Back in the mid 1990s, as an 18-year-old college student living in New York City, I saw Patti Smith play her first show in 15 years at downtown punk palace CBGBs.
I was already obsessed with her music and writing — I covered songs from her rebellious, beautiful first album, 1975’s Horses, and had written a poem about her (yes, it was called Homage to Patti Smith). So I gripped a copy of the poem and a red rose to give her before the show, which I did, going back stage and handing them to her silently. She took them both, silently.
Later, pressed up against the stage with a friend, just below her microphone, I saw Smith launch into a three-hour show full of fury, power, sweat, and rock ‘n’ roll. On stage, singing with her arms raised, she tore the rose I gave her to shreds, stuffing half the petals in her pocket, and throwing the other half in the air, letting them shower down like bits of red rain.
To those who love Smith’s music — from the landmark Horses to this year’s Banga, filled with references to Russian literature, her old friend, late French actress Maria Schneider, Amy Winehouse, and 2011’s Japanese earthquake and tsunami — she’s more than a muse. She represents something else: the ability to be emotional, literary, musical, and free outside the confines of age, gender, time, and place;. She’s a constant reminder that soulful, smart music exists beyond the current scope of commercial pop for audiences who crave that kind of sustenance.
At Wednesday night’s intimate, private show at Apogee’s Berkeley Street Studio in Santa Monica for Los Angeles radio station KCRW (it will be broadcast Nov. 14 on the station’s Morning Becomes Eclectic), Smith proved her continued worth as a musician and performer. The crowd consisted of less than 200 people, including stars such as Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Tim Robbins, Ed Harris (wearing a fedora pulled over his face), and Ellen Page, who looked just as starry-eyed as everyone else in the packed space.
Thrusting her hands and fists into the air, dancing and swaying, cracking jokes to the crowd, and clapping with her bandmates – longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, bassist and pianist Tony Shanahan, and guitarist Jack Petruzzelli – the 65-year-old rolled through a set of nine tunes spanning most of her career. The songs ranged from the Japanese earthquake tribute “Fuji-San” to her heart-breaking ballad ode to Schneider, on Banga, and hits from her other albums, including melodic mantra “Ghost Dance” –“We shall live again!” she intoned over and over – from 1978’s Easter, anthemic, sacrificial “Pissing In a River” from 1976’s Radio Ethiopia, and a pounding shout-from-the-rooftops version of “Beneath the Southern Cross” from 1996’s Gone Again, which she recorded after the deaths of her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, brother Todd, and soul mate Robert Mapplethorpe.
Smith’s voice sounded warm and thick, full of the same grit it’s always had, but able to stretch loud or whisper-sing soft. She even urged the crowd to bark like a dog and howl as she rrrrruffed her way through “Banga.”
In a KCRW interview mid-set, Smith described herself as “fairly tough,” talked about being a mom, urged people to vote, touched on her support for jailed Russian rock band Pussy Riot, and lamented that “our young people do not have the community we were so lucky to have in the ’60s, the ‘70s.” She looked the epitome of her classic, androgynous, laid back style, wearing a black men’s suit jacket and vest, a white T-shirt, jeans, brown slouchy boots, and her hair down loose, partly in braids.
Before the show, sipping a mug of hot water, she told EW about always working on various projects, such as her National Book Award-winning 2010 memoir Just Kids, about the relationship between her and Mapplethorpe, on top of touring and playing.
“That’s why I like to take photographs while I’m touring,” said Smith. “But it’s difficult because it’s so exhausting to also focus on other things. When I’m not touring, it’s easier for me to balance my different disciplines. When I’m touring, it’s a fulltime job, because I’m the band’s leader. I have a lot of responsibilities. On the road, I feel very frustrated not being able to write. But if I can read, then I feel at least in touch with the writer’s craft. I’m reading a lot of Haruki Murakami right now.”
As a gal in my mid 30s, I’ve seen Smith read and play many times over the years, between NYC and L.A., but I had never talked to her. When I told her — sheepishly — about giving her that poem at CBGBs as a tiny blip of a teen with large ideas, she leaned in closer to me and smiled.
“By the time I get home from a concert, I have CDs and poems, and things people give me. It’s so nice,” she said.
Between that moment, and the show, her rallying closer People Have the Power, which she co-wrote with her late husband, and the crowd shouted along to – crying out “We have the power!” – I felt 18 again, and unequivocally inspired.