No artist has had a bigger lifelong influence on me than Patti Smith. She showed me a new way of being when I was a struggling teenager and in the four decades since has remained an example of how to move through the universe pursuing your artistic dreams and personal values. I’ll never forget the first time we connected in real life: I just about lost it when I hit play on my answering machine and heard her voice. I first interviewed her back in 1995, when she was just beginning to perform again after taking a long pause to raise her kids, and then mourn her husband; that became my one and only Village Voice cover story.
It had been many years since we last spoke, so I shrieked once more when I listened to a voice mail at work and it was Patti. She is the only celebrity I know who responds to interview requests by calling journalists directly, rather than scheduling an interview through flacks. I happened to be in a small Minneapolis town in the midst of a cross country drive when I called her back, and as I left her a message, a train drove by, blowing its whistle. “Nice train soundtrack,” Patti texted me.
We eventually had an hourlong, somewhat discursive talk, the highlights of which made it to my Los Angeles Times story. As in ’95, she’s back from another pause – this one pandemic forced, not lifestyle chosen — and I felt honored to be the person chronicling her return. We talked a lot about the climate, but none of that discussion made the story. “We’re living in the midst of enormous, enormous crisis environmentally, in every way, whether it’s flooding or drought or fires,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for us as a species because the only way it’s going to work is for us to globally respect…. And I feel for our children.”
This week, from Tahoe to New Orleans to the Northeast, Americans are struggling under the devastating effect of Anthropocene folly. Smith, who has had two of her few shows since 2020 cancelled partially or completely because of severe summer storms, seems to be a bit of a rainmaker. As my husband and I drove to Pioneertown to see her Aug. 31 show at Pappy & Harriet’s, the sky darkened and suddenly, there were flash flood warnings in the middle of the desert, during a mega drought. The outdoor show was postponed a half hour; only a little rain fell, but the wind was powerful. Patti took the continued disruption in good humor, accepting mother nature howling in the mikes as unexpected backing vocals.
Still, it was all a little unnerving. As the world knows from her infamous performance at the Nobel Prize ceremony for Bob Dylan, Smith has a habit of losing her place; there were a lot of forgotten words and misstarts at Pappy’s. Also, a lot of laughter between her, her son Jackson on guitar, and Tony Shanahan on piano, bass, guitar, and vocals. The hipster honkytonk is one of my favorite places in the world, so it was amazing to see her there, in such a small venue. Her voice is stronger than ever, so deep and rich. Still, it was a bit of a ramshackle performance. Patti admitted she was wearing her “pandemic pants”: bleach stained, loose, and comfy. The crowd loved her, she loved them back.
Friday at the Ford Theatre in the Hollywood Hills – another one of my favorite venues – they played an almost identical set, but it was a totally different show. Flea joined on bass, giving the band a bottom they needed (though I still missed Patti Smith Group drummer Jay Dee Daugherty). Smith’s messy braids were gone, though a couple times during the night, she started to plait her long salt and pepper locks again. So were the pandemic pants – but she did have to button up her fly after the first song, “Grateful.” It was a perfect California night, the palm trees and hillside behind the band lit up like a fairytale grotto. Patti was still joking and informal; when Flea left the stage at one point, she explained he had to pee. But there were only a couple stumbles. Patti was on fire. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her deliver as note perfect a performance as her rendition of Bob Dylan’s “1000 Miles Behind.” Smith is well celebrated for her shamanistic performance style and poetic lyrics, but she is not as appreciated as she should be for the timbre and power of her voice. She also covered Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun” and dedicated her reggae song “Redondo Beach” to the late Lee Scratch Perry.
By the end of the evening, for a rendition of “Land” that was a bricolage of itself, Smith seemed to be in a trance. Even Jackson looked at her with a mix of awe and concern. Seeing her perform with her offspring beside her and still be so unapologetically herself is another life lesson she has given me. You could see in the eclectic, female-friendly audience how many of us have followed Patti into, as she puts it, the “sea of possibilities.” (Though she told me in the Times interview that she can’t swim; does this mean she has never actually pissed in a river?)
She closed both shows with the song that has become her most celebrated anthem, even more than “Because the Night” (which she also performed): “People Have the Power.” Once the pied piper of misfits, Patti Smith is now, as she likes to call, herself a worker. Happy Labor Day weekend.