I really had no idea what to expect when a hooded Patti Smith walked onstage at the Warfield in San Francisco last Monday (March 18, 1996) night. As she transfixed the audience with a bawdy poem related to her song "Land", I wondered what, exactly, I was in for. I knew that in the wake of the deaths of her husband and brother, she had returned to live performances. I had read a few estatic reports in the past several months -- in fact, that's why I was there. So I was curious to see if a rock 'n' roll icon I respected more than loved could offer me something new. As it turns out, what she offered me was rediscovery. Both hers and mine.
Like a zillion other smart people, I love rock and roll cos it's primal and visceral. Some people -- Lou Reed is a perfect example- struggle with that contradiction throughout their entire careers. Which is why he's always tried to have it both ways: temper the primal edge of his music with weighty claims of art in his words, or his recording technique. Others, Neil Young, or R.E.M., understand that its ok to rock out for the pure dumb release of it. Until Monday night, I would have put Patti in the former category, not the latter.
Of course, for her it was even tougher: she was a woman who was a smart rocker. Neither of which she was supposed to be. You know: her barefoot dancing should have been relegated to the kitchen, not the concert stage. Or at the very least, she should have at least dressed like a woman on her album covers - like, say, that nice Olivia Newton-John. But she didn't, and created a whole new type of female rocker: tough, independent, arty, and not afraid to take on the boyz their own game. Rockers from Chrissie Hynde to Kim Deal would have been unthinkable without her.
Still, I don't think I would have ever joined any Patti Smith fan club. Sure, I liked a lot of her songs, but by the time I was old enough, she had already pretty much settled down to her life with former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith. And except for Horses, I've never found her albums to hit the transcendence I understood was integral to her appeal. She might have returned to performing eventually, but in the wake of Fred's and her brother's untimely demises (not to mention the death of her long-time partner d'art Robert Mapplethorpe) -- her artistic re-emergence has an extra cachet to it.
Watching her Monday night, doing moves that she undoubtedly did -- maybe a little bit easier -- 20 years ago, I felt like I was watching her get her legs back. The crowd was in her pocket from the opening poem, allowing -- nay, enjoying -- her fuck-ups and false starts and forgotten words. This was no rock 'n' roll icon we were watching, it was a rock 'n' roll human being -- someone who had forgotten or ignored what music and performing had really meant to her all those years ago. And as she gained power from the audience, you could see the years simply melt off of her. By the end of the show, she looked as young as, say, Alanis Morrissette -- and a thousand times fresher. Which makes sense: Patti Smith didn't get into rock and roll cos she wanted to be famous, she got into rock and roll cos she had no choice.
Of course, it helps that she had a stellar band ("My bar band") and shitload of great songs and poems at her behest. With longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye looking like Peter Buck's older brother and Tom Verlaine's unmistakeable guitar dotting her i's and crossing her t's, Patti & Friends ripped through a selection of songs old and new, borrowed and blue: "Dancing Barefoot" "Redondo Beach" "About A Boy" (her Kurt Cobain song, from what I could tell, not too maudlin, either), a grungy arrangement of Bob Dylan's "Wicked Messenger," "Rock and Roll Nigger" and the closing one-two punch of "Not Fade Away" and "Gloria." Not her "Gloria, but Van Morrison's.
And that choice, obviously made very consciously, defined the whole show for me. Sure, it would have been cool to hear her intone what is possibly the greatest opening line of any rock album ever: "Jesus died for someone's sins, but not mine," but this wasn't a night for cool. That was Lou Reed, the night before. This wasn't a night to worry about who died for what. Maybe Jesus died for my sins. Maybe not. Maybe Kurt Cobain died for my sins. Who gives a fuck? Not this night. This was a night celebrating re-birth, not death. This was a night where her new songs were every bit as powerful as her old songs. And most importantly, this was a night to follow "Not Fade Away" with "Gloria" and get away with it, gloriously.
I mean, really!! "Not Fade Away" and "Gloria!" Unlike "Smoke on the Water," - which was done pretty much tongue-in-cheek -- these hoary staples were offered up in sacrifice to the great gods of rock for the sheer joyous thrill of playing them. And not only did they work, they killed as if we'd never heard them before. Maybe it was the delicious thrill of hearing those familiar lines snaking from Tom Verlaine's guitar, but I'll bet mostly it was the electric attitude coming from Patti: fuck art! Let's rock!
The amazing thing to me is that it seemed like it amazed her, how much she and the audience were getting into it. Like she really had no idea -- and I'll betcha she didn't -- how she was going to affect people. And how people were gonna affect her. That energy bounced back and forth between Patti and the audience all night, gaining momentum at every turn, spurring her to even greater heights of intensity.
And fun. So goddammed fun. Maybe that was the biggest shock. Everything I had ever understood about Patti Smith was completely shattered by how much fucking fun she was having: whether it was having her son, Jackson, come out and play guitar on "Smoke on the Water" (and I don't know what I found more amusing -- that Lenny Kaye didn't know the words, or that I know that he didn't know all of the words); or doing a strip-tease with her socks during "Dancing Barefoot"; or getting off on the renewed forbiddeness of screaming "Nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger!!! during "Rock and Roll Nigger"; her sense of joy in performing was palpable. As was her sense of rediscovery of what rock and roll meant to her: after the loss of her husband and her brother, she still had that. And she still had the power to share it with the rest of us.
And why not? Sometimes in life, you gotta go back to the basics: the things that really move you. And at the beginning of a tour that could easily be dubbed the "Lemonade from Lemons" tour, Patti Smith is making some god-like lemonade.
Which is why as I walked - nay, floated - out of the Warfield, I remarked: "Oh yeah, that's why I love rock and roll!!" Duh! As if it needs any reiteration. Unfortunately, it does sometimes, cos we forget how much, how very much, it has meant to some of us at certain points of our life. And I'll betcha that it means just about everything to Patti right now.
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This rant written on 20 March, 1996.
I was listening to Aimee Mann -- I'm With Stupid