Photos by Ebet Roberts
A festive summer evening in the city. Lincoln Center Out of Doors at Damrosch Park band shell. Seats filled with happy people young and old. We have come to enjoy “an evening of poetry, prose and acoustic music with one of our city’s greatest living artists,” as the bill says, but Patti Smith has a different idea.
“I was supposed to be mostly reading tonight,” she says up front to the large crowd, half-smiling an alligator smirk through long grey locks. “But I don’t usually do what I’m supposed to do.” Uh-oh.
She starts with words, reading from Just Kids, her memoir about hanging with Robert Mapplethorpe in the downtown scene of her early days in Manhattan, and she dedicates it “to our youth, the hope of the world.”
Musical interlude – “Wing” takes flight with daughter Jesse on piano and Shanahan on bass. “I was a wing in ocean blue, and I was free, and it was beautiful.”
More words, another passage from Just Kids, this one about the Chelsea Hotel, then a fiery reading of Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl,” the “holy holy holy’s” spit out in angry declaration. “The world is holy. Everything is holy.”
Commotion on the stage – what’s this? – the full Patti Smith band comes on, plugs in and chug-chug-chugs into the vamp for “Dancing Barefoot,” one her finest originals. It’s the opening salvo in a full, 90-minute set in which Smith summons up, slaps around and attempts to exorcise some of the many demons running amok in the American body politic of late.
Along the way, Smith and band move from tune to tune with stately, mid-tempo grace. There’s a cover of one of Prince’s greatest tunes, “When Doves Cry,” Patti adding inspired lyrics of her own. But by song’s end, something isn’t right. A rowdy guy up front has been bothering Smith; she shouts at him to “get the hell out of here!” and the guy is removed. “He was distracting me from you,” she explains.
From her first album, Horses, the Tom Verlaine co-penned “Break It Up” gets the crowd singing loud on the chorus. “Southern Cross,” with Smith on acoustic guitar, leads into a tasty psychedelic jam featuring a guitar solo from Jack Petruzzelli with a fun quote of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Patti sets up the next tune with an angry-sad political rap, telling the crowd that “it’s sinful to call for the execution of the candidate of the other party – that is not the American way.” She exhorts the band into “Peaceable Kingdom,” turning the lyric, “Maybe one day we’ll be strong enough to build it back again,” into a prayer.
Then it’s party time with a rollicking cover of the Rolling Stones chestnut, “The Last Time,” followed by her biggest hit, “Because The Night,” which she dedicates to her late husband, Fred Sonic Smith.
“People Have The Power” has long been a staple of her band’s set – a combination of naked truth telling and wishful thinking; at last, it allows Smith to get down to what really seems to be on her mind tonight. And given that the performance coincides with the third night of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the song – with its theme about the need to “wrestle the world from fools” – provides a perfect platform for Patti to make a poignant plea.
The Who’s “My Generation,” her long-time set closer, offers another chance for Smith to protest the national condition, such as it is, or such as it seems to be. F-bombs reverberate off the back of the David H. Koch Theatre as she riffs and rants, on and on, and the band jams away. “We can save world, with dreams, with music with rock! Those dreams are still alive! We need to take charge! People, you are the future! And the future is now!”
She picks up a black Stratocaster guitar and is producing howls of feedback as if she’s Pete Townsend or Jimi Hendrix. Kaye looks on, clearly amused. And now she’s shearing the guitar of its strings, one at a time. Eerie howling feedback. The band jams on. Strings dangling like broken wires, Patti holds the guitar aloft like a sacrificial lamb, saying with a smile, “Behold the best weapon of my generation: rock and roll!” And with that final incantation, the song ends, the show is over and the “night of words and music” at Lincoln Center Out Of Doors comes to a close.
The moment passes. The lights come up. The crowd, stunned, half-applauds, half gapes in wonder at what we have seen. Who can say what has caused the righteous rage we have witnessed on this night? Was it the bright full moon rising over the Upper West Side? Is it the vibe to expect from rockers playing a stage next to the David H. Koch Theatre? Certainly, Republicans out in Cleveland helped.
Whatever combination of factors kindles the punk spirit of defiance and keeps the righteous fire burning in Patti Smith’s belly, one can only hope she will long continue to share it and spread it, perhaps finding ways, as she sings, to help people realize we have the power “to redeem the work of fools.”
SET LIST: “Wing,” “Dancing Barefoot,” “Summer Cannibals,” “Ghost Dance,” “This Is The Girl” (dedicated to Amy Winehouse), “When Doves Cry” (Prince cover), “Break It Up,” “The Southern Cross,” “Peaceable Kingdom,” “The Last Time” (Rolling Stones cover), “Because The Night,” “People Have The Power” ENC: “My Generation” (Who cover)