NEW YORK -- At first it seemed that it would be business as usual
for punk-poet Patti Smith on Thursday night at the Bowery Ballroom in
Upon taking the stage -- after an hour of instrumental guitar
experimentalism by Tom Verlaine, former leader of the seminal punk band
Television -- Smith put on her eyeglasses and tore into a reading of her
early poem "Piss Factory" with her trademark venomous gusto.
But then Smith, whose current, four-day stint at the Bowery is a warm-up
for a mini world-tour that will take her to Europe, Australia and New
Zealand (as well as to San Francisco for a few dates), threw her devoted
fans a curve. Instead of rolling out one of her own anthems, she launched
her band into a hard-rocking version of the Rolling Stones' classic
alienation song, "Paint It, Black."
"Surprised ya," a devilishly smiling Smith told the crowd as she drank in
its wild applause.
True to form, Smith -- who was dressed in an orange top, black sweater and
jeans -- laced Thursday's show with ample displays of her notorious,
near-violent passion and went off on obscenity-laced tangents in between a
But at times she revealed something else: a much softer, often child-like
"Hi, Mommy, I see you," she said in a little-girl voice to her mother, who
was seated on the raised-platform section of the club.
While it's amusing to picture most 70ish moms at a loud rock concert, Patti
Smith's mother is not your average mom. She gave birth to and raised a
one-of-a-kind punk-rock heroine. Smith's mom was in her element, clearly
enjoying herself with every song her daughter sang.
To complement her kinder, gentler self, Smith performed a request from her
mom -- country giant Hank Williams' longing ballad "I'm So Lonesome I Could
Cry." The mood was sustained with the brilliant, haunting "Wing," from
Smith's 1996 comeback album, Gone Again.
"You'd be a wing in heaven blue ... It was beautiful," Smith crooned, the
words perfectly reflecting the atmosphere the band created. She emphasized
the sentiments by moving her arms up and down at her side as her impossibly
tiny fingers flickered.
Longtime Smith bandmembers Lenny Kaye (guitar) and Jay Dee Daugherty
(drums), along with newer associates Tony Shanahan (bass) and Oliver Ray
(guitar), darkened the mood with the somber opening strains of "About a
Boy," Smith's ode to late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, who committed
suicide in 1994. Smith strolled around the stage with a cauldron pot,
stirring a phallic stick as she poured out pain-drenched emotion. When the
song kicked in, her two guitarists bracketed her as they tore ferociously
into their instruments.
"Need a break or anything?" Smith sweetly asked her mom when she ended the
She needn't have asked. Smith's mom seemed just as happy when her daughter
ratcheted up the tempo with "Don't Say Nothing" and "Dead City," two
rockers from her most recent album, 1997's Peace and Noise.
As the faster songs blasted the crowd, Smith mirrored the energy with her
movements, her hands constantly brushing back her hair.
When Smith wanted to say something meaningful, she didn't shy away from it
just because she had a close relative in the house. "Everybody is waiting
to see if [President] Clinton got a b--- j-- from that chubby little girl,"
Smith proclaimed. "The only person whose business that is is Hillary
[Rodham Clinton]. I saw Linda Tripp on TV, saying, 'Who am I? I am you.'
She ain't f-----' me," Smith screamed before rocketing into a scalding
cover of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World."
Smith closed the evening shaking maniacally to the sing-along "People Have
the Power" and "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger," which she dedicated to her mom.
"You're the greatest nigger of them all," Smith said to her.
For the encore medley of "Horses" and "Gloria," Smith played the harmonica
and her son Jackson joined the band on guitar.
Fan Robert Facci, 39, of Manhattan, applauded frantically.
An elated Facci, whose neighbor surprised him the day of the concert by
posting his ticket to his front door, said, "I saw [Smith] a few years ago
at a poetry reading, but this was rock 'n' roll."
For the more mainstream rock fans who have shunned Smith's highly personal
brand of punk rock for decades, there can be no greater endorsement than