Patti Smith performs Killer Road at Abu Dhabi Art
There aren’t many rock stars you’d spend your evening with for a poetry reading.
If you told me Keith Richards, Debbie Harry or even Bob Dylan was doing a spoken-word tour I’d balk at the idea. I’d still go, of course – but I’d be there for the curiosity value alone, as I suspect would much of the audience.
Yet when I heard that Patti Smith would be performing a cycle of verse put to sound at the opening night of Abu Dhabi Art, I was genuinely excited – and without a trace of condescension. If anyone can pull off rock-star-as-poet (take note Ryan Adams), then it’s Smith – largely because she started off as a poet, with three volumes on shelves long before her 1975 debut record Horses changed rock ’n’ roll forever.
But last night was not about Smith’s words but Nico’s, the German singer, model and actress, best known for her equal-billing on the Velvet Underground’s seismic 1967 debut LP.
Strolling onstage unceremoniously in a long black jacket, black jeans and boots, the 67-year-old Smith put on her glasses and began to read: a heavy, self-penned monologue recalling Nico’s death from a heart attack in 1988 while riding her bike in Ibiza, leading into a haunting cycle of 11 of her subject’s final, unpublished poems.
Beneath Smith’s hypnotic words electronics chime and wobble, strange and eerie soundscapes conjured by three members of the NYC Soundwalk Collective, hunched earnestly over their knobs and boards, alongside Smith’s daughter, Jessie. Behind the performers, sombre visuals swirl, mixing metaphors and faded footage.
It’s starkly affecting – Smith presiding over the sensory cacophony with a spiritual fervour, imbuing the words with an urgency, attack and utter conviction. Her affection for Nico is clear, as is her trust in this cult figure’s final, forgotten, ecstatic writing.
“My heart is empty, but the songs I sing are full of love,” Smith recites earnestly, a juvenile throwaway line here dealt poignancy and force, Smith’s performance ranging from whispered confessions to screaming testimonials, her arms aloft and imploring.
Beneath these words the shifting sounds mimic Nico’s naked prose in their simplicity and urgency. Playtime glockenspiel patterns and raw, throbbing bass are interspersed with samples of seagulls, fire and children playing, recalling the rawest of human memories.
After its premiere in New York last month, and performances in Berlin and London, Abu Dhabi is only the fourth city to get to see this brave and uncompromising experiment.
Yet despite a standby queue outside, by the end of the first two poems the three rows in front of me had largely emptied.
Neither the soundscapes, projections nor even Nico’s verse on the page would be enough to command attention, but as a synthesis of light, sound and word it was overpoweringly emotive. Yet what really raised this into goosebump territory was Smith, her honest and committed performance delivered with the fearless gravity only she, as Nico’s friend and contemporary, could offer.
As the lights went up to reveal the theatre not more than a third full, I may have imagined a smile on Smith’s face.
As New York’s most notorious female punk-poet, she spent much of the early 1970s confounding audiences with her mix of impassioned verse and experimental sound – in concept no different to Killer Road – and it may be comforting to know she still has the ability to shock today.
• A video recording of Patti Smith’s opening-night performance of Killer Road will be broadcast at the Plaza venue, at Manarat Al Saadiyat, tonight and tomorrow at 7pm