Boston Girl Guide

Patti Smith

An Evening with Patti Smith
review by Gail Craig

It was all too apropos that while waiting to see the author of Woolgathering, with the story of the spirit beings of Patti Smith’s childhood, and Just Kids, in which she reads tarot cards of her hangout crowd including Johnny Winter, one’s own horoscope would be divined without invitation from a complete stranger. The Bovard Auditorium on the USC campus is an intimate double balcony 1200 seat setting, with red velvet theater seats, red velvet pulled curtains, and Cathedral style architecture designing the walls. The stage was set partway like a living room, with a throw rug covering a portion of the floor, encircling the table and two vinyl armchairs, Patti Smith’s being purple. An appreciative, enthusiastic capacity crowd attended, from college students, to middle-aged, to Patti Smith’s generation. The evening was hosted by Josh Kun, professor of Communication and Journalism.

Patti Smith is an art lover of all genres and truly has an ocean of references in that realm, as well as personal ones, and additionally objects that touch her, stemming from a young age. It was brought up that a class could exist of her references alone, with a response of applause. She humorously did a Jimmy Durante impersonation, “I got a million of ‘em”. Patti Smith is quite the storyteller with her poetic finesse, regaling her youthful love of books and their characters with whom she related. Then it happened upon her, the realization books were written by people, “didn’t just fall out of the sky”, and that she too, could do the same and so did. Patti stated she mixes references and gets caught up in atmospheres, recreating them for herself and even artistically. Patti Smith enjoys observing art that sparks and spurs her into wanting to work herself. She called writer’s or artist block “God moments”, eluding that at such times, there is something else of need occurring, but with the belief that the creativity will at some point return.

Patti Smith is such an entertaining and interesting performer, that it hardly seemed acoustical. A set of songs ensued, Patti Smith explaining her voice was “ragged” from touring the past month in Japan, then doing a show in Korea, and having a long flight back. Her speaking voice did sound raspy, but in singing, it was amazing that she sounded as clear and great as ever. Patti brought her bass player Tony Shanahan out on stage, who fluctuated between acoustic guitar and piano, also providing backing vocals. The first song was “Blakean Year”, for which Patti Smith gave the forward of being in a “burned out period of her life”, feeling “unappreciated”, then she remembered William Blake, who at the same age “had worked all his life, maintained his vision, maintained his creative spirit, his hope, his enthusiasm and yet had no recognition, was poverty-stricken, forgotten, so I thought ‘if I can just maintain my enthusiasm and maintain my sense of vision, that’s enough’”. Then Patti hilariously admitted “I couldn’t remember where I was going with that”, to which the audience roared with laughter then applause and cheers afterwards, thoroughly enjoying her heartfelt performance of the song.

The theme of “Elegy”, or change became prevalent in the evening. Patti Smith acknowledged her “luck” at opening in November and December for Neil Young and Crazy Horse to which the audience responded positively, then beautifully sang the cover “It’s A Dream” accompanied only by piano, exuding the emotion of the song with her entire being, using unforced poetic hand gestures and body movements which are fluid and natural, as she is known for. From the poignant concept album Gone Again, Patti Smith performed “Southern Cross” and said she has thought of different people throughout her life when singing it, but presently was thinking of Roberto Bolano, writer of the novel 2666, calling it a masterpiece. At the ending of the song, she altered it stating “Cross over boys. Cross over girls. Cross over.” Next, Patti Smith introduced “this song from 1978”, and got a huge cheer for her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, whom she called a “great guitarist” and “revolutionary”. “Because The Night” was a passionate, captivating performance and the audience was thrilled.

A living room discussion followed on grief and art. It was brought to light in Just Kids that Patti Smith stated art is only transfigured grief, and it was posed to her how to balance living with grief, and art. Patti said it is “organic” and she “does not really have a system”, but transforms it into art, as artists are transforming laborers. “Go all the way to that little kernel and give it substance”. She relayed it is also “keeping them around, walking with the people… I talk to my Mom all the time”. Patti grew up with her own mother having conversations with her passed mother, believing it is normal and does the same. Patti Smith’s “Elegy” on her Horses record gave her a way to grieve the deep sorrow over the loss of so many from her generation, and she claimed the entire album is truly an elegy. Patti quoted the last line from the film The Mission- “The dead live on in the memory of the living”. She physically misses those family, friends, and pets who have departed, but “they are all with me… I am a host for happy, scolding spirits”, accentuated with laughter from the audience. The term “re-animated” was mentioned and Patti Smith recognized her teenage fire for Fred is still there every time she sings “Because The Night”.

Photography was delved into, in that Patti Smith’s: Camera Solo exhibition in Detroit is moving to Toronto, opening February 9th. She discussed her focus on portraits and objects, the “hard work of man” and finds beauty in even the smallest, most unlikely craftsmanship. Also, precious objects and imaginings of Patti in her childhood remain embedded in her mind, which she draws from. Then came promotion for the band “My Bloody Valentine”, whom Patti bragged of having been given by Kevin the only copy yet of their new cd, unorthodoxically encouraging the audience to buy it, even over her own new Banga, if money is limited.

An audience Q & A time came. The first question centered on Patti Smith’s belief in fate and destiny. She does not think it is one thing, but a mixture of pre-destiny and one’s own will. Patti has the feeling of “everything happening simultaneously…past, present, and future…we’re just in this mystical flux. It’s beauty and it’s tragedy and it’s hard. If we just accept the whole package and go along on the ride, and do our part, and take care of ourselves, we’re gonna have a really interesting life”, applauded by the crowd.  

Patti Smith was asked by varying audience members about several of her songs. For the first, “Where Duty Calls”, she explained the history in the mid-80’s of a suicide bomber killing over 250 sleeping Marines and himself, many of the casualties from the then, local Detroit. “It talks about the hopes and dreams of parents for all their children. No parent wants to see their child dead before them because of war, because of politics, because of anything…It’s really a song that looks compassionately on all these parents who have lost children, whether it’s the parents of the terrorist or the victims.” Patti Smith when asked about the origin of “Gloria”, replied it was a combination of her only slight knowledge of how the original song went, her poem “Oath”, and improvisation. The line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” is about “being responsible for my own shit”. An audience member embellished the knowledge that “Jackson” was used as a lullaby from infancy to teenager for a son. Patti Smith was touched and related that at the time of its recording, she was pregnant with her daughter, who was actively moving around. Patti knew the song “did its job” when it put her restless daughter to sleep. The audience clapped. “Tarkovsky” on the new record started off as an instrumental, then in trying to figure out what to do with it, she ended up reading a poem over the top. Patti claimed Andrei Rublev is one of the best films ever made.

The 80’s Aids epidemic period question was broached. Patti Smith told of her role as wife and mother during that decade as being “simple” and not social or public, the antithesis of the Just Kids period. She learned how “citizens conduct themselves”, how “difficult and sacrificial” it is to be a spouse and raise children, but also how “important”. Patti wrote and studied during this time, then towards the end of the decade stepped into the tragic Aids epidemic through the loss of her friends, including Robert Mapplethorpe.

When asked for advice for women artists, Patti gave a Patti Smith answer. She does not view artists as gender-based and suggested avoiding being compartmentalized and labeled. “Shed all ideas about race, gender… All of these things are shackles.” Patti said to “work really hard. Maintain your vision… It’s a hard road… The whole idea is to create work that transcends all of these things (labels)…Maintain your enthusiasm and be ready to sacrifice and be dogged, and to go through very rough times. But also feel great blessings that one feels in being touched by that inclination, that impulse to create art”. Great applause filled the air.

The moderator asked Patti Smith about her relationship with America, in that she appreciates composer Alan Hovhaness who is considered a symbol of “Americanism”. Patti stated that she loves her country and that it is a young nation with “special freedoms” and spoke of all the wonderful aspects such as Rock-n-roll, Coltrane, and the Declaration of Independence that we have given the world. On the “parallel” side, we have the chance to “do good” and be a helpful “watchdog, but we’re the biggest seller of arms in the world…look what we did in World War II (the 2 Atom Bombs)… That was evil, immoral, and unnecessary. And our own government couldn’t figure that out. We have a lot of stains. We are tainted. And instead of trying to cleanse ourselves, we keep piling on more… Yes, we have checks and balances. That’s what our country’s based on. Our forefathers weren’t so concerned if we had the right to own machine guns. They were concerned that we ask questions. And that’s what we should be doing. That’s one of the things I love about America. With Homeland Security… and ever since September 11th, ‘No more questions, it’s all secret’… Asking questions is our fucking right”. Applause and cheering resounded in the hall.

Tony Shanahan held the mic for a few minutes as Patti confessed and apologized, saying “it’s really hard to sing when you have to pee” then excused herself, causing everyone to laugh. This may have been a first in concert history. Tony shared that he was on a “high” from having recorded at East West Studios on Sunset Boulevard that day, the same studio where Frank Sinatra had been and also the location of the Elvis ’68 comeback special. A guitar problem cropped up for Tony on “This Is The Girl”, but it was worked around for “the black that turned into wine” ode to Amy Winehouse. The audience loved “Pissing In A River” from Patti. “Banga” was the wildest sing-a-long (again maybe in history), with Patti trying to split the audience 3 ways into “say” with Tony, “Banga” with Patti, and the tripped out “r” sound she does on the song. Then Patti was unsatisfied with the way Tony was doing it, so gave him a mini-lesson right in the middle of the song. She proclaimed the audience did better in Korea, and in the end everyone loudly did the “r” and some sort of singing. The song rocked even with just acoustic guitars. The proverbial theme song “People Have The Power” was danced, clapped, and sung along to. Patti admitted early in the song she usually follows Tony on bass and “I don’t know where the fuck I am”, but pulled it together leaving the audience on a high point, yelling “Use your voice!”.

Deservedly, Patti Smith received a thunderous standing ovation from the interactive crowd at closing. A reception followed of food, mingling, and book purchasing, but Patti Smith and Tony did not attend because of Patti’s sickness, although it did not show at all in her performance. Her intelligence, wit, charm, candor, grace, and self-empowerment make spending any time with her live, a not-to-be missed opportunity and ever lasting memory. This positive infusion lingered with those who attended, after the engaging performance.