Patti Smith. Fillmore. 12.29.15
“horses groping for a sign for a breath …
charms. sweet angels – you have made me no longer afraid of death.”
Patti Smith, the poet, read prose from the back cover of a forty-year-old album, before Patti Smith, the punk rocker, threw her fists in the air and denied complicity in the sins that led to Christ’s crucifixion. Like it was the winter of ’75, instead of ‘15, she chased her own spit across the stage as silver hair whipped in the wind left in her wake. The capacity crowd at the historic music venue in San Francisco was franticly trying to keep up with the (soon to be 69-year-old) heroine as she burned through the first track from her iconic debut album. The pressure built and built until the protagonist’s name was finally revealed; G-L-O-R-I-A!, causing a thousand people to scream and dance along with Smith as she resurrected Morrison’s song in glorious fashion.
After “Redondo Beach”, someone in the crowded yelled “Happy Birthday Patti!” She had just put on a pair of eyeglasses, so when she requested we allow her to enjoy the last few hours of her 68th year, she resembled a strict schoolteacher. That image stuck in my head as she read the beginning lyrics to “Birdland” from a sheet of paper (“as if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars”), but when the paper was tossed aside, along with the glasses, she once again transformed into the rebellious student raging against all the evils in the world (“where we are not human, we’re not human”). Not showing any signs of exhaustion, despite the weight of the material, and the energy she spent delivering it, the punk poet laureate closed out the first half of the album with “Free Money”; her vocals arguably coming across stronger than they do on the LP.
(with a physical copy of Horses in hand, Patti pulls the vinyl out of its sleeve and flips it over. “that was side A, now it is time to turn the record over, and put the needle in the groove”)
If Patti Smith or her band (consisting of original Horses musicians Lenny Kaye on guitar and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums) were experiencing any fatigue from performing songs they have been performing for over four decades, they were amazing actors. “Kimberly” was presented with the enthusiasm normally shown by a band breaking out of the studio with exciting new material. “Break It Up” would have been the sing-along anthem at any regular show, but it had quite a bit of competition on this particular night. It was the song with the best introduction though, as Smith described the dream about Jim Morrison that inspired the lyrics. When she painted the poetic picture of Morrison, with majestic wings, breaking free from an angelic statue imprisoned in chains, her words evoked memories of an event that couldn’t possibly have happened. She took us to that place just so she recount telling the same story to Tom Verlaine when they were writing the song. His response was nothing less than hilarious. “Whatever Patti, it’s just chord structure.”
Admitting she was always “too cool” to sing along at shows, Patti thanked the Fillmore crowd for being better than her when it came to participation. Reminiscing about the early years in San Francisco, when she would play at Winterland, she told the story of how Bill Graham told her he didn’t understand what her fans saw in her. “Well, sorry Bill, I’m still here and you’re not,” she joked, before adding “we all loved Bill…I’m sure he’s somewhere saying ‘I still don’t understand what they see in you.’” It was about that point in the evening, when Patti was expressing her amazement that she was playing the “fucking Fillmore” fifty years after starting in the music business, that a man next to me started yelling. His voice rose higher and higher until the entire venue was quiet enough that Patti could hear him. “Say something about the Confederate flag on the second floor, Patti, that is what rock ‘n’ rock is all about!” Instead of derailing the show in favor of a political debate about the Confederate flag, she made a joke about Chris Farley rising from the dead. And then the band drown out the sounds of protest while the man was physically removed from the building. He disappeared, just like the boy who pushed Johnny into the locker, down the stairs and out onto Geary…thus missing out on the song that binds the whole album together.
As “Land” stretched out and digressed into something almost fluid, Smith addressed the new year. “The word for 2016 is not fear. It is love and kindness. And we’re gonna fucking spread it!” The multi-generational audience lost their collective cool as the song folded in on itself, taking us back to the beginning. That ever-iconic voice screaming to be heard through a wall of sound…screaming about Jesus Christ and other people’s sins and a girl named Gloria. “G-L-O-R-I-A!”
“Elegie” was originally written for Jimi Hendrix, but so many more have been lost in the years that have passed since its inception, so before ending the song (and the album) with those final lines about friends long gone, Smith recited names in a never-ending mantra of unfulfilled promise. Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lemmy, Joey Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Ramone, Tommy Ramone…the list went on and on. And when the song finally came to a close, Patti Smith said “horses” and took a bow. The album cycle was complete. Just over an hour had passed since Patti Smith & Her Band had taken the stage, but the night was far from over. After a shout out to The Watchcaps (the group of musicians, led by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, that performed a surprise, karaoke-style opening set comprised of cover songs that led up to the release of Horses), the show continued with “Dancing Barefoot” from 1979’s Wave.
Her band took over with a medley of songs to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Velvet Underground while Smith took a quick breather, but she was back with an acoustic guitar for “Beneath the Southern Cross” before we had time to miss her. And then came the real sing-along song of the night…the song she wrote with her boyfriend at the time, Bruce Springsteen. I’m embarrassed to admit I first heard “Because the Night” on the 10,000 Maniacs Unplugged CD, but as much as I love Natalie Merchant’s rendition, it was something special to hear it performed by Smith herself. The next selection was one of many songs written with her late husband, Fred Smith. With their daughter on keys, and Michael Stipe and The Watchcaps by her side, she prepared everyone for the “dirty fucking election year” by reminding us the “People Have the Power”.
Sometime during the performance, Patti Smith did turn 69 years old, but she proved her voice, attitude, and middle finger arn’t a day over 29. Punk is still alive, it has just gone a little gray. So it was fitting when the encore continued with a youthful take on The Who’s “My Generation”. Smith’s generation might have failed to “change the world with dreams and music and sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” but she assured us it wasn’t too late for that change to happen. Standing in the Fillmore in San Francisco, surrounded by like-minded people of all ages, it actually seemed possible.
Micheal Stipe & The Watchcaps:
Old Man (Neil Young)
The Crying Game (Dave Berry)
People Are Strange (The Doors)
Imagine (John Lennon)
All the Young Dudes (David Bowie)
Patti Smith & Her Band:
Break It Up
Land / Gloria
Rock & Roll / I’m Waiting for the Man / White Light/White Heat
Beneath the Southern Cross
Because the Night
People Have the Power