As part of a performance of her debut album Horses in the studio where she recorded it, Patti Smith sang her beatific cover of Them’s “Gloria” twice. The first time was as the set opener, in which she transitioned from reading the poem off an LP copy of the record into the full-on punk explosion that was the album’s only single. The small audience was rapt. But it was the second time – deep into the record’s three-movement penultimate track “Land” – when it became transcendent: Smith stepped off the small stage, onto a couch and shoved the mic into the face of a fan to sing “Gloooriaaa” euphorically before hugging him. The fan was Michael Stipe.
The former R.E.M. frontman was one of only a hundred or so fans invited to Wednesday’s concert, a celebration of New York City’s Electric Lady Studio, which Jimi Hendrix had opened 45 years ago to the day. Although the “Purple Haze” singer spent only about a month recording in the studio before his death, the room has gone on to welcome Kiss, U2 and Daft Punk, among many others over the years. And it’s in the Greenwich Village building’s Studio B where Smith and her Group recorded the monumental punk blueprint Horses with John Cale in September 1975.
Four decades later, Smith and guitarist Lenny Kaye both sport long, gray hair but otherwise had a sprightly energy about them onstage in Electric Lady’s Studio A that suggested they felt no different than when they were in the building originally. The 68-year-old singer, who wore an Electric Lady T-shirt under her signature black vest and jacket, sounded almost invariably the same as she did on the record, howling its highs and carefully enunciating words during its more poetic, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” moments. She also spit on the stage several times throughout the set as if it were CBGB.
The room itself was dimly lit and the stage was set up in front of a glass wall separating it from the mixing booth – drummer Jay Dee Daugherty played in an isolation booth on stage left – and Smith’s copy of Horses, a poetry book and some of her lyrics were leaning against the glass. A mix of fans and music industry types, who generally skewed toward the younger side, as well as a few artists and celebrities, including Stipe, Liv Tyler, Dakota Johnson and Arcade Fire’s Win Butler filed in as the group took the stage around 8:30.
For a little over an hour, Smith and her bandmates – who have already been performing Horses live around the world in celebration of its 40th anniversary – triumphantly revisited its eight tracks and extending them to make for rousing jams. In the break between “Free Money” and “Kimberly,” she joked that it was time to turn the record over to side B. And she had fun with the audience, telling a woman up front that she was allowed to put her pocketbook by the stage and joking that she was an interior designer. “If anybody’s uncomfortable or wants to sit down, it’s OK, I’ll make you get up later,” she told the audience, which laughed in response.
She also told stories about some of the songs, recalling writing “Break It Up” with Tom Verlaine in 1974 in memory of Jim Morrison. The song “came from a dream I had that I went into a field and there was this marble, stone statue lying prone in chains, sort of like Prometheus but with the wings of an angel,” she said. “In the dream, I knew that it was Jim Morrison and that he was trapped in his own skin, which was the marble, and I kept saying, ‘Break it up, Jim,’ and finally the marble cracked and the angel flew away, and that’s what this song is about.” She also told a story about how she was blown away when she heard thousands of people in Poland sing its gang chorus with her in concert. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to hear 20,000 strangers in a little field in a village somewhere near Krakow, people you don’t know, you never saw before, heartfully singing along with you,” she said. “It was almost like being at an R.E.M. concert.” Stipe laughed as she went on to describe her first time seeing his band, and how she was impressed by seeing everyone sing along to “Man in the Moon” and how good she felt when it happened to her with “Break It Up.”
“Tonight, it’s a night to party,” Smith raved.
After that rousing song, on which the small audience joined her like the people she described in Poland, she got ready to perform “Land,” by reading her own “Land (Version)” poem from her book Early Work, 1970 – 1979. By the time the punkish beat kicked in and she was singing the words “Horses, horses, horses, horses,” she was punching the air, telling the audience to raise their hands. She also changed the narrative of the song to have its main character, “Johnny,” stop by Electric Lady for the studio’s 45th anniversary. “Tonight, it’s a night to party,” she raved. “People are having a good time at Electric Ladyland.” By the end, she felt overcome enough to approach Stipe for their glorious “Gloria” moment. By the time she’d worked her way back to the stage for the album’s final number, he was just holding his hand against his chest, emotional.
She ended the set the same way she did the album, with “Elegie,” a song she said she’d written with Blue Öyster Cult’s Allen Lanier in memory of Hendrix. “A lot has happened in 40 years and all of us have lost people that we love… obviously we can’t name them all, but this little song, written for Jimi Hendrix, now becomes a song to honor and remember all of them,” she said. As the tune’s plaintive, moving guitar line howled, Smith sang its lyrics about how “memory falls like cream in my bones.” She ended it by chanting a list of names of people she missed: Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, the original Ramones, Joe Strummer, Robert Quine, Hilly Kristal, Lizzy Mercier, Jim Carroll, Allen Lanier, Robert Mapplethorpe, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, her brother Todd, her husband Fred, Ornette Coleman, Lou Reed. When she was done, she simply said, “Horses,” the band got onstage and they bowed in unison. “Happy anniversary, Jimi,” she said.
“Break It Up”