Patti Smith Inspires And Calls For “Creative Energy” At The Ford
LOS ANGELES, CA- Patti Smith walked on to The Ford’s stage to a standing ovation. Her fans are nothing if not reverent in the highest regard – and for good reason. Punk’s Poet Laureate has a way of bringing astounding humility to the powerful art she creates, both on stage and on the page, which has a way of waking up feelings of joy, hope, compassion, and motivation in her audience. She does this by, above all else, being profoundly human in everything she does. Patti has “a slight case of shyness”, yet is an impassioned, and playfully self-deprecating performer who takes the power of her craft incredibly seriously. But she also remembers to not take herself, or her performance, too seriously should she risk losing the very reason that she creates. “I feel like I walked off the streets and into Juilliard.” She joked. She remembers to have fun. Tonight, on The Ford’s stage, she did not disappoint.
As I made my way through the audience I heard the excited banter of her fans as they waited to break their pandemic hiatus with what for many was their first concert in over a year (if not more). “This will be my seventh time seeing her.” One woman said. “She puts on a phenomenal show.” Another man reported. “I can’t wait to hear her again.” I heard coming from a group. I walked to the merch table and bought a copy of Year of the Monkey, Patti’s 2016 book that mapped out her wanderings across America. “New Year’s morning in Santa Cruz,” the book began, “pretty dead.”
While most fans come to Patti Smith through her music, I came to her through her writing. I suppose I came to Patti Smith’s music in the same way she did. She got her start as a musician by first reading her poetry in 1971 with Lenny Kaye accompanying her on electric guitar. It was Sandy Perlman who first told her she should front a rock band. She initially laughed off the idea saying she had a good gig going at Scribner’s bookshop. “At the time, I was seeing Sam Shephard and I told him what Sandy had said.” She wrote in Year of the Monkey, “Sam just looked at me intently and told me I could do anything. We were all young then and that was the general idea. That we could do anything.” And so she did go on to do anything and everything.
Patti’s book, Just Kids, intrigued me when I first heard about it over a decade ago and it has gone on to be one of my favorite books to reread every few years. The book was the fulfillment of a promise Patti had made to her late friend and former lover, Robert Mappelthorpe, an accomplished photographer who helped shepherd in a new era of fine art photography that focused unflinchingly on the homosexual, kink, and all-round disobedient gaze. His photographs made art of what was once considered pornographic, leud, and disgusting by “proper” society and he helped create a place in the New York Art scene for artists, art lovers, and everyday people who felt pigeonholed into a world who did not want to see their true face. He also photographed Patti for her debut album, “Horses.”
Just Kids discusses how the two worked together to create the now-iconic album cover where Patti is gazing down into the viewer wearing a stark, crisp white button-up shirt with black pants, and a skinny untied tie, with a black jacket thrown over her shoulder. Her short chopped hair topped off her an undeniably alluring and androgynous look. As she walked out onto the stage her fashion sense remained somewhat unchanged as she wore black pants with a black vest and jacket, but instead of a stark white shirt, she dawned a softly colored yellow shirt. Her hair had grown long again, now silver, and danced in waves around her as she sang. She smiled as she looked out into the crowd and nodded a hello as she removed her brown wide-brimmed hat.
“This song is called ‘Grateful.’” She began as her band launched into her year 2000 song from the album “Gung Ho.” “Ours is just another skin that simply slips away,” she sang. “You can rise above it. It will shed easily.” The song both expressed her gratitude for being on a stage again and her fans’ gratitude for seeing her perform again. There was something intimate about the performance. It was like walking into the garage of your friend’s band and getting a candid glimpse into how musicians you love talk to each other through sound and ineffable color.
As the night progressed, Patti motioned behind her to introduce her band. She took note of the unexpected third musician behind her. She introduced Jackson Smith, “That’s her son,” someone whispered nearby, and Tony Shanahan, who’s been a member of Patti Smith’s band for about 20 years. Finally, she motioned to her surprise guest, Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I had thought his signature thrashings seemed familiar. He has a way of dipping his head down as if in a trance and bouncing his body with each pluck of a string. He played music like a water bird, stretched between the sea and the sky – making music about the spaces between. Bassists have always been some of my favorite kinds of musicians. The day before Patti had worked with Flea in support of the Silverlake Conservatory of Music and apparently had convinced him to leave “pandemic retirement” to come play with them. His presence added an exciting element to the stage as we watched the four get to know each other through sound and movement, ebbing and flowing through harmony and brief moments of playful discord.
“It is still a trio,” she said, “I am just the proud momma.” If Patti Smith deserves the title of Punk’s Poet Laureate, then she also deserves the title of Rock’s Holy Mother as well. God is not a missing figure in her work, but a character with who she feels free to debate both directly and indirectly through song. After all, she introduced herself to the rock and roll world singing, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” through the lead track “Gloria” on her album “Horses.” “Gloria” was the song that called me from Patti’s writing to Patti’s music.
Across the decades her younger self sang to a twenty-something young girl who had suffered temporary social and familial ostracization after she left the church at the age of 14. The idea that Jesus hadn’t considered my sins as worth dying for rang true and was only bolstered by later lines in the song that sang out, “People say “beware!” But I don’t care. The words are just rules and regulations to me.” spoke to later stages of my youthful rebellion that may still continue to this day. Rock’s Holy Mother has always reminded me that fear is no excuse to not foray into the void and that throwing caution to the wind does not always mean you are pissing in the breeze, or rather “pissing in a river, watching it rise” as she would sing that night. Patti ended her set with the song “Gloria” and only stopped to remind an overly excited fan to “Keep their fucking mask on.”
“I know you are the biggest rocker here,” She said ironically, “but we are in the middle of an environmental and biological pandemic. So, conserve water, and keep your fucking mask on!” She was not unkind in her reminder, joking that she too was annoyed by the restrictions as they prevented her from “spitting on the fucking stage”.
Patti was right. After a year of being isolated waiting for a cure only to have the powers that be to find reasons to convince half of the public to become anti-vaxxers, we find ourselves in a similar position to where we were in January. The exception today is that nothing is closed down, assistance is being cut off, the inequitable economic donut has widened, and we are all pretending that everything is fine. As I sat in the back (with my mask securely on my face), I thought about how even I am taking risks just to live a little bit of life again. Honestly, Patti Smith is the only person I would risk a COVID breakthrough infection to go see.
Throughout the night, Patti’s songs bounced between the calm and meditative to the invigorating and magical. As a singer-songwriter, Patti has worked to speak two languages simultaneously through her work and to then translate those languages to her audience. She first speaks the language of lyrics, translating the spaces in between the words we breathe every day. But she, and her band, also translate the language of the instruments they cradle in their hands, moving them and twisting their cogs as the instruments tell them about their day, their aches and pains, and how they feel about the climate and the road they are on, before revisiting old conversations in the form of the songs they know so well.
And I suppose there is a third language that Patti translates through her work, the language of the dead. So many songs that Patti has written are now sung to the ones she’s loved and lost. “Because the night” was written for her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, in collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, and as Jackson played the courting song of his mother and Patti sang out, “So touch me now, touch me now, touch me now,” the edges of the Ford Theater began to blur as audience members left their assigned seats and flowed toward Patti as if by some anarchical magnetic force.
The most powerful moments of the performance were when Patti’s songs would blend into spoken word poetry mixed with prose and emphatic calls for change and action. “USE YOUR CREATIVE ENERGY!” Patti exclaimed at one point. It was a call to gods of art and the artistic gods within man to make themselves known and fight the oppressive powers that be that are rapidly killing our home, choking our air, poisoning our water, all while telling us “consume, consume, consume.” Anger bled from the stage as hope shot out from Patti’s outstretched hands.
The power from the stage hit me like a tsunami as I held myself tightly in the back of the theater, trying to make myself small so no one would see just how affected I was. A voice in my head said, “We need you to come back. We need you to create your work again. We need you to have hope.” Tears streamed down my eyes as I heard Patti speak three languages at once and call on the deeply primal artist within me that had laid comatose throughout the entire pandemic. For months I had felt her stirring, but I had been too scared to try to create anything again, too afraid at the pain of creating, the fatigue of creating, and the threat of failure after putting my heart and soul into a piece of work. In the days since the show, the stirring has transformed into a gentil wakefulness as my artistic self explores her new surroundings and begins to stretch out her hands to create again. “How did she do that? How did she wake her up?” I wonder as I write.
Patti ended the night with an encore of “People have the power,” a final call to do anything and everything to save the world we live in. She reminded us, ”That the people have the power to redeem the work of fools.” And I thought about just how necessary such statements are today.
As I look around America today I think about the fact that it has been well over a decade since I heard anyone say, “United we stand, divided we fall.” I have always found that telling to the state of the US today. We are split into camps; Democrat versus Republican, vaccinated versus unvaccinated, urban versus rural, and so many other dichotomies that are put upon us to separate us and keep us from our power. This separation, this hate, serves no one but those in power working to exploit it. But there is hope. If music and art are not vehicles to bring divided factions together then I don’t know what is. Patti’s show at The Ford reminded me of that.
Patti’s show had been the first time in literally weeks where I saw people be blindly kind to each other rather than blindly suspicious. It was the first time I had felt a sense of connection in a city that was new to me and that I have never had the privilege of seeing outside of the lens of the pandemic. I felt hopeful for the first time in a long time. As she ended, thanking LA for its hospitality, the man sitting next to me said, “It’s over already?!” I had to agree. I wanted more. But to be fair, Patti had already given so much. The only thing I can do now gives a quiet, “Thank you.”