Patti Smith held her daughter Jesse Paris Smith’s hand as she walked onto the small stage of the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village on Monday night. Rather than the rock & roller, she appeared as the sweet mother, long silver hair plaited into two braids, a woman meant to deliver wisdom. It was the final night of Patti Smith: Words and Music, an intimate performance that included poetry, passages from her two critically acclaimed memoirs — Just Kids and M Train — and nine songs spanning more than 40 years of creative output. It was a solemn evening about love, loss, beginnings and endings punctuated by invocations of hope and empowerment. And yes, she even spat onstage, nearly missing the front row of fans.
“There will be no nudity, but the naked mind,” Smith promised at the top of the evening, later reminding us that she’d guaranteed “a night of the naked mind” after she shared another rambling aside, this one about her Instagram account. The stage’s set also resembled mental symbols made bare: an orange velvet couch glowed in the lights, a “sacred” chair shipped in from the family’s home that had been scratched by her three cats (and favorably reviewed by the New York Times, according to Smith) and her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith’s cherished Rickenbacker guitar from his MC5 days. It wasn’t going to be played; “I wanted people to see it since not many people get to,” she explained.
For many in the room — who listened raptly as acolytes — the stories about Robert Mapplethorpe and Allen Ginsburg and “Sonic” Smith were familiar old saws. But it was the way they were delivered — with her distinctive Jersey accent and stumbling over words and phrases — that endeared her to the assembled. Plus, being joined onstage by her daughter and son, Jackson Smith, and longtime bandmember Tony Shanahan, imbued many of the songs with an added poignancy. Her kids have played with her on stage before, but there was something eerie in hearing the story behind 1988’s “The Jackson Song,” a lullaby for the child then in her belly. Smith talked about how Mapplethorpe was sick with AIDS then, and how he photographed her portrait for the album cover of Dream of Life. With so many ghost connections, it’s no wonder Patti Smith feels like a haunted woman ready to conjure spirits and dispel evil.
After that tender image, we were prepped for “Because the Night,” the 1978 hit that caused Mapplethorpe — who hoped they’d both be rich and legendary artists — to “whine,” according to Smith: “You got famous before me!” It’s also a fitting cosmic coincidence that Bruce Springsteen, her Jersey pal and song co-writer, is doing a larger, more expansive version of his career-spanning storytelling uptown on Broadway. Perhaps this is the perfect final act for our rock & roll icons: staying put and sharing more of their inner secrets and inspirations rather than arduously touring around the world, putting their bodies through more agony. Or at least it feels like a proper way to add to the myth in a highly curated 90-plus minutes.
Near the end of the performance, Smith sang the opening lines, “There’s nothing to stop this being the best day ever,” and it seemed like we’d been treated to a Smith deep cut. After finishing the song, she revealed it was in fact U2’s “Love Is All We Have Left” (from their recent Songs of Experience album). “As soon as I heard it, I stole it,” she said, laughing and explaining, “It’s a song about love!” Then she segued into “Pissing in a River,” from her 1976 album, Radio Ethiopia. She’s performed it countless times, yet it continues to feel like a raw ache — chanting “Come come come come back come back/Come back come back come back!” — as she waves her arms like Prospero, taming time and the elements.
Rather than leave us adrift, however, Smith closed with her song of empowerment, “People Have the Power.” It’s the way she typically ends her concerts, and she explained Fred wanted to create an anthem. And she seems proud to have done it, getting the crowd on their feet, clapping their hands and singing along, urging all of us to take control, dream and “redeem the work of fools.”
2. “Dancing Barefoot”
3. “Peaceable Kingdom”
5. “The Jackson Song”
6. “Because the Night”
7. “Love Is All We Have Left” (U2 Cover)
8. “Pissing in a River”
9. “Power to the People”
Patti Smith: Words and Music will be available on Audible Nov. 2.