We’re looking back at a very special performance between not only two legendary acts in punk poet icon Patti Smith and the freewheelin’ troubadour Bob Dylan but two very close friends as they share the stage in 1995 to duet on ‘Dark Eyes’.
Twenty years prior to this show, in 1975, Patti Smith wasn’t quite the literary behemoth she would become. But one person knew talent when he saw it in the smoky coffeehouses of New York’s underground scene, and that person just happened to be Bob Dylan.
Dylan and Smith would form a friendship over a mutual love of poetry and music that continues to this day. One pinnacle moment of their relationship coming in 1995 with the duet of Dylan’s rarely heard song.
As Rolling Stone points out, the two first met in 1975 when Dylan was on the hunt for new talent and Patti Smith was just beginning to find her feet in the music business. Smith described their first meeting back in 1996 in an interview with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
Meeting Bob Dylan would be a life-affirming moment for anyone, but for Patti Smith (especially in her sneering role as poet provocateur in 1975), it wasn’t going to stop her from delivering a heavy dose of punk attitude. Smith remarked that they met backstage at one of her gigs but “we didn’t have a drummer yet. It was just the four of us, we hadn’t been signed yet.”
When asked if she had spotted Dylan in the audience, Smith responded: “No. Somebody told us he was there. My heart was pounding. I got instantly rebellious. I made a couple of references, a couple of oblique things to show I knew he was there. And then he came backstage which was really quite gentlemanly of him.”
Clearly trying to ‘stick it to the man’, Smith wasn’t exactly a fangirl, “He came over to me and I kept moving around. We were like two pit-bulls circling. I was a snot-nose. I had a very high concentration of adrenaline. He said to me, “Any poets around here?” And I said, “I don’t like poetry anymore. Poetry sucks!”
Years later, of course, Smith was repentant for her bolshy first impression: “I really acted like a jerk. I thought: that guy will never talk to me again. And the day after there was this picture on the cover of the Village Voice. The photographer had Dylan put his arm around me. It was a really cool picture. It was a dream come true, but it reminded me of how I had acted like a jerk.”
Any worries around Dylan’s perception of her were clearly unfounded as, “A few days later I was walking down 4th Street by the Bottom Line and I saw him coming. He put his hand in his jacket—he was still wearing the same clothes he had on in the picture, which I liked—and he takes out the Village Voice picture and says, ‘Who are these two people? You know who these people are?’ Then he smiled at me and I knew it was all right.”
It was this kind of behaviour that had made Dylan the King of the Folkies. The singer was a maverick and made his own decisions on everything. “To me, Dylan always represented rock’n’roll—I never thought of him as a folk singer or poet or nothing. I just thought he was the sexiest person since Elvis Presley—sex in the brain, y’know? Sex at its most ultimate is being totally illuminated, and he was that he was the King. And he still has it. I don’t think his true power has been unleashed.”
The song ‘Dark Eyes’, originally recorded in 1985 and released on Dylan’s album Empire Burlesque, offered the pair the chance to come together over a few nights in new york some 20 years after that lasting first meeting.
Patti Smith supported Dylan on the Paradise Lost tour, with Bob always offering the singer his utmost respect, it seemed fitting that he performed this song as a duet with her. He said, “a lot of girls have started since Patti’s started, but Patti’s still the best.” It’s hard to disagree.
As Dylan can be claimed for launching a thousand songwriting ships, Smith’s own literary command has been equally as influential on the musical landscape. Dylan’s respect for her as a songwriter is all the proof you should need of that fact.
Having only played ‘Dark Eyes’ a handful of times before (once at a rehearsal for Live Aid, and once a badly attempted show in Australia) the pair went on to perform the duet seven times on this tour, mastering it and adding a certain gravity to the song that previously felt unachievable.
Dylan welcomes Smith to the stage and the two stand beaming next to one another, proud to be in the mutual spotlight of admiration. Smith gleaming at her hero and Dylan presenting the wonderful talent of his friend. Smith handles the verses of the song and Dylan does his best to look longingly into her eyes, as they share the mic and deliver a stunning performance.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at this beautifully touching performance of a gorgeous song shared between two lifelong friends.