Patti Smith and Her Band Play It Loose on Her Birthday

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Punk rock legend, one of the original CBCB stars, and the first of them to get a record deal, played her annual New Years show this year at New York City’s Webster Hall on December 29 and 30th—the second date being her 67th birthday. She has always been as much an author and a poet as a singer songwriter. At these homecoming shows, she paid tribute to her contemporary, Lou Reed and Velvet Underground with three songs: “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Perfect Day,” and “Heroin.” She performed a very emotional version of the John Lennon song, “Beautiful Boy,” which I can’t get out of my head, and two off the wall covers, the Rihanna song, “Stay” and the Brenda Lee song, “I’m Sorry.”

At the birthday show, she did her biggest hit, “Because The Night.” Smith has always been an interpreter of music as much as a writer of songs and song poems. On her debut album, Horses,  considered one of the best of all time, she did a radical revision of “Gloria,” by Them, written by Van Morrison, and a reworking of “Land of a Thousand Dances,” by Fats Domino and Chris Kenner. The songs were incorporated into larger song poems that she wrote around them. To me, she is a connecting line from the Beats, a la Ginsberg and Kerouac, to Dylan, to Rap; Poetry to Beats to Music. All of this was on florid display at the shows.

She unabashedly spoke, rhymed, shouted, screamed, and sang her songs with the fury but also touching delicacy, of her 1975 self. And a lot of what she has to say is radical stuff. I’m guessing if she were younger, she’d be on the front lines leading the charge. Boy could we use her, or someone she may be inspiring in the crowd, at these limited edition performances. And make no mistake, Patti Smith is quite a performer. She speaks to the enraptured audience as if we were life long friends, telling off the wall stories of flying to Florida overnight between the two shows on her private jet for a night of tropical drinks. She answered a shouted inquiry by someone as to where she got her boots, by stating they were an exact copy of the boots worn by the mad hatter in Alice in Wonderland, and that they were magical. Then she said—off-handedly—that all of these stories, well, they aren’t true! I could tell that many people in the house believed they were.

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Younger artists could use the lessons Patti supplies in winning over a crowd. The love cascaded in waves from the sold out hall to the stage and back. While she is still her same angry self, railing at the political and corporate greed fest that our world has become, she has mellowed enough to smile and kiss back. I was amazed as she and her band were almost sexually turned on by the audience response to the undulating beat laid down by her original drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, and bass player Ivan Kral that then inspired them to play it with even more feel. Original Patti Smith guitarist, rock critic, and producer Lenny Kaye, looking dapper in a nicely tailored suit jacket, and cool, long gray hair, even managed a smile. At the birthday show, her daughter surprised her on stage with a birthday cake, and the band and audience sang her a “Happy Birthday” just after Kaye and the band did a medley from his 60’s ‘Nuggets’ collection including “Talk Talk,” by Music Machine, “Psychotic Reaction” by Count Five, and Open My Eyes, the great Todd Rundgren ‘Nazz’ song.

It all fit and had a beautiful flow to it. You know it feels right when it seems too short. “Banga,” and “People Have the Power” ended the 15 song main set, and for the encore, she ended with “Babelogue,” and “Rock N Roll Nigger.” These songs are radical get out in the streets and be outraged songs, people!

In the finale, she equated a host of people who stand up and shout truth to power to being the N word [ni%#ers], including Edward Snowden and Pussy Riot. When was the last time you saw arms pumping the air to a political message? Happy Birthday, Patti Smith, who still has the FTW vibe, but not towards her fans.