Dry when it came out, after seeing her at Glastonbury where she was amazing. Saw her about fifteen years later and couldn’t get a handle on what she was doing.

    I’ve also airways liked the idea of Tori Amos, and the best of her music blows me away, but good heavens her albums in their entirety are hard work, and both times I saw her play I felt exhausted about halfway through.

  4. I think Patti Smith’s runs the gamut from great to a mess. I don’t think I’ve seen her since the original run, and my clearest recollection, is of a show at the Tower when Wave came out. They were kind of sloppy and self indulgent and only occasionally hit that spot where things work on the records.

    I was singing with Kweder when he opened for her in early 1975 at Glassboro State College. It was just her, Lenny and Richard Sohl on piano, At that time, they were a shaky baby band, not clearly rock and roll, way more poetry than songs. Interesting but I gotta say I didn’t see the incipient greatness lurking within.

    I always liked her voice, that weird catch where she would hop to a higher note and her thick, throaty tone that reminds me of some of the early 60’s girl groups. Her version of “Because the Night” certainly makes something great of a song that in Springsteen’s recording doesn’t even seem passable. But she just seemed so full of herself that things were always threatening to go off the rails.

    Over time, I realized the quality that I once perceived as naïve arrogance, is really a reverence for the rock’n’roll tradition, and includes a real humility and desire to uphold that tradition. This change in heart for me was a result of the books, the stories like Mr. Mod’s and another from Brian McTear, who worked a show at the Troc where the soundcheck was a show for her local family, old aunts and uncles and cousins sitting on folding chairs on the dance floor. In between the songs, she would tell the folks what the song was about and address them personally. This underlying sincerity and sweetness is best illustrated by this clip from a 1979 television appearance.


    So I guess I’m ready to give her another chance if live shows ever resume.

  5. BigSteve

    I was all in on Patti back in the day. I even saw her play in her prime, and she was awesome. I tried to get into her post-hiatus albums without success. I’m sympathetic to her current status as Benevolent Godmother of Rock, but I need to admire her from a distance. Bonus trivia: Did you know that Jackson Smith, Patti and Fred’s son, was married to former White Stripes drummer Meg White from 2009 to 2013?

    I’m still all in on PJ. After Let England Shake in 2011 she seems to have pulled back a little. The Hope Six Demolition Project in 2016 was comparatively low key, and her soundtrack for All About Eve was kind of underwhelming. But I have faith she still has it in her to do great work again. I see she’s just announced a reissue of her back catalogue with bonus demos blahblahblah — http://pjharvey.net/vinyl-reissues-demo-albums-announced/. She’s buying time. I hope she spends it wisely.

  6. Just dropping in to say something negative. I went to an art show of Patti’s in Philly many years ago. I was really surprised at how amateurish and just bad I thought her artwork was. I get it. You’re an “artist” no matter what medium you choose to work in. Still, spend a little more time on the craft part of it.

  7. Speaking of artists crossing over into other media, chickenfrank, what’s your take on Jimmy Stewart’s poetry?

  8. Is that a thing? Happy B-Day E Plurb!!! I’m sure The Waiting was the hardest part!

  9. Jimmy Stewart’s late-life book of poetry was a real thing, chick. I figured you’d at least recall Dana Carvey’s riff on it. Here’s the real thing: https://youtu.be/mwGnCIdHQH0

  10. One second; there’s something in my eye. I guess I’m more willing to let an old grandfather be sentimental and trite than I am to let an intellectual foist their everything I do is important doodles on me. I’ll admit I’m more impressed with George W Bush’s attempts at art. He’s putting work in.

  11. I am a big fan of Patti Smith’s non-fiction writing (I’m reading M Train currently) but after I read one I go back to her music and it just does not hit me like her writing does.

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