Forty Years into Her Career, Patti Smith is Still Bewitching: Review and Setlist
Contemporary Art Museum
May 5, 2013
It’s an emotional thing, seeing Patti Smith. I’ve seen her perform a bunch of times, and every time I’m shocked by my own intense reaction. I know that I usually get all sentimental and weepy when she starts singing, but this time I was blinking away tears as soon as I saw her face.
Why does this happen? It’s weird; I’m not usually so sappy. I think it was a combination of many factors: the small room was crowded but cozy, the audience was humming with excitement, I was flanked by great friends and, well, she was right there. As far as I’m concerned, this woman is nothing short of a goddess. I can think of no other person who has been so equally and immeasurably important to both rock music and the written word, and those are the two things that I love the most. And something about her touches me so deeply that I can barely even acknowledge it without feeling freaked out.
She’s nearly 40 years into her career, but Smith is still bewitching. She clearly knows about her singular power to enchant and she worked her little rocker-poet-goddess-shaman thing all night. She entered the room to great applause and flashed her famously sweet, yet mischievous smile. Her performance was a combination concert and poetry reading and Smith slides easily between the two formats. It is here that you can witness the interconnectedness of her work: she can read a poem, tell a story about it and then sing a song she’s written about the subject.
Smith was joined onstage by her long time bandmates and trusted collaborators, Tony Shanahan and Lenny Kaye. Kaye played guitar and Shanahan accompanied her on guitar, bass and piano. Both men stood quietly and respectfully as she read from a few of her books and also sang backup during songs as needed. The amount of talent on that stage was overwhelming when all three played and sang together — I consider myself lucky that I had a hand to hold as Shanahan pounded out the first dramatic notes of “Pissing in a River.”
It wasn’t all heavy stuff, though. Smith kept the mood light between songs with her funny stories and easygoing nature. At one point she stepped back from the microphone, made a funny face and then returned to ask, “You ever have one of those burps that won’t come out?”
Smith’s performance also included numerous compliments to St. Louis. She referenced our own William Burroughs multiple times, commented our buildings (“This city has beautiful architecture. It’s the kind of architecture that reoccurs in your dreams”) and she improvised a little STL love at the beginning of “My Blakean Year.” (“The tour bus pulled into St. Louie / Where I was thinkin’ of William / And the Courtesy Diner…”)
Smith ended the night with “People Have the Power” and dedicated the song to her “late and great husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith” of the MC5. She said that they ended up working on the song together after he walked up her one day at home and said, “Patricia, people have the power. Write it.”
At some point during the show, my friend leaned into my ear and whispered this: “You know what’s great about her? She’s humble. And she doesn’t have to be.” Yes. Exactly. She doesn’t have to be humble at all. But it sure is nice. Smith stayed after the show to autograph books and records.
– “My Blakean Year”
– “Peaceable Kingdom”
– “Pissing in a River”
– “It’s a Dream” (Neil Young cover)
– “Because the Night”
– “Ghost Dance”
– “People Have the Power”
7:00 p.m. May 5
Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
3750 Washington Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63108
It’s fitting that Patti Smith’s first performance in St. Louis since 2004 is at the Contemporary Art Museum. Though she is best known as the reigning “Godmother of Punk,” Smith’s genre-defying career has no boundaries when it comes to art and expression. Smith’s groundbreaking debut album, Horses, came out in 1975 and it is still hailed as one of the greatest albums in music history. Ten albums and nearly 40 years later and her career is still going strong. But Smith is not only a rock heroine, she’s also a poet and an artist who explores and produces in many different kinds of media, including painting and photography.
— By Jaime Lees
link: Riverfront Times
Ten Songs For Hating On Stupid Idiot Valentine’s Day
By Jaime Lees
Wed., Feb. 13 2013
It’s almost Valentine’s Day, y’all. It’s time to hate on all of this love bullshit and have sex with people that you don’t even like.
But what music should accompany your dirty deeds or heartbroken feelings?
I’ve used my decades-long experience as an expert soundtrack-chooser to bring you this highly-recommended list of tunes to get you through this most terrible and torturous of holidays. I tapped ten of my all-time favorite artists for inspiration. Here you go:
The Ronettes – “Is This What I Get For Loving You?“
Key lyric: “It’s such a cruel world to be alone in”
When in doubt, turn to the classics. The Ronettes’ “Is This What I Get For Loving You?” is not just one of the best anti-love songs ever, it might be the best anti-love song ever. The Spector girl-group harmonies make the heart shrivel in unmeasurable proportions. Lyrics like “And now I’m so afraid I’m losing you” bring us all right back to our worst, most heartbreaking moments.
The Cardigans – “And Then You Kissed Me II“
Key lyric: “I tell you now like I told you before: Love is a powerful force”
My favorite Cardigans album is Gran Turismo, but it does not reflect the depth of the Swedish band’s love-hating. For that, you need to bust out SuperExtraGravity. “Losing a Friend” and “I Need Some Fine Wine (And You, You Need to be Nicer)” are for hatin’, but give “And Then You Kissed Me II” a spin. With lines like “Your name used to taste so sweet / Then you beat the love right out of me” it is bitter until the end.
Iggy Pop – “Some Weird Sin“
Key lyric: “Some weird sin / Just to relax me”
Forget making love. You just want to get laid. You want to give in to all of your worst desires and just get f-u-c-k-e-d. If you don’t have a sexy little thing and you just want to go to the bar and then pick up some one-night-only, then this is your song. If things get too straight, you can’t bear it and you are searching for some weird sin, son. Hopefully it’s weird enough that you forget this whole ugly day. This song comes on, and Good Lord, it is time to bang.
Sex Robots – “We’re Thru!“
Key lyric: “My girlfriend’s in therapy / I did too many dog shit things”
St. Louis band Sex Robots always gets right to the point. The songs are short and oh-so-sweet and this song blasts though all of those negative, crushed emotions with simple honesty. (“I think she’s beautiful she thinks I’m sliiiiiime!”)
AA Bondy – “A Slow Parade“
Key lyric: “Tide will bring and tide will take / Find another horse to break”
He’s not very well known, but this singer-songwriter single-handedly renewed my faith in new music some years back. His songs always remind us that all good love can go bad, and that all bad love can make you weaker.
Patti Smith – “Pissing in a River“
Key lyric: “What more can I give you, to make this thing grow? / Don’t turn your back now, I’m talking to you”
One of her most depressing performances, the poet Smith embraces the full emotion and the weird power that one can find in heartbreak.
Teenage Fanclub – “Mellow Doubt“
Key lyric: “I’m in trouble / And I know it / What I’m feeling / I can’t show it / But these feelings / Don’t go away”
Grand Prix is a emotional ride of an album, and “Mellow Doubt” is the song that you want if you’re feeling heartbroken. The song captures that miserable, regretful feeling perfectly. Think: driving in the cold winter rain with the windows up while an old lover is packing up your shit at their house.
R.E.M. – “Country Feedback“
Key Lyric: “You wear me out / You. Wear. Me. Out.”
R.E.M. was a band that was about feelings. This track off of one of the bands darkest albums, Out of Time, is slow and tentative and tiptoeing, much like an elongated breakup. (“It’s crazy what you could’ve had”) The song is sad, even gut-wrenching, and all of the obtuse lyrical dances that R.E.M. was known for are cast away in favor of a pure expression of grieving.
Beach Boys – “God Only Knows“
Key lyric: “If you should ever leave me… the world could show nothing to me / So what good would living do me?”
A deep song with conflicting messages, wrapped up in a beautiful package. Completely parallel, emotion-wise, with “Wouldn’t it Be Nice?” Brian Wilson is a genius.
Otis Redding – “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)“
Key lyric: “You are tired and your love is growing cold / My love is growing stronger, as our affair grows old”
An anti-love song list wouldn’t be complete without him, so we look to the king of heartbreak, Otis Redding. Otis always understands. I want to find the woman who made him so sad and bash in her face.
link: Riverfront Times
Ten Songs To Get Busy To On Valentine’s Day
By Jaime Lees
Wed., Feb. 13 2013
It’s almost Valentine’s Day, y’all. It’s time to get all up in your significant other or your someone special.
But what music should accompany your dirty deeds or love-struck feelings?
I’ve used my decades-long experience as an expert soundtrack-chooser to bring you this highly-recommended list of tunes to get you feeling lovey and freeee-kay. I tapped ten of my all-time favorite artists for inspiration. Here you go:
The Ronettes – “Be My Baby“
Key lyric: “I’ll make you happy, baby, just wait and see / For every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three”
When in doubt, turn to the classics. The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” is not just one of the best love songs ever, it might be the best song ever. The Spector girl-group harmonies make the heart swell in unmeasurable proportions. Lyrics like “The night we met I knew I needed you so” bring us all right back to our best, most hopeful moments.
The Cardigans – “And Then You Kissed Me“
Key lyric: “It hit me like never before / That love is a powerful force”
My favorite Cardigans album is Gran Turismo, but it does not reflect the height of the Swedish band’s lovey-dovey-ness. For that, you need to bust out Long Gone Before Daylight. “For What It’s Worth” and You’re the Storm” are for lovin’, but give “And Then You Kissed Me” a spin. With lines like “My heart overfloods,” it is super-duper smoochy squishy.
Iggy Pop – “Sixteen“
Key lyric: “Show you my explosion, sweet sixteen”
Forget making love. You just want to get laid. You want to give in to all of your worst desires and just get f-u-c-k-e-d. If you have a sexy little thing and you just want to go out to the bar and then get down and dirty, try out this naughty little number. You will both cream your jeans to lines like “Body and soul / I go crazy.” (Bonus points for lyrical nod to “leather boots.” Mmm-hmm.) This song comes on, and Good Lord, it is time to bang.
Sex Robots – “Think I’m In Love“
Key lyric: “I think I’m in love / I think I’m in la la la-la la la la la la la-la la la la la la-la-la la la la la la-la la la la love”
St. Louis band Sex Robots always gets right to the point. The songs are short and oh-so-sweet and this song blasts through all of those nervous, crushy emotions with simple honesty. (“I feel so outta my miiiiind!”)
AA Bondy – “There’s a Reason“
Key lyric: “The love that’s tearing you down / Is the love that will turn you around / Say it is so”
He’s not very well known, but this singer-songwriter single-handedly renewed my faith in new music some years back. His songs always remind us that all bad love can go good, and that all good love can make you stronger.
Patti Smith – “Because the Night“
Key lyric: “Love is an angel disguised as lust / Here in our bed until the morning comes”
One of her most uplifting performances, the poet Smith embraces the full emotion and the weird power that one can find in love.
Teenage Fanclub – “Sparky’s Dream“
Key lyric: “If she lived in space, man / I’d build a plane”
Grand Prix is an emotional ride of an album, and “Sparky’s Dream” is the song that you want if you’re feeling like you’re in love. It song captures that buoyant, effervescent feeling perfectly. Think: driving in the warm summer sunshine with the windows down while a new lover is at your side singing along.
R.E.M. – “At My Most Beautiful“
Key lyric: “At my most beautiful / I count your eyelashes… secretly”
R.E.M. was a band that was about feelings. This track off of one of the bands sunniest albums, Up, is slow and tentative and bashful, much like young love. (“I read bad poetry into your machine / I save your messages just to hear your voice”) The song is bashful, even tender, and all of the obtuse lyrical dances that R.E.M. was known for are cast away in favor of a pure expression of romance.
Beach Boys – “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?“
Key lyric: “Maybe if we thinkandwishandhopeandpray it might come true”
A deep song with conflicting messages, wrapped up in a beautiful package. Completely parallel, emotion-wise, with “God Only Knows.” Brian Wilson is a genius.
Otis Redding – “That’s How Strong My Love Is“
Key lyric: “I’ll be the rainbow after the tears are gone / Wrap you in my colors and keep you warm”
A love song list wouldn’t be complete without him, so we look to the king of love, Otis Redding. Otis always understands. I want to find the woman who made him so happy and send her some flowers.
link: Riverfront Times
I was honored to be asked to contribute to the annual Village Voice critics’ poll- this is my 6th year participating.
Pazz & Jop 2012
40th Annual Village Voice Critics’ Poll
About Pazz + Jop:
The Pazz & Jop critics’ poll is a highly influential poll of music critics run by The Village Voice newspaper. It is compiled every year from the top ten lists of hundreds of music critics (roughly 800 in the 2004 poll). Albums have been voted upon every year since 1974 (voting also took place in 1971), and votes for singles have been tabulated since 1979.
Since the poll’s inception, critics have been invited to award their ten albums a total of 100 points, with each album receiving a maximum of 30 points and a minimum of 5. Lists submitted without points are given 10 points per album by the poll’s editors. Singles lists have always been unweighted.
Music critic Robert Christgau was in charge of the poll for 33 years, and wrote an essay every year that accompanied and framed the list. Christgau was dismissed from the Village Voice in August 2006, but the paper intends to continue the feature. Christgau continues to submit his Top Ten list and to encourage other eligible critics to do so.
The poll was jokingly given the spoonerism name “Pazz & Jop” rather than the more obvious “Jazz & Pop” because, inevitably, some detractor will claim that a nominated work is ineligible or undeserving on the grounds that it isn’t “really” jazz or pop. Since there are no formal definitions for the made-up terms “pazz” and “jop”, voters will concentrate on the actual merits of a work rather than arguing over whether it fits into this or that genre.
Bob Gruen Is a Rock & Roll Primary Source
By Jaime Lees
Thursday, Nov 10 2011
New York-based photographer Bob Gruen is a rock & roll icon. From photographing some of the earliest concerts of Ike and Tina Turner to chronicling months on tour with bands such as the Clash and the Sex Pistols, Gruen has done it all. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, capturing loving and candid shots of both emerging and established artists including the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, Blondie, Led Zeppelin, Patti Smith and New York Dolls.
Decades of constant documenting yielded many famous photographs and subjects, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Gruen befriended the couple in their New York years and shot some of the most iconic, enduring photos of Lennon, among them the one of Lennon wearing the sleeveless New York City ringer T-shirt and the photo where he’s flashing the peace sign in front of the Statue of Liberty.
Gruen’s newest book, Rock Seen, serves as a collection of the photographer’s favorite shots from throughout his 40-year career — he also wrote captions and included behind-the-scenes stories to accompany the photographs. We spoke to Gruen in advance of his appearance this week at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival and asked him about his work habits, past projects and plans for the future.
Jaime Lees: Part of what I like about your work is that you seem to be a fan first, and I think that it shows in your photos.
Bob Gruen: Yes, well, that’s because I didn’t choose to have a career. I was a child of the ’60s. You know, “Turn on, tune in and drop out”? And I did. I lived with a rock & roll band because I like rock & roll music, and I tend to be friends with musicians and performers and artists. And when they got a record deal the company used my pictures. And then they hired me to take more pictures, and every time I would go and do that I’d meet more people who would hire me to do more photos. And I just kind of fell into this career of rock photography. It wasn’t something I sought out — I really wasn’t planning to have any career. I was pretty aimless as a kid. I really wasn’t expecting much to happen. [Laughs] I couldn’t really do a nine-to-five. Like, my parents were sort of trying to get me into a nine-to-five office career, which didn’t appeal to me at all, especially the nine o’clock part. [Laughs] So that’s why I was living with a rock band, and it just kind of turned out that that’s what I was suited for and that’s what I ended up doing.
In spite of myself I have a strong work ethic. I figured out what it is: It’s because I really don’t like to work. And until I finish something, I feel that I’m working because I live in my studio. And if I came home at night and the film wasn’t developed, I’d have to do it the next day, and I had other things to do the next day. So I’d tend to go out and spend the night hanging out with friends and drinking and carrying on, and then I’d come home, and it’s four or five o’clock in the morning, and I’d develop the film.
How do you decide where you’re going to go shoot if you’re not on assignment?
Oh, if I’m not on assignment, I go to see friends or bands that friends recommend, pretty much. I’m not really looking for the next big thing. I never was. Usually the bands that I like don’t make it. [Laughs]
I still go out all the time, but I don’t work as much as I used to. Photography has changed nowadays; it’s much more accessible, so a lot more people are involved in photography. A lot more groups are doing their own work; a lot of groups are much more restrictive. Record companies got much more corporate, and they want to own the images.
And you have less access now.
Yeah, they control the access a lot more, and it’s not as interesting for me. They came up with a three-song rule, where you’re only allowed to take pictures for the first three songs of a group, and I was never into it in that sense of just being on assignment to take a picture of a guy onstage to show what color shirt he’s wearing. To me, I was always more involved as a fan, as somebody who really likes the music, and I wanted to capture the feeling and the passion of what’s going on. And a lot of times that doesn’t happen in the first three songs. Usually in the last three songs, not the first ones. [Laughs] When all of the lights are on, and all of the effects that the band has brought with them are on, and the band is really putting it all out, and the audience is really pumped up, and you have much more excitement and much more feeling — that’s what I’d rather photograph.
I do tend to think of myself as a photojournalist, but I didn’t visit this lifestyle as a journalist. I live this lifestyle, I’ve always been friends with musicians and artists; I feel very comfortable there. So that many times if I had an assignment to go to Madison Square Garden and shoot a band, I’d do that, but after that on my own, as a person, I’d go down to CBGB or Max’s just to hang out. And, you know, I like staying up late. I like going to clubs and hanging out with people, so that wasn’t really an assignment, it was just something I did in my life.
Yeah, you were just kickin’ it. So what’s your next big project?
Well, in December I have to go do an exhibition that we’re putting on in Buenos Aires, sponsored by the American Embassy down there.
Wow! Does it get any bigger than that? I mean, that’s huge!
I don’t know; it’s pretty big. They’ve done more and more events, but not many people in rock & roll are sponsored by the embassy, that’s for sure! But they’re starting to come around. I mean, rock & roll is not teenage music. When Bob Dylan played at Newport, I got my first photo pass there, so I was down front when he played with a rock & roll band, so a lot of people were very upset about that. But over the years I’ve thought about it, and I think what Bob Dylan was doing was kind of making the statement that rock & roll is the folk music of America.
Now we have people like the New York Times recognizing rock & roll; it’s part of our culture. A lot of the magazines did not cover rock & roll or rock stars. There were music magazines, but Life magazine or the New York Times didn’t really review rock & roll at all. Nowadays, you’ll see a review of the Lollapalooza tour or Bonnaroo. We just had the CMJ festival in New York, and there was a big story in the Times about that. It’s becoming more and more regular, but I’m old enough to recognize that it didn’t happen 20 years ago, 30 years ago. Rock & roll was not a part of mainstream culture.
I just met a CEO of a major corporation the other day, and he was telling me about going out just about every night of the week to some different rock show, and he had this big smile like a teenager. And people who are into rock & roll tend to stay young in feeling. It keeps you excited and alive in a sense.
Well, I was at a rock show until 2:30 a.m. last night, and I can’t say that I feel all that excited or alive today…
[Laughs] Well, the next morning is a little difficult, but it is fun at night. I mean, for me rock & roll is about the freedom to express your feelings…loudly. I think that’s what people really like about it.
LINK: Bonus interview outtakes
CBGB’s Final Show With Patti Smith (A.K.A. The Day I Got Covered in Brian Eno’s Sweat)
By Jaime Lees
Fri., Oct. 14 2011
Legendary punk club CBGB closed five years ago tomorrow. In its final week, the venue hosted a string of shows paying tribute its storied thirty year run, and it all culminated with a headlining set from Patti Smith. There were only a couple hundred people lucky enough to get tickets to that last hurrah, and one of them was me.
I don’t really romanticize New York City. I know a lot of people do, but I’m a Midwesterner who likes to drive, hates crowds and has a mild case of germaphobia. Mostly, I’m resentful on principle. I don’t like that one little place gets so much attention when there are plenty of other cool places and people outside of NYC that are rarely recognized.
That said, if I could live in any place and time, the Lower East Side in the 1970s would be a top contender. Maybe I’m a victim of selective history, but I’ve been led to believe that it was a vibrant place full of magic and creativity. And the music! Mercy. Most of my favorite music from that time came out of that little pocket of the world, and at the center of it all was CBGB.
Founded by the Hilly Kristal in 1973, CBGB was originally opened as a country and bluegrass club, but quickly morphed into a place where the mohawked were welcomed. Kristal only had one rule for the club: no cover bands, and bands were encouraged to play music that they wrote. This was intended as a precaution against ASCAP fines, but the rule unintentionally made the venue a receptive to original music. Known mostly as the venue that hosted early gigs by the Ramones (Who I never gave a crap about it. I know, I know. Save it. It’s too late for me.), CB’s also launched Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, the Cramps and countless other legendary punk and new wave bands.
Sometimes all it takes is one little building to change the world. CBGB stayed open for 33 years as a functioning little rock venue, continuing an open policy and giving hundreds of bands a place to play their first shows. And because of all of the greats that had played the space over the years, touring bands considered it an honor to play the tiny diagonal stage at CB’s and made the venue a priority on tours.
In 2006 some news came that saddened punx the world over: CBGB was going to close. As a result some sort of gentrification disaster and a rent dispute, the club that had helped to build the neighborhood for the past 30-plus years had also built its own displacement. The management at CBGB could no longer afford the rent for its home at 315 Bowery. Kristal hosted various fundraisers, but to no avail. Kristal had cut a deal with his landlord to be able to afford rent during the last year that the club was open, and as a condition of that legal battle he could not attempt to have the venue registered as a historic landmark. Kristal died of lung cancer less than a year later in 2007, prompting many to conclude that he was simply too weak to fight for the place.
CBGB announced a series of shows in the week leading up to the closing night on October 15, 2006. Bands like Bad Brains, the Dictators and Blondie would come out and play to celebrate the place that gave them their start. The headliner for the last night was Patti Smith, one of my all-time favorites. I’d been keeping up with all of the press covering the closure, and I read an article that said that tickets were going on sale the next day. I figured, “Hey, I’ll give it a shot. I mean, somebody has to win the tickets, right?”
So on Sunday, October 1, I woke up and shuffled over to my laptop. As the clock hit selling hour, I was there hitting “reload” on Safari. Just then, the crap internet connection that I was pirating from my neighbor went out. I got back online and tried again. The site crashed. I tried one last time. It was already seven minutes past sale time, but the ticket gods were on my side and a few short minutes later I got a confirmation email. It took a minute to sink in. Wait — did I really just get two of only a couple hundred tickets to the concert event of the decade? I mean, sometimes dreams come true, but this was akin to winning the lottery. I called the ticketing agency to confirm. The guy I got on the phone at customer service laughed at me and asked me to hold while he checked my transaction number. I heard him tap tap tap on his keyboard and then he said, “Holy shit. You got ’em!” followed by “Do you need a date to the show?” I didn’t. I called my friend in NY and passed on the good news: two weeks from this day we were going to see Patti Smith at the last show ever at CBGB. Ten minutes later I had my flight booked to NYC and it was all set. Holy shit is right, my friend.
That night outside CB’s was a madhouse. Though we arrived hours early, the line snaked down around the block. As it turns out, most of these people didn’t have tickets, they were just hoping to get in. From our spot in line at the corner of Bowery and E 1st, we had a good view of the circus under the famous CBCB awning while we waited. There were news trucks everywhere, photographers documenting the scene, journalists with tape recorders interviewing people in line and fans hanging out on the sidewalk just looking for a street party. Details were scarce and the line would take a while. In an attempt to cut off scalpers, the ticketing rules were strict. Two tickets only and no paper tickets at all. If you “got tickets”, your name went on a list at the door and you had to show an ID to gain entry. And because of sound check and photographs that had to be taken, they weren’t going to let the audience in until right before the show started.
Faces I recognized were streaming past, but I couldn’t place most of them. Most of them were older men who were probably in punk bands. Chloe Sevigny (fresh off of her heels-with-rubber-bands fashion statement) was about ten people behind me in line for a bit before she was whisked inside, not to be seen again. It was bitterly cold outside. So cold, in fact, that this night marks the one time in my life that I deigned to wear fleece. And right in front of Chloe, no less! The horror.
Finally, they let us in. We all thawed out quickly; it was already about a million and two degrees inside the venue. We made it to the floor in front, about seven feet from the stage. The music was already starting. We were quickly surrounded by the rest of the crowd. This would be our spot. We would not be able to get a cocktail. We would not be able to visit the bathroom. Not for fear of losing our place, but because it was so packed that we couldn’t move even if we wanted to. I took a deep breath and removed any extra clothing. It was going to be a long night.
I looked around and tried to take in the scene as the show started. Also, I was trying to peep out Michael Stipe of R.E.M. I couldn’t find him, but about five feet to my right was David Fricke of Rolling Stone. He’s tall and his hair is easy to spot. And in front of him was Elijah Wood. This would mark the third out of maybe eight times that I’ve found myself standing next to Elijah Wood at various musical events. Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, SXSW, he’s at all of them. (And I’m taller than him. This is rare.) Also in the house was music industry insider Danny Fields, photographer Bob Gruen, writer Jim Carroll and Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads.
Then I saw him. Standing directly behind me was Brian. Motherfucking. Eno. I nearly fainted. I told myself that my eyes were playing tricks on me. I had nearly convinced myself of this, too, until I heard him speak and I took another peek. He was wearing intimidating, industrial strength earplugs. Of course he was! Those ears are like Tiny Turner’s legs or Dolly Parton’s rack — they are his finest and most bankable quality. (Hopefully, they’re also insured.) And when I say that he was right behind me, I mean really right behind me. He was breathing on the back of my neck and the convex curve of his belly was arching perfectly into the small of my back. (Does this read like pornography yet?) We’d only been inside for a few minutes, but everybody in the place was hot, Eno included, and it didn’t take long for his sweat to get all up in my biznass. It was so dreamy…but I must say, Eno’s presence was a point of distraction all night. He was super quiet and low profile, but people kept whispering and pointing at him. But I was in heaven. I was all, “CBGB who? Patti Smith what? I don’t care, I just want Brian Eno to stay pressed against me.”
And then I looked up, and there she was. Patti Smith is an interesting creature. She’s half wise old lady and half wide-eyed little girl, and she’s been like this all of her life. She dresses like a boy, but has always had the strength of a woman. She uses at least five different voices: 1. the sweet, child-like talking voice, 2. the monotone poetry-reading voice, 3. the Dylan-esqe singing voice, 4. the soulful, robust singing voice, 5. the angry, barking rebel voice. She’s both a goddess and a hobo. A wild-haired rock star and an introspective bespectacled poet. Worldly but down-home.
She came on stage with Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty, Tony Shanahan and a big smile and started with an impassioned reading of Piss Factory. Her singing started out a little shaky, with a few false starts. It seemed like nerves had gotten the best of Ms. Smith. She apologized, bashfully, and made a joke out of it. (“We’re here to prove that we have not improved”) And then she got back to work. It seemed like she knew that she had a big job to do there that night and she was a little intimidated. But with every song she gained more confidence and soon both she and the crowd were having a good time.
Smith’s personality shown through when she spoke in between songs. She’s all love and praise when she’s telling stories and she has a sweet kind of old timey way of speaking. She says “piana” instead of “piano” and she never, ever pronounces the “g” on anythin’. Sometimes it’s jarring when she goes back to singing because it’s hard to reconcile the difference between the sweet little story-teller and the powerful woman-goddess singer.
Smith was careful to make sure that everyone possible was acknowledged. On top of the cover songs that she and her band played, she read lists and lists of names from the heyday of CBGB. Some on the lists had passed, some were in the audience, some were on the stage. She gave shout-outs to people from both the music and writing world like Richard Sohl, Deborah Harry, Blondie, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, Richard Lloyd, Tom Verlaine, Television, William Burroughs, Nick Tosches, her manager Jane Friedman and tons of others. Smith has always been very concerned with respecting her elders. (And personally, I think she’s a little obsessed with dead guys.)
Once it seemed like her acknowledgment duties were over, she loosened up and the gig turned perfect — even transcendent. During the show, she was joined on stage by both Richard Lloyd from Television and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I don’t even like RHCP, but Flea is such a lovable character. I was thoroughly entertained watching him try to restrain himself and not to “Flea-out” and do that full spine roll head bobbing thing that he is known for. Flea was particularly impressive during the always-creepy “Birdland” where his bass led the band into a crazy, frantic jazz-like ending. Smith repaid him by leading the crowd into singing “Happy Birthday to You” to him on stage — it was his 44th.
Her set included both rarely played older songs and covers of classics from the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” to Television’s “Marquee Moon” to Blondie’s “The Tide is High” to the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer” to the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” and the Who’s “My Generation.” She and the band also did a Ramones medley near the end of the set that the crowd loved. Still, the high point of the night for me had to be when she unleashed the musical trifecta of “Free Money” then “Pissing in a River” followed by the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter.” It was absolutely amazing. Even Brian Eno had to bop around a bit.
Looking back, it’s probably the best show I’ve ever seen. It would have been even if it wasn’t at CBGB, and even if it wasn’t the last ever show at CBGB. I’ve seen Patti Smith quite a few times, and this was the best show that I’ve ever seen her play. It was certainly the most important. I witnessed rock and roll history. Smith was on the cover of the New York Times that I picked up at the airport on the way home the next afternoon — it was a photograph of her taking a photograph of the famous awning.
When I think back on the show, I remember a lot of details (and a lot of Eno), but one thing really stuck with me. Thankfully, recordings from the night allow me to transcribe it here exactly. Smith had told stories of the first time she went to CBGB (Easter night, 1974, to see the third ever Television gig) and about some of her favorite nights at the club. Then she said:
“Now, you know, kids will find some other club. They’ll need some place to play. (boos from audience) Yeah, no! Yeah! Cause that’s what’s supposed to happen! This place is not a fuckin’ temple. It’s just what it is. And the greatest thing about it, and the best way that it can serve the people, is just show an example of what you can do. You just gotta place, just some crappy place, that nobody wants. And you got one guy who believes in you. And you just do your thing. And anybody can do that. Anywhere in the world. Anywhere. Anytime.”
- link: Riverfront Times