When Patti Smith asks you to “shake out the ghost” with her—hands lifted in the air, fingers waving towards the sky—you don’t hesitate to do as you are told. When, over a growing roar of guitar noise and reverberating drums, she somehow looks the entire crowd in the eye at once, reminding us with a gentle scream that “we have our hearts and minds—we have our intelligence; when we are knocked down, we get up again”… well, one would not be human if one were not a bit inspired and (dare I say) uplifted by her spell. Her words resonated most deeply last Saturday at the Majestic theatre, in the heart of the recently defunct city of Detroit, where Patti delivered a one-off performance to raise money for the Michigan branch of Covenant House—a non-profit organization providing shelter for homeless youth. As the crowd joined in the cyclical chant of “Ghost Dance” (“we shall live again, we shall live”), she added a simple, moving caveat to her previous advice: “Don’t give up, Detroit.”
My own journey through Patti’s music and poetry began during a Christmas break nine years ago; I was 17, and with the help of a gift card for a record store, I went shopping for some new music to add to my small but growing collection. I had read about Horses in a variety of articles, essays, and books on rock’n’roll history, and it seemed to belong next to my CD’s of old Bob Dylan records, Roxy Music’s catalogue, and Television’s Marquee Moon. Apart from its renowned historical relevance, I was entirely taken with the unforgettable cover photo by Robert Mapplethorpe: the slightly upturned chin, the black suspenders, the somehow startling effect of her white skin against that white wall. Everything about it spoke to me—as it has spoken to countless other fans and admirers around the world.
What no essay or book could prepare me for was the thrill of hearing the music on this record for the first time. I anxiously carried the still-sealed CD over to a friend’s house in a rural neighborhood, where we made a habit of getting stoned and listening to a growing variety of popular music—from Jimmy Cliff’s Harder They Come soundtrack to Elephant by the White Stripes, and everything in between. With a towel tucked underneath her bedroom door to block the smoke from wafting into the kitchen downstairs, we passed a joint back and forth as the opening piano chords in “Gloria” were suddenly punctuated by that most audacious of opening lines: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”
We were sold, then and there. The diverse yet integral soundscapes that were to follow—the reggae riff of “Redondo Beach,” the alien poetry of “Birdland,” and the pulsating intensity of “Free Money”—would have been mind-blowing under sober circumstances; within a cloud of pot smoke, they were nothing short of life-changing. All throughout college, Horses was in heavy rotation. When I finally acquired an original vinyl pressing for ten dollars in a vintage clothing store, I was able to experience the record as originally intended—in two complementary, individual sides. And I must confess: I spent countless evenings spinning the record in various states of inebriation, under which the relentless energy of “Gloria” never failed to get me up on my feet, violently dancing the night away while reciting every word of each convoluted verse by heart.
It should have come to no surprise to me then, when I heard the piano intro to this re-appropriated Van Morrison gem emanating from the Majestic’s p.a. system, that I was instantly carried away to that state of quasi-adolescent frenzy. But I was surprised—especially surprised to have instantaneously recalled every word, right down to the “ding-dong-ding-dong” of the “bells chiming in my heart.” I gave the song my all, jumping up and down, pumping my fist in the air; it was still a mere caricature compared to the show Patti was bringing to life on stage. Now 66, Patti Smith is as vibrant and inimitable as ever. When confronted with the sight of her silhouette, combined with her almost overwhelming spiritual presence, one instantly realizes that one is bearing witness to living history; she is a bona fide American legend, and there will never be another quite like her.
The show revealed numerous layers of significance, as is only appropriate for an artist of such dimension: there was the special family dynamic arising from the accompaniment of her daughter, Jesse, on keys, and her son, Jackson, on guitar; the stage banter, which ranged anywhere from an announcement of her having eaten four mini-Heath bars during a brief break, to the story of her first encounter with the late Fred Sonic Smith at Lafayette Coney Island (not “the other one,” which she refuses to visit, seeming to frown upon anyone who doesn’t know better), to an honest plea for coming to terms with an increasingly polluted and abused Mother Nature; the magic of being in Motor City, birthplace of the automotive industry, the Stooges, and the MC5, as well as her home for many years; those sudden outbursts of political rage exorcised through the power of rock’n’roll—the final one delivered while plucking strings out of an electric guitar during the night’s closer, the Who’s “My Generation:” “if they decide to invade Syria, I hope they bring the electric guitar, because it is the only weapon that my generation ever fucking needed.”
The most shocking moments of the evening carried no wrath or four-letter words, however. After wrapping up an effortlessly tender rendition of Banga’s “This Is the Girl” (an ode to Amy Winehouse), she launched right into John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy”—sung with the utmost grace and tranquility, the texture of her voice gliding across the audience and wrapping us in its velvety warmth. She had already paid homage to the recently deceased Allen Lanier (of Blue Öyster Cult fame) with a flawless performance of the stunning “Distant Fingers,” off of her second LP, Radio Ethiopia, originally recorded with Lanier on keyboards. For myself and other fans of her sophomore album, this was a great night indeed; the setlist included powerhouse arrangements of “Ain’t it Strange” and “Pissing in a River,” as well.
When trying to put into words the experience of seeing Patti Smith in person, one is destined to either wax poetic (and/or hyperbolic), or hardly write anything at all. Since I am not a poet, and I try to avoid overstatements and generalizations to the best of my ability, I am going to take the latter approach; you might say it’s an easy way out, but some feelings are best left felt, not spoken or written. Looking back on a night which will go down in my memory as one of the finest I have ever had the joy of living, the image that sticks foremost in my mind is of Patti strolling out onto the stage with her “boys”: she is wearing ragged jeans, a white t-shirt, wool cap, and a long black sheer coat. Without introduction or wasted words, they begin playing last year’s single “April Fool,” one of the most exuberant songs she has ever penned: “Come/be my April fool/Come/you’re the only one/Come/on your rusted bike/Come/we’ll have so much fun.” Singing these words, an irresistible grin spreads across her face, and while otherwise standing perfectly still, her hands reach out to grasp a pair of imaginary handlebars; she sways slightly from side to side with them, closing her eyes as the grin grows wider. Tears are streaming down my cheeks as I am transported into her universe—a galaxy that includes the spirits of other singular artists: Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Sohl, Allen Ginsberg… I look over to my boyfriend, both of us awe-struck. In that instant, we are all of us just kids.