Gloria in excelsis Patti Smith (July 7, 2001)

Yeah, I know some of you are probably sick of hearing me talk about music by now, but Nancy did ask what everyone’s been up to (give `em an inch…) – my ears and spirit are still buzzing from Patti Smith, who played my town last night. After more than 20 years of listening to her records, this was the first time I’d ever seen her live (the planets finally aligned), so I don’t have any glorious past memories of Patti concerts to which to compare it; however, I can say it was joyous, life-affirming, inspirational and spectacular, one of the best rock concerts I’ve ever been to; when she opened with “So You Wanna Be A Rock `n’ Roll Star” I realized I was so happy to see her, finally, and the concert gave me a much better idea of what she’s all about these days.

I own only a few of her records and none of her books, but it was refreshing beyond words to see somebody in 2001 who means it, who really believes in all that peace-love-and-understanding stuff (and yeah, what IS so funny ’bout it), who still puts it all on the line. Patti gave the crowd a greatest-hits overview of her life’s work reaching back to her earliest days, bringing a good percentage of the listeners to trance ecstasy with her enthusiastic fervor. (At times she broke the frenzied rock anthem pace by donning a pair of half-glasses and reading from one of her books, one of her poems or one of William Blake’s, aging in an instant into a rude bohemian grandma, then shucking the props and transforming back into the ageless rock-poet avatar in blue jeans.) And taking risks, sure – Patti can’t play the clarinet any better than I can, but that didn’t stop her from gamely pulling out the licorice stick and squawking away with abandon at a couple of points; you knew her mind was in the stars, seeking transcendence.

One critic (in Rolling Stone, I think) recently eulogized Joey Ramone by wondering whether he was the last hippie or the first punk, but I think this is a question even more suitable for Patti, who’s 54 but (as Nancy noted in her remarks about Joey R.) speaks more to and for a crowd younger than herself, namely us and the Xers. She bridges the gap without even trying, by just being herself (to the nth degree) and, though she’s proud of her back catalog, doesn’t rest on her laurels for a second. Facing a birthday myself in a few days (I’ll be blindfolded, cigarette in mouth), I was heartened to see someone more than a decade older who appeared so vital, energized and…yes, sweet. (Though she didn’t take any mess – she interrupted a reading of one of her vintage poems, the one about the factory, to curse out a guy in the front row who was taking close-up pictures of her, took the camera away from him, and sallied on.) Notwithstanding that she’s so one-of-a-kind, I’d hold her up as a role model for the way we LBers should be in the 2010s, especially, uh, the women, but men can learn some things from her too (and hey, maybe Patti and Link Wray can collaborate?).

Seriously, it’s always good to experience the work of people who I think may well know things that I don’t, have been places I haven’t yet been in my inner or outer journeys; and as I get older, such things become ever more important, ever more moving. (Move on to that place beyond irony, push yourself out beyond cynicism and back to that sunny spot where you can smile again, despite all the losses, despite everything – it’s worth it, and Patti knows this more than most.)

During the show’s high point, the trifecta of Frederick, Dancing Barefoot (for which she removed her actual shoes and stood on an actual chair, arm extended in the punk Statue of Liberty pose) and People Have The Power (holding the mike out so the crowd could chant the chorus), then leading into Gloria, she put it all together and made us feel like, well, like we all counted, like we were important to her. Can’t ask for more than that. And I can also say, without irony, that Patti Smith made me proud to be an American last night; there’s not many people I can say that about. I’d be happy to have her represent my country anytime in the international culture olympics.

P.S. – By the way, how do you tell the difference between an old hippie and an old punk? There’s a punch line a-waitin’ to be born…


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