Friday, January 25, 2019

Certain Songs #1436: Patti Smith – “Memento Mori” | Medialoper

Album: Peace and Noise
Year: 1997

On a roll after the artistic successes of her comeback tour and Gone Again, Patti Smith went back into the studio and produced a fine follow-up, Peace and Noise.

With the latest incarnation of her band — original members Lenny Kaye & Jay Dee Daughtrey augmented by bassist Tony Shanahan and guitarist Oliver Ray — fully solidified, Peace and Noise was both more assured and more experimental than its predecessor, and even garnered Smith her first Grammy nomination for “1959.”

That combination of assuredness and experimentation came to head on my two favorite songs from Peace and Noise, “Spell” and “Memento Mori.” “Spell” was basically Patti reciting William Ginsburg’s “Footnote to Howl” over a circular and hypnotic acoustic guitar figure, and “Memento Mori” was a 10-minute improvisation in the studio.

With both Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray piling on phased-out psychedelic effects while Tony Shanahan & Jay Dee Daughtery wove their ways around a modified Bo Diddley beat, Patti tells yet another of a boy named Johnny. Only instead of seeing horses horses horses horses, this particular Johnny died in Vietnam.

And that’s just the beginning of a long mediation on death, and how we deal with it, and how our innate understanding of our own mortality infiltrates everything we do.

Oh Johnny
Someday they’ll make a movie about you
And in the making of that movie,
some mad apocalypse
It will become even stranger than the simple act
Just a boy going up
Just a boy going up
In flames the smoke
Just another life
Just another breath
And who’ll remember?

Later on, near the end of the song, after many many many many more words — and a harmonica solo that was basically a single note — the Bo Diddley beat transforms into a rave-up and the guitars go from airy to crunchy and Patti’s voice getting increasingly more desperate, she answers her own question.

But you’re remembered
You’re remembered
You’re remembered good
You’re remembered good
You’re remembered good
We remember
We remember
We remember
Everything, ha ha

It’s kind of amazing that twenty-two years after Horses, Patti could walk into a studio and come out with a ten-minute full-on improvisation that matches “Land” or “Birdland” for artiness and intensity. It’s also not amazing at all: after abandoning the form for her most commercially oriented albums Easter & Wave , every album in Patti’s second act has had at least one long arty experimental song, but none of the other ones were as successful as “Memento Mori.”

“Memento Mori”

“Not Fade Away / Memento Mori” performed live in 2005 (w/ Tom Verlaine)

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