Tomas Doncker’s Cover Of Patti Smith’s “People Have The Power” Defines An Individual In Time
Patti Smith is the embodiment of boho pop artist, cresting before punk was a thing, with her masterpiece Horses, and maintaining a career through decades while escaping to the mid-West to raise her children, and returning after her husband Fred “Sonic’ Smith’s sad passing at a youthful 46 years of age. While her subsequent career can be difficult, there is, at the very least, “About A Boy” and, the earlier “People Have The Power” co-written by Fred.
“People Have The Power” is the song John Lennon never pulled off, a self-fulfilling dream like prophecy of an awakened populace, not American, but world wide, with the simplest of hooks built to be joined in, written to be sung together, written as an anthem. The Tibet House took it as their theme, and the last time I saw it performed live was at the conclusion of the February 2021 34th Annual Tibet House (here). Strange days made stranger through and through, the song did it’s job, jumping at us as one voice. It isn’t worth debating whether Smith is right, she is right that people have the right to believe it.
But sometimes I’ve been a lot less keen on Patti Smith and have argued with True Groove Records CEO Tomas Doncker, he is a friend who understands how to make music function towards his needs and sees in Patti Smith and her family kindred spirits. He expressed his reasons for covering the song: “Around the time George Floyd was murdered, the idea of covering ‘People Have The Power’ popped into my head. I thought it was an appropriate artistic response or contribution to what was going on and how I was feeling.
“So I sat down to create an arrangement of it; obviously it’s a great and important song, now more than ever. In my head, the way I heard it, it reminded me of Sly Stone’s ‘Stand,’ or ‘Sing A Simple Song,’ in a more soulful context, that kind of rallying cry.
“While I was working on it I found myself in a situation I’d never been in before. I came to the second verse, and I couldn’t hear myself singing it anymore; it was frightening. Sometimes you come across songs so specific to the artists who wrote them that one can’t hear one’s own voice. no matter how sincere and forthright the interpretation, it just doesn’t feel right. Patti is an artist I’ve admired my entire career – even before I had a career! – and I was stuck. So I set it aside.
“Fast forward to mid-November. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Patti’s daughter, Jessie, who I shared the story with. Then, amazingly enough, before I knew it, I was on FaceTime with Patti. I mentioned it to her and she said ‘write your own words,’ so I could sing it in my voice.
“Only a truly gracious and generous spirit would even consider something like that, and I’m very grateful for her making it possible for me to sing this song. It was almost eerily prescient. I originally had one intent and purpose in doing this but, in the wake of the darkness of January 6th and the light of the 20th, the meaning was amplified in ways I couldn’t even have envisioned seven or eight months ago.” For a fuller account, here is Emily Davenport of AmNews story.
The verse Tomas added starts:
all the usual subjects
going low as they could go
could not match
the people’s power
don’t you know
And continues to the opening of people’s senses, a somewhat 60s concept (it is worth mentioning that Doncker covered “What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Love Peace And Understanding” in response to the Charleston church shooting). Doncker’s take isn’t Smiths, Doncker holds firm to the belief that not just people but individuals have not just the power but the responsibility of standing up for themselves.
It seconds as a specific denigration of the racist fueled Presidential attack on people of color and the clear response: that people united can turn it around. Dreaming in his dreaming? Perhaps. Though something about Doncker’s from a growl to a chirp and back vocal suggest strongly that the power belongs with the one.
There is so much to admire about Doncker and the True Groove Allstars version, not least of while is Kevin Jenkin’s sublime horn arrangement, while Doncker can’t help but be on the one, Jenkin’s sweetens the entire deal making its soul an open book. Doncker’s dichotomy as a black man in 21st century America sees the responsibility of the individual at the heart of people’s power. Doncker lets no one off the hook here, all are punished yes, and yet he uses Smith’s song to add that all are set free not by white metricity and cultural appropriation but by the person themselves.
It’s a beautiful imprint on Smith and in keeping with Doncker’s career, like Lennon before him Doncker sees the one a true reflection of the many.
I haven’t mentioned the video, directed by William Murray, a chromatic sleekness where Doncker is all black contours against the infinite void whiteness, that slowly transcends to Black Power fists and also to peace signs, where the question as to what is even slightly funny about 2021 becomes not a joining as such (surely, the point behind the point is individualism) and yet it is recorded by Doncker’s True Groove family and the song is not just Doncker but Doncker and his true groove family. In an act of shamanism, he inverts Smith’s dream until it becomes a lucid variant on hope, love, peace and person has the power.