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Patti Smith: Godmother of Punk – and my Hero

From fortuitous meetings to a deep love of her craft, much-loved Belfast music fan and tour guide Dolores Vischer reflects on a life-long affinity for the undisputed Godmother of Punk, Patti Smith, ahead of shows at Vicar Street in Dublin on 27th and 28th June

Patti Smith has been an important figure in my life; she is my all-time favourite artist. I first heard her Horses album in 1975, as an impressionable young teenager of 14.  Her voice, attitude, mix of poetry and rock hooked me there and then – before I’d ever heard of punk. Punk music remains one of my favourite genres.  Belfast has its own ‘Godfather of punk’ in Terri Hooley, but punk poet Patti Smith is truly the ‘Godmother of Punk’.

I’ve seen Patti Smith perform many times and never been disappointed. Each new album and book are important moments.  Patti gigs are among the few I would travel far to get to.  My first and only tattoo, acquired just this year, features the letters ‘P’ and ‘S’ inside an abstract horse head. The tattoo design was done by my son, Aidan, and my daughter Elspeth and I each got it tattooed.  

Let me share some important moments in my own Patti story. I’ll keep it to this century.

The hastily arranged Patti Smith gig in Belfast’s Elmwood Hall of 30 July 2004 is my favourite gig of all time.  It was a magical night, really personal and intimate, with around 150 people there. Patti who loves visiting cemeteries, spoke of her earlier visit to Friar’s Bush graveyard and asked the audience questions about it. She played songs from the Trampin album released a few months earlier, plus some of her best-known crowd pleasers and ended with a prolonged version of ‘Gloria’.  She came down off the stage and walked and sang right among us.

On a sunny day, 30 June 2011, I attended Hop Farm Festival in Kent. Seeing Patti Smith perform on the same day as Iggy Pop and The Stooges, Lou Reed (and Morrissey) was extraordinary.  Bare-chested, Iggy Pop incited a stage invasion and Patti Smith moved us to tears with ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’, from her come-back album, Gone Again of 1996.

Patti’s memoir Just Kids, published in 2010, focuses largely on her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe in New York. A brilliant book, it depicts the poverty of New York in the 1970s and how it was a refuge and meeting place for artists.  You read of the influence of venues like CBGBs for emerging musicians, the Beat Poets circle and Andy Warhol’s Factory studio. The book heavily influenced my family’s holiday trip to New York in the summer of 2011. We plotted our own Patti pilgrimage, visiting many of the places she wrote about.   We even booked to stay in The Hotel Chelsea, but that did not work out as the hotel, a chaotic place, had been sold and was closed to guests when we arrived to check in. CBGBs was by then transformed into a fancy boutique.  The nearby Bowery Ballroom, where we attended a gig, more closely resembled the old lower Eastside of Patti’s book.

Another memorable gig was the 40th Anniversary Horses tour. I went to the Manchester O2 Apollo on 8 June 2015, with my daughter Elspeth, who lived there then. The Horses album was played in full, in order, followed by many other of her favourite songs. I still have the tour t-shirt I bought that night.

The release of Banga in 2012 is still her most recent album. 2015 brought her second memoir, M Train, covering the 40-year span from Horses til then. This includes the losses of Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989, her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and brother Todd both in 1994, and the 16 years in which she lived in Detroit and didn’t perform.  Her own audio recordings of her books are a special treat to listen to. Now, her voice is very familiar to fans. Patti opened a direct channel of communication with her followers via Sub Stack and the regular, intimate video messages she sends to subscribers retain that personal quality which I first witnessed at the Elmwood Hall. We can see her home or tour locations as she reads from books and reflects on key anniversaries of authors and musicians important to her. 

The power of Patti Smith’s lyrics was used at a moving event in Derry’s Guildhall Square on 27 May 2019. A pop-up choir was organised by Katie Richardson to sing to welcome the arrival of a group of people that had completed Lyra’s Walk, from Belfast, for recently murdered journalist Lyra McKee and for peace. I was a member of the choir that had rehearsed all that morning. We sang several songs, including Patti Smith’s ‘People have the Power’. It was a very poignant and memorable experience. Gary Lightbody had walked the last mile of the route with the group and also performed for them

Dolores with Patti Smith. Charleville-Mézières in 2019

They say, ‘you should never meet your heroes’, but in this case I’m so glad I did. I managed to meet and speak with Patti Smith in 2019, in Charleville-Mèziéres, in north-east France. This city may not be familiar to many, but it is the birthplace of the 19th century poet, Arthur Rimbaud, whose work Patti admires and has written about. She has visited Charleville regularly and has bought and restored an old farmhouse there connected to Rimbaud’s family: the place where in 1873, when his sisters were bringing in the harvest from the fields, the nineteen year-old poet wrote his extraordinary prose poem, A Season in Hell. It’s also a city I have visited over the years since 1995.

I spotted Patti Smith on the 2019 programme of Charleville’s annual Cabaret Vert festival. The date coincided with my husband Jonny’s birthday and I proposed a birthday visit for 24 August.

Patti Smith Band at Cabaret Vert Festival, 2019. Photo by Dolores Vischer

I wrote a letter to Patti that I brought with me, intending to get it to her, one way or another.  I mentioned how ‘Power to the People’ was sung in Derry for Lyra’s Walk. Basically I invited her to come perform again in Belfast – on behalf of Girls Rock School NI, that I was part of.

As chance would have it, while eating the birthday lunch in the city’s central square, who did I spy but Patti and Lenny Kaye, her longtime band guitarist and friend, walking by. It was touching to see how comfortable they were in each other’s company: life-long pals after teaming up for Patti’s very first performance  – in February 1971 in St Marks In the Bowery, New York.

I leapt up and over to them with my letter in hand. I called Patti’s name, then for the first time in my life, I couldn’t get another word out.  Eventually though we got into conversation and I duly invited her to return to Belfast and gave her my letter.  She was warm, unassuming and friendly. Perhaps this gets to the heart of the matter for Patti is really a fellow traveller. She’s a person who shares her love of all that is special in the world and is not afraid to call out what threatens it.

As if to underline the point, we kept bumping into her that afternoon in Charleville: in the old church, the Rimbaud Museum in the old watermill. At these moments we gave her space, mindful that she needed time to connect with people and places she has valued her whole life. Of course, that evening we were right at the front of the barrier when she came on stage for another mesmeric set.

Cartwheels by Elspeth Vischer

One of the best birthday presents I have ever received is a painting by my daughter Elspeth, based on a photo taken of herself cartwheeling on the beach in Buncrana. Pasted to the reverse of the painting are the lyrics of ‘Cartwheels’ one of my favourite Patti Smith tracks, from Trampin, the album she was promoting when she played the Elmwood Hall.

With one thing and another, I haven’t seen Patti live since 2019 and can’t wait for the Vicar Street Dublin gig on 27 June. It’s great she is still touring so much. The only other artist or act I have loved as long and consistently is Horslips.  But that’s a story for another day! Dolores Vischer

Dolores runs music walking tours of Belfast through her company Creative Tours. Go here for more info