ALBUM REVIEW by Victor Stranges
June 2022 is the ten-year anniversary of the release of Patti Smith’s album, “Banga.” The punk poet came onto the scene in 1975 with her critically acclaimed debut album, Horses. Some thirty-seven years later we see her at the peak of her artistry in both songwriting and recorded works.
On Horses, she sang, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” What we see in Banga is a grace rounding off some of the youthful edges, but without removing the edge. The album was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York City and Hoboken's Hobo Recorder. It was produced by Smith and her group comprising Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty, and Tony Shanahan. Smith’s children, Jackson, and Jesse Paris, play on the album. Other guest musicians include Television frontman, Tom Verlaine, Italian band Casa del Vento, and Jack Petruzzelli.
What is most striking about Banga is the songwriting and the lyrical density. It’s no secret that Smith was heavily influenced by poetry and literature of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Charles Baudelaire, and Rimbaud. Musically she has been known to draw inspiration from Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, John Coltrane, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan.
The record is "inspired by Smith's unique dreams and observations" and lyrically, the album is "a reflection of our complex world – a world that is rife with chaos and beauty." In the opening song “Amerigo,” Smith becomes an incarnation of Amerigo Vespucci, who was an Italian merchant, explorer, and navigator from the Republic of Florence. It is from his name from the term "America" is derived.
The album weaves through some rocking pieces but it’s the softer tones and slower pieces that are transfixing as they are reflective. Though Smith never met her, she presents “This Is The Girl” as a eulogy to the late singer, Amy Winehouse. It is a fitting tribute done in a 1960s girl group vein, which Rhianna stylistically channeled in her 2016 song, “Love On The Brain.”
“This is the girl
For whom all tears fall
This is the girl
Who was having a ball
Just a dark smear masking the eyes
Spirited away, hurrying inside”
- This is the Girl
Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” is covered utilizing the musical talents of Smith’s son and daughter as well as a children’s choir. “Nine” is a tribute to Johnny Depp, whom Smith relates to (in real life) in a deeply personal way. She once said about Depp, “we just really hit it off. I lost my brother and really mourned him and it felt like he sent Johnny Depp to be my new brother.”
Death and loss are recurring themes in Banga as if they were warning signs to the youth of today. A sign that says life goes by so fast. Actress Maria Schneider from “Last Tango in Paris” fame, is recalled on “Maria.” We are invited into the history of deep love and friendship that began in the vigour of their restless youth and then her friend was gone all of a sudden.
“We didn't know
The precariousness of our young powers
All the emptiness
Wild wild hair
Sad sad eyes
White shirt / black tie
You were mine”
It’s hard to overstate the influence of Patti Smith on modern music. Her musical tentacles have reached Sonic Youth, The Smiths, R.E.M., P.J. Harvey as well as modern artists such as Courtney Barnett and singer of “Royals,” Lorde. Speaking to Fashion Magazine a few years ago, Lorde explained, “I'm drawn to women who aren't painted in history as sweet figures. Patti Smith was prickly. She was frustrated. She didn't take people's shit… there's no better music idol for young women, because there is a lot of pressure for us to be really positive all the time."
In a Guardian fan Q & A post about her own music, Smith responded “as a whole album, I like the last one, Banga. ‘Constantine’s Dream’, the long-improvised piece at the end, touched a lot of things that concern me - art, the future of mankind, climate change, the horrors done to our indigenous people, and love.”
Patti Smith and her band give us some perspective on the paradoxes of the joys in life along with its tragic inevitable finality. It’s a wonderful body of work that uses historical figures and personal anecdotes. Musically it touches the heart and uniquely unites the personhood of the melody, rhythm, and words. At the age of 65, Patti Smith was at the peak of her musical powers and at 75 she is still going strong.