Clip: Enjoying the Moment, Patti Smith Celebrates Time's Passage
Enjoying the Moment, Patti Smith Celebrates Time's Passage
By KELEFA SANNEH
Published: January 3, 2004
Patti Smith probably wasn't the only performer in New York who welcomed
2004 by saying, "We salute the departed year, we salute our departed
friends." But on New Year's Eve at the Bowery Ballroom she also found time
for more unusual wishes and pleas and dreams.
About halfway through her set she said, "Happy New Year to John Walker
Lindh, who is hopefully doing great studies and great meditations in
government prison." Coming from another performer this message might have
sounded tendentious or even self-serving, but Ms. Smith made it seem
nothing more or less than an act of extraordinary kindness.
All night long the coming of the new year served as both a running joke
("So, uh, gee, I forgot all about our mission tonight," she said, with 10
minutes left in 2003) and as cause for something both wilder and heavier
than hope. Ms. Smith turned 57 the day before, and although she didn't
mention her birthday, she found appropriately complicated ways to
commemorate both occasions. This was a party to celebrate the passing of
The concert began with one of Ms. Smith's most ecstatic songs, "25th
Floor." Loud, sturdy chords kept pace while she intoned her shivery verses:
Desire to dance
Too startled to try
Wrap my legs round you
Starting to fly.
And early on, she brought out Steve Earle, who sang a loose, exuberant
version of his "Transcendental Blues."
Ms. Smith released her first album, "Horses," in 1975, and part of the
thrill of seeing her now is the thrill of seeing someone who has learned to
enjoy her own performances fully.
Onstage she seems to do only and exactly what she wants to do. Whether
reciting favorite lines by Rimbaud or leading the crowd in a protest song,
she found joy in every moment, inevitably dissolving into a huge grin when
another dense, tangled song was finished.
Her next album is due in March, and some of the new songs she played were
unabashedly allusive: there was a serpentine ode to Blake and an oddly
straightforward tribute to Gandhi. But the best moments were often the
cagiest. For "Beneath the Southern Cross," from her 1996 album, "Gone
Again," she picked up an acoustic guitar to strum a pair of chords, over
and over, while she sang a vivid, splintered poem:
Oh to cry
Not any cry
So mournful that
And the steadfast
When 2004 finally came, Ms. Smith revived the ecstatic spirit she had
conjured up at the beginning of the concert. She announced that "2004 is
the year of ecstatic strife," and soon the countdown began. She brought her
son, Jackson, onstage. (His garage band, Back in Spades, was the opening
act.) And while she clutched a lyric sheet, they sang the Rolling Stones'
"Salt of the Earth."
The rest of the concert was a typically engrossing, uncompromising mishmash
of greatest hits, political protest and disarming generosity. She dedicated
Bob Dylan's "I am a Lonesome Hobo" to the crew, and she urged audience
members to fight to change the world. But she also offered more immediate
advice for everyone celebrating the new year: "Drink plenty of water."