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Patti Smith Helps Us Make Sense of It All

Review: Patti Smith at Disney Hall, March 6, 2020

[American Songwriter]

By Paul Zollo

So great was the love for Patti on this night at the Disney Hall in downtown L.A. that as soon as she walked onstage, all alone without her band, the audience erupted into a thunderous standing ovation. It was a unique dynamic, less that of a crowd wanting entertainment than the great love and gratitude of those stranded in uncertain times, desperate for this truth-teller to come back and help us make sense of it all, as she has through the decades. 

The hall is designed not only for beautiful sonics, but also for its large yet intimate space, which wraps the audience around the stage on all sides. As Patti walked out and took in the unexpected outpouring of love for her on all sides, with everyone on their feet, she slowly looked around like a little girl in the middle of a circus, seeming a little stunned at first. Then she stepped to the microphone, smiled a tender smile, and said, “Well, okay. Good night!”

Laughter and love. So began a celebration of real-time rock & roll, and a genuine call to power. She began the show as she did her career, with words only. No music yet. There’s a message for you needing to be delivered.

Starting with slow intensity which grew more passionate and pointed, she began to intone these words:

I was dreaming in my dreaming

Of an aspect bright and fair
And my sleeping it was broken
But my dream it lingered near

In the form of shining valleysWhere the pure air recognizedAnd my senses newly openedI awakened to the cry:

That the people have the power

To redeem the work of fools

Upon the meek the graces shower

It’ s decreed the people rule

The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power
The people have the power

She delivered the entire song, chanting its rhythms, and pointing her finger like a preacher as she looked straight into the eyes of the crowd: People have the power.

From there on she rocked with her band, and brought the exuberant spirit of her great range of songs, from outrage to pure celebration. She’s never written a happier song than “Dancing Barefoot,” the ideal song of necessary abandon, which she sang early in the show, erasing any doubters who wondered if Patti still had it.

She does. And she brought her power to one of L.A.’s most beautiful buildings, the downtown Disney Hall, invited by Herbie Hancock as part of his Power to the People festival. It’s a celebration of the power of artists to affect social change. That Patti was the first artist he invited makes sense, as she’s used her music and words since the start not to divide, but to unify, and to amplify people’s recognition of their own power. It’s all about imagining, as John Lennon famously wrote, of a better world. 

It’s a message that, like much of the songs she sang after that, resounded even more powerfully in the context of America today. Presently in the opening act of a potential pandemic with leadership unprepared yet making false promises, and an upcoming election that might already be fixed, it’s easy to understand why Americans might feel powerless. Here in California we’re already in the midst of a state of emergency in which all citizens are encouraged to avoid big public events, such as concerts. People were taking a risk simply attending the show. Yet this evidently dissuaded anyone from attending, as it was sold out to capacity. 

But the perpetual anxiety was eased immediately with grace and joy by Patti, who brought us together with her spirit of loving inclusion, awareness and warm humor. That love was communal and familial both; her son Jackson Smith played guitar in the band, sweetly smiling at his mom throughout the show. Later her daughter Jesse Paris-Smith also joined the band on piano. Patti spoke with love and humor about their father, as she does with such love and palpable sorrow in her memoirs, the late Jack “Sonic” Smith.

She easily stepped back and forth between Patti the rocker we’ve known and loved for decades, and the Patti she’s become: a loving wife and mom, and an award-winning author of many books, starting with Just Kids, her memoir about her friend Robert Mapplethorpe. Her most recent memoir is M Street, which brings home the truth that neither Fred nor their children are ever far from her heart. At one point, after missing the opening of a song, she started it over, and with a soft smile, said, “The best thing to do is to get in a lot of trouble in front of your children.”

Now in her seventies and with her long hair snow white, one could assume she doesn’t rock with the unchained fervor we’ve come to know and love. But from the start of the show, there was no doubt the power of Patti – vocal, emotional, spiritual and more – is as strong as ever. Though her onstage attitude is less defiant and more open-hearted, more parental now than punk, the power and passion of her expression was even more pointed, both within the songs and between them. Though it was a celebration, she didn’t let go of the mission for long, reminding us throughout, gently but with insistence, that the power was in our hands to combat those forces opposing the people’s progress. “The ice is melting!” she said more than once.

But rock & roll – and the power of song itself – ruled the night. Beyond the words, the fear, the chaos, was the undeniable rush of hearing a great song in real-time from a beloved artist. Soon as the band started the famous riff on “Because The Night,” which she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen, and was her first hit back in 1978, all was right with the world again. The sound was crisp and powerful all night in this acoustic marvel of a hall, and Patti happily danced with open arms, calling the crowd on more than one occasion to “get up!”

Wonderful to see the great Lenny Kaye on electric guitar standing next to her as he has for decades. His hair is also a long shock of white, but he maintains the calm, joyous countenance he’s always had as he burns on guitar.

At one point, after missing her entrance into the song, she smiled and asked Lenny to do his solo again. Laughing, she said, ““We haven’t done this song in forty years, I can’t f–k this up, it’s my favorite part!” With a big grin, Lenny and the band returned to the solo.

And as soon as she started singing, dancing always at the microphone, so powerful and passionate were her vocals that it seemed no time had passed since she first emerged. A few times though she faltered slightly, missing an entrance or two into a song. But being Patti – which is always about authenticity over show – rather than slickly conceal any imperfections, she owned these with sweet humor. After one especially intense song, she confessed that her allergy medicine was causing her to hyper-ventilate. But as soon as she locked into the groove, she was pure Patti again and with power unchained. 

She also sweetly mocked how steadfastly she stays connected to the old world which is slipping away so fast, but to which she clings in the form of an small, ancient TV built long before the digital age, and like her, can’t seem to adjust. Summing up the ongoing dissonance of these modern times, she said, “So I can’t even watch TV anymore,” She then added it was Fred with whom she most loved watching TV. “But we did more than just watch TV,” she added. “And here’s one of the best things we did together,” nodding towards her son Jackson with a loving smile, which he returned all night long,

That loving generosity of spirit emanated all night long, both in her songs and words. She started by thanking Herbie Hancock for creating this series and inviting her to this beautiful venue, designed as a work of art as well as concert hall by Frank Gehry as the home for the L.A., Philharmonic. 

Then came songs for a delightfully diverse group of people, all reflecting her ongoing love of art and curiosity about all human endeavors. There were songs for those she knew and loved well, such as Allen Ginsberg, who was both a mentor and a friend. He was  honored in her song “Don’t Say Nothing,” about his final days in New York, as the legendary poet laid dying, while friends and admirers came to say farewell. A garbage strike and worse went on in the streets outside his window, the perfect representation of the artist’s life, finding hope and poetry in the darkness and chaos. It’s a song about self-regret, of not letting yourself off the hook for the times you needed to speak out, and didn’t.

Also came songs for Kurt Cobain, the sweetly elegiac “About A Boy”; also “Maria” for  the actress Maria Schneider, who died recently and was a close friend, and even Johnny Depp. She spoke about Depp’s origins on the planet, and then added, in case there were any doubters that she knew of what she spoke, “ALl of which I know is true, because I heard it from his mother.” Pausing for a second, she laughed and said, “So there!”

Patti and Lenny Kaye.

That love was extended to all songwriters who have helped us make this long journey with the power of song. One of the night’s most poignant moments came when she sang Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush,” merging her love of Neil and the spirit of that song, which resounds so pointedly today more than ever though it was placed in the season of her emergence: “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s…”

She concluded with her great rocking version of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” which she made her own years back. After a brief pause, she returned to reprise the theme song of the show, “People Have The Power,” the words of which served as her opening. But this time she sang it with the full band, and the vocal power of YOLA, the Youth Orchestra of L.A., who brought their fervent harmonies to the proceedings.

The audience stood cheering and singing along for that one, and for a long time after she left the stage in the arms of Lenny Kaye and her children. The sense that Patti still had it – the power – and brought it with real-time rock & roll passion – was palpable. Unlike the usual rush to leave after a show, most lingered in place, not wanting it to end. And that was the message that remained: It is not over. People still have the power, and we still have great songwriters like Patti to remind us of that power.

“Use your voice.” It was the last thing she said, and she was gone. We got the message: don’t give up. Don’t let go. We are not defeated. It’s the people who have the power.

I believe everything we dream
Can come to pass through our union
We can turn the world around
We can turn the earth’ s revolution

We have the power

People have the power