NEW YORK -- Up on stage, punk priestess Patti Smith danced like a mad witch, her hands waving in the air, conjuring all the earthly spirits into the house and casting spells with every note she shrieked.
If the first lady of punk ever had a reason to summon those ghosts, Halloween was the night. And, make no mistake, the spirits were with her and everyone else at CBGB's.
As trailblazing music critic Robert Palmer lay in a New York hospital waiting for a life-saving liver and kidney transplant, more than 300 people squeezed into the legendary nightclub to listen to Smith and lend their support to Palmer, for whom the night's performance had been dedicated. Smith's enormously successful return engagement week at CBGB's ended with a benefit show for Palmer that had everything a rock 'n' roll celebration should have.
And then some. The stage was adorned with pumpkin lights and paper cobwebs around the drum set and at its center was a good old-fashioned jack-o'-lantern. Much of the capacity crowd was decked out in its Greenwich Village Halloween finest -- many, no doubt, coming to the show after attending the Village's famous annual parade of ghouls and goblins. "I see you're all in your E.T. suits," Smith said in welcoming the throng of more than 300, which was clearly in the mood for a party. The legendary punk rocker was herself dressed for the occasion, having swapped her traditional white T- shirt for an orange one. Sure, this was her final chance to relive her youth, and a grand holiday to party, but it was also a benefit night for Rolling Stone editor, music critic and author Robert Palmer, who had quite a few nice things to say about Patti Smith in their respective heydays.
Palmer, who is 52, is suffering from potentially fatal liver disease and a kidney infection and is in desperate need of a transplant operation. The concert raised $1933 to help Palmer (largely from ticket sales), who has no insurance, pay for his medical costs. Patti and her band then kicked in an additional $567 to bring the total amount raised to $2500. Caught up in the spectacle that night, Patti Smith stopped briefly to remind people -- who paid $5 more for tickets -- what this night was truly about. "Tonight’s benefit night...," Smith said from the stage. "We can do whatever we want." In keeping with the spirit of irreverence, Smith dusted off her first recording, 1974's ode to youthful manual labor, "Piss Factory," to open the show. "Watch me now," she yelled, as she unleashed huge gobs of spit between the poem's stanzas. As Smith purged her body, four tall Greenwich Village residents in rabbit costumes straight out of an Alice In Wonderland dream made their way through the crowd to the bar.
You had to be there to truly appreciate the strangeness of it all. And there was more where that came from. A couple, faces painted with black and white ghoul makeup, looked at the rabbits with amusement. When asked about Palmer, the two mistakenly brought up Smith's deceased artist friend Robert Mapplethorpe. "You mean the guy who took all those penis shots?" one of the ghouls asked. "You’re gonna be crawling home tonight saying 'I ain't ever going back there again,' but of course you will," Smith told the crowd. In introducing "Last Call," the closer to her new album Peace and Noise, Smith referred to R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, who collaborated with her on the track, and his recent tribulation -- the sudden departure of drummer and founding member Bill Berry. "He sends his regards," Smith said. "It’s an honorable thing. He wants us to know in case there's any gossip. Everything's OK." "Oh, and we mixed him real low on this track to make sure it'd get no airplay," she added, as bassist Tony Shanahan sang Stipe's part on the song. A perfect Halloween song, Gone Again's "Summer Cannibals," followed: "The cauldron was a-bubbling, the flesh was lean... they spread themselves before me, an offering so sweet and they beckoned, come on darling eat . . . eat!, eat!," she shrieked as she jumped around like a shaman driven mad by the spirit of the night. Her tiny, expressive hands seductively beckoning to the crowd -- this was a real ghost dance. Her eyes seemed possessed like a true conjurer of spirits. "These four nights have just about finished me as a person," she then told the audience, much of which was screaming requests, some already performed that night. "Oh, the baby-sitter was late, I see. We did those already," she laughed in response to this annoyance. Earlier that night, the punk priestess said she could do anything she wanted, and she wasn't kidding.
Where else but CBGB's could you see the dirty-mouthed poet of punk on stage accompanied on guitar by her 15-year-old son? Jackson Smith, son of Smith and her late-husband rocker Fred "Sonic" Smith, joined the band for a blistering version of the rock standard "I Put A Spell On You," on which Shanahan handled lead vocals.
Jackson even stuck around for the encore, a raucous "Rock N Roll Nigger," in which he played a vicious lead guitar as his mom swore a blue streak. To end the show, Smith simply reinvented Buddy Holly's much-covered "Not Fade Away," by adding stream-of-consciousness lyrics and a haunting harmonica solo. As the band left the stage, she capped the spooky night by banging a large gong-like bowl with enough fire in her eyes to rival any jack-o’- lantern. "Goodnight CBGB's, you've always been good to me," she screamed with delight.
Right back at ya, Patti. [Mon., Nov. 3, 1997, 1:30 p.m. PST]