Live: Patti Smith

Patti Smith pic #1
Patti Smith. Photo by Angelo Cricchi.

CULLEN PERFORMANCE HALL -- 4/19/2010: Patti Smith came to the University of Houston Monday night before last to read from her new book Just Kids and play songs from her 40+ years on the New York music scene. The show was advertised as $5 at the door, and no one would get turned away.
From the stage, Smith immediately announced that she was there as a volunteer to support Voices Breaking Boundaries, a local nonprofit group "dedicated to social justice through art." She explained that she'd met the group's founder, Sehba Sarwar, in New York at an Iraq war protest, and had agreed immediately to a future trip to Houston to raise funds for VBB.
The night's performance coincided with the release of Patti Smith's autobiography about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe. She said she'd sign copies of the memoir only if they were purchased at independent bookseller Brazos Bookstore, whom she praised not only for being a rare successful independent bookstore, but for having, on hand, a copy of Roberto Bolano's Antwerp for her when she arrived that afternoon.
After reading several selections from her book, she played "Wing" alone on stage with an acoustic guitar. Then she took questions. A purposeful young woman asked her a complicated question that amounted to whether or not she'd join a call for sanctions, boycotts, and an embargo of Israel. Smith answered that she'd played Tel Aviv before and she would do it again. The crowd cheered, but Smith announced that they hadn't heard her out, and that she'd use her trip to Israel as a free trip to Palestine to play for them, as well. After such a loaded beginning to the Q&A, I was hoping for more of the same dense, heady, political talk, but the next question was about Gilda Radner's character "Candy Slice" and armpit hair.
Next she name checked Jim Carroll, Allen Ginsberg -- who famously hit on her because he thought she was "a very pretty boy" -- Annie Leibovitz, Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5, and "the guy who plays Bobby on Law and Order." A woman came to the questioner's microphone and nervously told how much she admired Ms. Smith, asking what it's like to constantly be connecting to fans. Smith answered, "I'm affected every day of my life by strangers who come up to me and say [affecting a dopey male voice], 'Hey, Patti, Horses changed my life.'" She recounted a story where her mother forced her to sign an autograph despite exhaustion, and then talked about being at the Sarasota Film Festival last week and seeing "the guy who plays Bobby on Law and Order" and rambling on to him nervously about his work, only to catch herself in role reversal, saying, "Law and Order changed my life, man!" Predictably, she had the crowd in the palm of her hand.
She told the origin of her breakthrough single, "Piss Factory," where her South Jersey factory co-workers caught her, at age 15, reading Rimbaud in a breakroom. They collectively assumed that she and Rimbaud were communists, corralled her on a filthy factory bathroom floor, and made her renounce Rimbaud as a communist.
A guitar appeared from backstage, and she began to speak about the day Jerry Garcia died. She was in her home, in Michigan, sad over his passing, when a vision of a bearded, silver-haired Jerry Garcia appeared to her, "like when people see Jesus in a potato chip." She said she felt the way you always feel when Jerry is around. She felt great, and then a fully formed song came to her, so she called it "Grateful," and she played it for us. Her voice is as strong as that of any 63 year old you'll ever hear, especially one who spent the last 43 years playing punk shows around the world. She sings beautifully and clearly, even if she's a bit clumsy with the guitar and forgot a few lines.
She told a story of working in a studio with Jeff Buckley and being mesmerized by his angelic voice, only to find him moments later in the lounge of Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady recording studio crying and telling her he wished he could've done a better job singing for her.
Then she announced that she wanted to perform a scientific experiment, and that she hoped we'd telepathically understand what to do. She stood in a spotlight without a guitar and sang, a capella, "Take me now baby, here as I am / Pull me close, try and understand / Desire and hunger is the fire I breathe / Love is a banquet on which we feed," and 1,477 people in a theater meant for opera responded, "Come on now try and understand / the way I feel when I'm in your hands / Take my hand, come undercover / They can't hurt you now / Can't hurt you now, can't hurt you now / Because the night belongs to lovers / Because the night belongs to us..."
I've heard Springsteen sing the song in sold-out arenas many times. I've sang along with Springsteen from the cheap seats. It was thrilling. But Patti Smith, in her rumpled manclothes, in a college auditorium on a Monday night, brought tears to my eyes. She smiles when she sings. She points to her subject, she clutches her chest, and she's as strong, as engergetic, and as powerful as any of the legendary musicians I've ever seen.
She dedicated a poem to Sehba Sarwar. The poem was called "People Have the Power," and though it's a message heard and discounted a thousand times over in our cynical world, hearing a believer say these words changed everything.
I was dreaming in my dreaming
of an aspect bright and fair
and my sleeping it was broken
but my dream it lingered near
in the form of shining valleys
where the pure air recognized
and my senses newly opened
I awakened to the cry
that the people / have the power
to redeem / the work of fools
upon the meek / the graces shower
it's decreed / the people rule

The people have the power

Vengeful aspects became suspect
and bending low as if to hear
and the armies ceased advancing
because the people had their ear
and the shepherds and the soldiers
lay beneath the stars
exchanging visions
and laying arms
to waste / in the dust
in the form of / shining valleys
where the pure air / recognized
and my senses / newly opened
I awakened / to the cry

Where there were deserts
I saw fountains
like cream the waters rise
and we strolled there together
with none to laugh or criticize
and the leopard
and the lamb
lay together truly bound
I was hoping in my hoping
to recall what I had found
I was dreaming in my dreaming
god knows / a purer view
as I surrender to my sleeping
I commit my dream to you

The power to dream / to rule
to wrestle the world from fools
it's decreed the people rule
it's decreed the people rule
I believe everything we dream
can come to pass through our union
we can turn the world around
we can turn the earth's revolution
we have the power
People have the power...

I was left stunned and speechless (which is why I printed out the lyrics, rather than recounting the performance) as she left the stage. When she eventually returned for an encore, a guitar appeared again. She strummed, and smiled, and seemed to see us all individually. She improvised a song about her trip to Houston. She sang about the rain. She sang about her host and her host's little daughter, and her trip that morning to the Rothko Chapel -- "one of the most beautiful places in the world," she sang. Then she segued into a song she promised we could use whenever we felt unappreciated. She sang "My Blakean Year," a dizzyingly perfect song about finding one's purpose and pursuing one's greatness:
Boots that tread from track to track
Worn down to the sole
One road is paved in gold
One road is just a road