Patti Smith / Serpentine Gallery, London

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"Anyone got a copy of my book Early Work on 'em? You do? Great - can I borrow it?" Yipes. As the book is passed across, the air of reverence in this sanctum (outside, blood is being spilt to gain admission) becomes distinctly tense. Patti Smith knows exactly how some people feel about her poetry, but couldn't give a damn if reading it rattles her pedestal. She blazed her trail as a maverick, so, after warning we should look out for glass on the floor "and the purple-coloured LSD", she launches into "Piss Factory", a rant about her time on an assembly line back in New Jersey. She pumps it full of ferocious, Ginsbergian beat, infused with such heady disgust for that job's heat and monotony you'd think she was there yesterday - "They expect me to faint but I will not faint/ I got desire/ An' I'm gonna get outta here..."

She got out, of course; to move in with Robert Mapplethorpe and become a key figure of New York's artsy avant-garde, and then, with the Patti Smith Group, to help kick-start punk at CBGB's. Her debut album, Horses - rock, reggae, stream of consciousness - had the world eating out of her hand and, though she retired in the 1980s to raise a family, she remains a kind of icon - equal parts, it's been said, Egyptian goddess, celibate Shaker and Jerry Lee Lewis. What she actually looks like is a backwoods matriarch stalking her land with a shotgun, or an Amer-Indian bag lady, all frazzled iron-grey hair, hawk nose and threadbare jacket plus evil little wire glasses for reading. Despite which, as she begins to sing "Dancing Barefoot", she is suddenly deeply sexy; it was written for her husband, MC5's Fred "Sonic" Smith, and the passion of a growled "Oh God, I fell for you" still blazes. Fred died about a year ago, and this acoustic set, culled largely from her forthcoming album, Gone Again, deals with death and memories ("About a Boy" is dedicated to Kurt Cobain), but in a cool, uncommonly beautiful way. She accompanies her keening, Dylan- ish voice with animated arm-flailing, so relaxed, despite a big-deal comeback, she doesn't even stint herself a small but impressive belch. She swaps repartee with her band, long-time colleague Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray, and while they're retuning, slyly puts the audience on. "Here's a liddle pome fer Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan had a dog ... Oh" - as Kaye and Ray get sorted, and she regards us over the specs - "hmm, they're breathing a collective sigh of relief." Part of a cabal who, though exalted, remain wildly, movingly driven, there is a sense you just can't shake off being intimate with a legend tonight. "You're a brave woman, Smith," yells a sycophant. "Yah," she shrugs, before snapping a string. "Ah, shit."

n Patti Smith's three-date UK tour begins in Glasgow, 5 August. 'Gone Again' is released 8 July

GLYN BROWN

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