ATN correspondent Mitch Gart reports: Last Friday (Oct. 6) Patti Smith
"An Evening of Poetry and Music" at the Smith Baker
Auditorium in Lowell, MA. This performance was part of
the week-long Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! Festival,
in honor of the beat poet who was born in Lowell.
first saw Patti Smith in 1975, she sang in a bar for maybe
100 people; the last time in 1979 was a sold out
auditorium with 3000 people, and I've read that
just before retiring in 1980 she played for 80,000
people in Paris at her biggest concert.
Friday evening she stepped out onto the stage in a
pretty old church in Lowell, with a big silver and
gold pipe organ stretching up to the ceiling behind her.
She's looking older, with streaks of gray in her hair
and "spectacles" that she kept putting on and taking off. She read poems for
the first half
hour and then was joined by her longtime guitarist (and current producer)
Lenny Kaye for an hour of acoustic songs.
Smith was warmly received by an audience who seemed
to all know her well. "I hope you can forgive me, I'm betting on Cleveland
...," she said at the beginning of her set. "There, that got you to sit
down". (This was the evening
the Red Sox lost their final playoff game.)
The mood turned from warm to intense as she read her
first poem, "Piss Factory," about her experiences working
in a factory after graduating from high school. ("Piss Factory" appeared on
her first single.) This was
followed by a poem with some lines that referred to her classic
song "Horses" ("the boy was in the hallway drinking a glass
of tea ...") but the story was different ("the boy was Johnny,
he was always Johnny, Johnny Guitar ..."). Then she read
a story for the first time called "A Beat Heart," about the author
Brian Dyson, then "Psalm 23 Revisited" about William Burroughs.
The mood lightened as she told a joke about two
cannibals, then: "Wow, I just had a vision of Bob Barker,
I hope he's OK, that's so weird, I mean, if you've got to
hallucinate you'd want to hallucinate Beaudelaire or
someone like that. Guess we can't control our minds."
She read three more poems: one I didn't know,
"Dog Dream" (a sexual dream about Bob Dylan), and
Lenny Kaye came out to a big ovation. As they
were setting up the microphones, somebody dropped
a handful of papers from the balcony which floated
down onto the audience and Patti remarked on the
similarities between the words "litter" and
With Kaye strumming an acoustic guitar, Patti
took off her boots and socks and sang "Dancing
Barefoot" followed by "Ghost Dance," two of her
quieter songs from the 70's. These have always
been two of my favorites, and I thought
to myself that if the evening were over right then,
it already would have been great. But the best
song was next, a gorgeous version of "People Have
the Power" from her Dream of Life album.
The verses went back and forth between
quiet and loud, subtle and strong, and the fact
that she forgot the words once and had to get some
help from a person sitting in the front row seemed
to add to the song because of the audience involvement.
For me, "Power" was much better in this acoustic
incarnation than it was as a hard rock song a few years
ago on the radio.
As she introduced a "special friend"
Jesse walked out with a guitar, and for a moment I
thought we were going to hear a mother-daughter
combination, but Jesse was just carrying the guitar
to Patti. The guest was Thurston Moore. Smith, Kaye and Moore did a "work
in progress" called "Meet the Southern
Cross," then "The Last Hotel," and then the Jerry
Garcia song "Black Peter." "Last Hotel" was based
on a piece by Jack Kerouac and had a dark, dark mood,
with the three guitars playing separate dissonant
chords at slightly different rhythms, reminding this
listener of an acoustic Velvet Underground sound.
Moore left, Smith and Kaye did a new song
about Smith's late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, they said goodnight, and then
for a short encore of "Speak to Me." The song about
Fred Smith, sung sweetly above beautiful guitar chords,
is for me the prettiest song Patti has yet written.
The last verse is:
"and I don't know why but honey it rains it rains on me
"the sky just opens and when it rains it pours
"but I look up and a rainbow appears like a smile from Heaven
"and darling I can't help thinking that smile is yours"
1994 was a year of personal tragedies for Smith.
Her husband, guitarist Fred Smith, died, as
did her brother Todd, who had worked as her road
manager. This evening, death's undertow was all
around. Songs were dedicated to Fred Smith, Robert
Mapplethorpe, Brian Dyson, William Burroughs,
Jack Kerouac, and Jerry Garcia. "Black Peter" starts with the lines:
"all of my friends came to see me last night
"I was lying in my bed dying"
"A beat heart" contains these lines near the end:
"Brian had been dead for a year before I heard about it.
"During that time I thought about him often
"and took comfort from imagining he was around."
But Patti sure is still alive. The punk rocker has mellowed.
The punk spirit is still there, but not the hard sound.
She punctuated a line from "Piss Factory" by spitting
on the stage, except she missed and it went on the arm
of her jacket and glistened for a while in the spotlights.
(I thought it was cool, my wife was grossed out.) At
another concert earlier this year she said "people ask
me why I spit on stage and I say 'because I have water
in my mouth'". Yep, the spirit is there. But the sound
wasn't punk or even rock - the first section of the concert
sounded like a 50's beat poetry reading, the second
section like a 60's folk singer. Except that Patti's words
don't sound like anyone else in the world.