Arts and Books: Poet laureate of garage punk

Two of contemporary music's greatest icons, Patti Smith and Nina Simone are also its great survivors
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The Independent Culture
ANY FEMALE rock'n'roller still able to summon the full range of her powers at the age of 53 is bound to be ascribed role-model status. As a true survivor who has endured physical injury and much personal loss - a near crippling stage fall at the height of her success in the Seventies, the deaths in recent years of her husband and collaborator, Fred "Sonic" Smith, and that of her friend and former lover, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe - Patti Smith's resolve and determination is instructive for any aspiring popettes on the verge of collapse after a bad hair day.

But this typically charismatic performance at The Forum, London, a mixture of easy, graceful wisdom, bohemian naivety and devastating vocal attack, was a reminder that Smith's particular marriage of rock'n'roll fervour and the poetic imagination is unique, incapable of being cloned or copied. A product of the early-Seventies Greenwich Village underground Patti takes the stage looking like a school marm from the old western frontier - long silver-grey straggly hair, wizened but radiant smile, hands in the pockets of her black baggy jacket.

She begins with the spoken word "Piss Factory", her 1974 debut single, a still definitive and defiant riposte to working-class drudgery. The agonised "Dead City" from her most recent album (1997's Peace and Noise) was next: merciless, murderous, but slightly ponderous. Leavened by the lilting lesbian lovers' rock reggae of "Redondo Beach", the torpor was obliterated by the haunted crystalline beauty of the as-yet-unreleased "Boy Cried Wolf". The new song's shimmering soundscape, sharp crescendos and striking imagery ("life is a ship in a bottle held up to the sun") showed that the journey into the American folk, blues and tribal past that Smith began on her sacramental Gone Again album is still capable of unearthing treasures.

From the garage-punk frenzy of her Horses debut album, Smith has grown in tandem with her unique band - augmented now by her young paramour Oliver Ray - which is still driven by the redoubtable guitarist Lenny Kaye and the ever-inventive drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. It's her simple- yet-all-conquering presence that binds them together. This really took hold on two songs, "Southern Cross" and "Ghost Dance", where the brooding stomp and recurring motif of "we shall live again" assumed a trance-like effect.

Reborn as a vengeful valkyrie on an electrifying version of Bob Dylan's "Wicked Messenger", she unleashed a fiery whirlwind as the band roared and crackled round her, daring her onwards. Catharsis complete, the ecstatic release of "Dancing Barefoot" - boots off, twirling her socks overhead like some crazed, aged cheerleader - swapped demonic curses for unbounded joy.

And just when it appeared to have reached a peak, her voice broke through to a barely believable new plateau. From thereon, right through to the rampage of "Free Money", the spellbinding Kurt Cobain lament "About a Boy", and the millennial anthem "People Have The Power", she was unfettered and ebullient, sensuous and all-conquering. The ensuing encore turned a segue of old Sixties classics ("Gloria" and "Land of a Thousands Dances") into a feast of rhythmic eroticism and heart-stopping acceleration.

One day all rock'n'roll will sound this good. In our dreams.