AUSTIN, Texas It took but an instant for Patti Smith to
lose her way on an outdoor stage Friday night. Then it took her only
a few moments to regain her bearings. But in that brief passage, the
punk-poet managed to encapsulate the life lessons that course through
her new album, Gung Ho, due Tuesday.
Smith and her band were trying to launch the album's title track, a
supple, extended meditation on Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. As she
stood at the mic, looking through her glasses at her lyric book, Smith
was unable to find the precise moment in the refined groove where she
was supposed to enter with the vocals. Time and again she was late,
unable to synch with guitarist Oliver Ray's facial cues.
But instead of starting over, Smith backed up to the drum riser, and
longtime guitarist and collaborator Lenny Kaye sidled to her left, never
yielding the riff. Bassist Tony Shanahan pulled in on her right, along
with Ray. Everyone maintained the groove as Smith turned her back to
the crowd, waited, and after a few seconds climbed into the song through
its narrow window.
More than anything she could have said at the microphone, the exchange
drove home Gung Ho's point that there is honor and reward in
persistence. More subtly, Smith played out the notion that there is
strength in surrender. By losing the distractions around her, she allowed
herself to live in the rhythm as well as letting the community, her
band, help her find her way.
"When an animal, a wildcat or something, is hungry, they sit quietly
and will listen in the forest, for hours even, for a sound, to let them
know that there's something out there for them," Smith said recently
in New York. "What we have to do is learn to contemplate and to listen."
After 20 Years, Still Full Of Zest
The free concert at Waterloo Park was the centerpiece of the five-day
South by Southwest annual music conference, which ends on Sunday. The
17-song, two-hour show also marked Smith's first gig here in 20 years,
and she played it both humbly and triumphantly from start to finish.
Between songs, she offered smiles as broad as Texas itself. Many in the
audience had not seen Smith since her days as an often incensed punk
and new-wave upstart two decades ago.
"She's not as angry as I remember," 38-year-old Jon Schappell of Ailleen,
Texas said. "She's healed over time. I'm at a loss. She's just so full
Smith often let loose with the abandon of a prisoner whose cell door
had swung wide open. She chugged her arms like locomotive wheels on
"Pumping (My Heart)" from Radio Ethiopia (1976). On "Free Money," from
1975's Horses, the entire band churned up a noise that charged
off the stage like a rhinoceros.
Throughout the set, the 53-year-old jumped with the verve of some hungry
player from the Nirvana generation. As Smith got down on all fours at
the edge of the stage during her new single "Glitter in Their Eyes"
excerpt), it was hard to remember that she's a peer of punk
pioneer Iggy Pop.
The setlist seemed hand-picked for a show 20 years in the making. The
band hit at least two songs from all but one of her eight albums,
including underground hits such as 1979's "Dancing Barefoot" (RealAudio
excerpt), as well as more obscure cuts, including "Ghost Dance"
excerpt), from Easter (1978). The impassioned performances
kept nostalgia at bay, but also, the sound of much of Smith's catalog
like many Beatles tracks can't be tied to a single era.
Nearly every song she played Friday felt as if it could have come from
Call To Action
At several points, she made torrid pleas for political action. By the
close of "Don't Say Nothing," she was shaking with fury as she improvised
new lyrics. "I saw children shooting each other!" Smith said, herself
a mother of two. "I had to use my voice. ... Make your voice count!"
Smith had spoken recently in New York about the emotional and spiritual
impact of recent school shootings. "Once you have children, and you see
things happen to children, ... you project I see a little girl
shot on the ground, and I imagine if it was my little girl," she said.
"It's really unbearable. It's like enough almost to make you vomit, it's
As "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger" brought the show to a fiery, 10-minute close,
Smith tied around her head a Vietnamese flag that had been draped on a
speaker. She then proceeded to wrench the strings off an electric guitar.
"This is the only gun you'll ever need!" she said, a pointed election-year
message delivered in a state that allows its citizens to carry concealed
Finally, she closed the set like a preacher who's also a general. "The
time is now!" she called. "Wake up! The streets belong to us." Surrender,
at that point, was the furthest thing from her mind.