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With the possible exception of Bob Dylan, no other rock ‘n’ roller packs the “high art” impact of Patti Smith. Her first musical forays weren’t just the performances of a very talented beat poet working with accompaniment; they were the sounds of a poet reconciling the charismatic swagger of R&B, the joyful expression of ’60s pop music, and the call to punk-rock rebellion. Punk was a genre without a name in 1975 when Patti Smith released her first record, Horses, and she helped name it.
In the ’70s, Smith made a strong argument for rock as populist, but serious, art. Her poetry and lyrics were nearly peerless in rock; her musical syntheses with guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty were equal parts innovation and tribute to such influences as the Velvet Underground and the MC5. Repeated collaborations with such luminaries as John Cale, Tom Verlaine, Bruce Springsteen, Allen Lanier, and late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith enriched the trio’s music.
But watching Smith perform on the 9:30 Club stage last Friday gave me a sense of deja vu. She sauntered across the stage under a huge American flag, which was counterbalanced by a small gold star set in Viet Cong red on one side. Still a skinny intellectual in shabby beatnik couture, Smith pumped her hips and fists with a beaming smile—just like another ’70s artist who walked away from a commercially and critically successful career for love: In the ’80s, Smith left for Detroit with Fred Smith to care for her children; the Rev. Al Green left the stage for the love of Jesus.
Both Smith and Green gave up music for a long time before staging comebacks. For the most part, Smith left from 1980 until her husband died, in 1994. Green stopped recording soul from 1978 to 1995, though he never stopped playing gospel. And, although Smith’s post-comeback work goes farther artistically than Green’s performances of sentimental oldies, I have seen both powerfully affect a crowd in the same place.
In 1996, Green performed at the 9:30 Club, radiating a passion for Jesus and the love he was sure flowed within each soul. With training as a minister and soulman, he transferred feeling to everyone in earshot with no more than a sung note and a wink. He moved his band by love—without words—and connected with every member of the audience.
Smith did the same on Friday, but replaced Green’s faith in Christ with a belief that anyone can evoke the same feelings in others that she’s been producing for years. Which made her beautiful to watch.
Performing mostly material from her three post-Fred’s-death records, Smith’s elegant elegies worked well in the excitement of the 9:30 Club. But the show also represented a small shift in focus. Whereas 1996’s Gone Again, 1997’s Peace and Noise, and the new Gung Ho brim with oddly uplifting tributes to her many dead—husband, brother, father, Mapplethorpe, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Cobain, Allen Ginsberg, and Jerry Garcia—her latest album also takes a broader view, which made the live performance seem fuller.
The two earlier records showed Smith looking inward to make some sense of her losses. But Gung Ho reveals a smart woman looking outward at the world and at a country she loves, lamenting its failures and celebrating its potential for greatness. To say that Smith performed with an urgent sense of patriotism last Friday seems hokey, considering her past criticisms of mainstream America. And despite her passionate speech decrying voter apathy, Smith’s exhortations to the crowd to go out and vote seemed a bit trite.
In “New Party,” Smith’s lyrics balanced the idealistic—”We got to get off our ass or get burned/ The world’s troubles are a global concern”—with a retort to current punditry: “Why don’t you fertilize my lawn/With what’s running from your mouth.” And, in another reference to politics, Smith spoke of her latest obsession: America’s Founding Fathers and their work on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Pointing out that the authors refused to ban slavery despite recognizing it as immoral, Smith said, “The one sin that we’ve had from the very beginning was worrying about the fucking economy.” She then sent the band into “Strange Messengers” to reinforce the point through poetry: “chains of leather, chains of gold.”
Part of Smith’s fascination with the Founders came from her learning of the Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh’s obsession with the American Revolution. It’s an odd paradox that the early American patriots supplied inspiration and a blueprint to the leader of our nation’s first serious military defeat—an ongoing source of cultural embarrassment. “Gung Ho,” a cross between spoken word and spare dub accented by helicopter-blade sound effects, let Smith tell the story of a small man with a “beard the color of rice” and “face the color of tea.” The observation worked better live than on the record, perhaps because it sounded less like a cheap shot at patriotism in the context of a national humiliation and more like Smith pointing out that desires span cultural divides.
As a band, Smith and her compatriots reveal a sonic brawn and whip-smart tightness different from the loose feel of her older records. And perhaps it was the 15-odd years of inactivity, but Smith’s voice survives beyond expectation. Always wide-ranged and richly toned, her real vocal brilliance is marked by frightening yelps and odd shifts. They should have been the first to age, but Friday she didn’t crack a note or miss a mark.
The performance was so powerful that it’s hard to complain that Smith ignored her first record until the encore. But once her guitar-playing son, Jackson Smith, had joined her onstage for the encore and she began reciting the poem that begins “Land,” the club shivered until she shrieked the repeated refrain, “Horses, horses, horses,” and the band threw aside the rhythm of her recital and coursed toward pure anthem.
Seemingly channeling the voices of the room and all of her ghosts, Smith sang about the “possibilities” that lay everywhere. And, still not content, she explored the possibilities of Van Morrison, seamlessly merging into “Gloria,” a song she stole from Morrison as completely as Hendrix divorced “All Along the Watchtower” from Dylan.
It would be nearly impossible to pigeonhole an artist such as Smith, considering the power of her past work and the wide-eyed charm that’s lasted well into her 50s. But thank goodness she has made doing so irrelevant. Her current artistic output transcends the revival of a once-proud career. Instead, Smith continues to produce rare gems of artistic quality that evoke fresh reactions from her audience, free of any considerations about her past work. CP