Death be not proud

Jul 30, 2008 at 12:00 am

Patti Smith is an iconoclast, proto-punk and poet — but she endures because she's first and foremost a humanist. How else could an artist quote Burroughs ("Towers open fire!"), create Horses, famously cover "Gloria," and then offer up "People Have the Power," first as a pop song and then as a humanistic mantra? It's this catholic spirit that guides Smith here, as she reads from her tome (of the same title): a Rimbaud-ian stylization and reflection on late artist (and close friend) Robert Mapplethorpe's life and death, accompanied by My Bloody Valentine's guitar alchemist Kevin Shields as performed live on two different nights in London.

The first reading, from summer '05, reveals both artists just finding their rhythm; Smith through kaleidoscopic emotions and colors, recounting "the passenger M,""an archer not a naturalist," and depicting Mapplethorpe riding on life's bumpy spine into destiny's — and death's — firming grasp toward the Southern Cross. Shields starts here with what sounds like tape-loops before moving into his trademark melting guitar smolder, previously heard most eloquently on "To Here Knows When" from MBV's Loveless album. Smith is even inspired enough at two points here to start singing, her Katherine Keener-like voice of experience breaking into song from deep within her lungs. It's harrowing, although it takes Shields a second to pick up on the opportunity. The poem is epic, but Smith's resolve hits home: "Our destiny is our familiar ... each of us knows everything ... and yet we sleep." She notes that "M" was an exception, though, and, thus, her hero: "Obscured by love, by his own design ... he opened his eyes."

The second disc, from fall of '06, is an even more solid performance. Shields' guitar has now been tastefully refined into the sound of watching a fire burn — consuming, chimerical and warm — while Smith, now a more confident narrator, tells the story of a sea voyage and sea change, as "M" tries to "cheat death" through a "ritual of emotions." The real lesson, in both versions presented here, is that none of this is final, not even death.