I wasn't expecting to see a Patti Smith concert on Tuesday night. But sure enough, I did. It was intimate, acoustic, and impassioned
Well, maybe "concert" gives the wrong idea. Patti Smith can easily perform an hour and half to two hours of songs, covers, and improvised poetic rants at one of her scheduled concerts. But this was just an impromptu few songs. It happened at the Prince Music Theatre as part of the closing-night festivities of the Philadelphia Film Fest. After a screening of the documentary film she did with Steven Sebring, "Patti Smith: Dream of Life" she came out and did a Q&A. And after the Q&A she said "well I might as well play a few songs."
Guitars and her guitarist-son, Jackson, were brought out. For me this was a bonus on top of a bonus on top of a bonus. I slept on getting tickets for the "Dream of Life" screening and it got sold out. But last week, a friend said she had an extra ticket and invited me to come along. Then at the theater, just before the film started, the emcee announced that Patti would be coming out after the screening for a Q&A. Apparently her Q&A appearance had already been announced, but since I wasn't following the Fest closely and it wasn't announced on Patti's website, I was ignorant. Once it was announced that Patti was in the building, I knew a performance of songs or poetry was a possibility but I wasn't really sure it was gonna happen until the guitars were brought out.
As Patti and Jackson came out there was a moment of discussion as they decided what to play. I shouted out for "Beneath the Southern Cross," my favorite of her acoustic songs. But my request went unheeded. Instead she refreshed Jackson on some chords and the they did "Grateful," a song that Patti had previously said was inspired by the smiling grey-bearded face of Jerry Garcia.
The venue and both of the Smiths on stage seemed only semi-prepared for the performance. The house lights were kept on and it didn't seem as if Jackson's guitar was mic'ed for the first song and Patti's guitar seemed slightly out of tune. And by her own admission Patti can't really play guitar despite having attacked one on stage from time to time for the last 30 years. But I enjoyed the ragged nature of it. After appearing larger than life on the big screen for two hours as part of a film that seemed to be aiming to increase the myth of Patti's mystical, goddess nature here she was just a hundred feet from me stumbling through a song with the child she had in the 1980s with Fred Smith (yes, Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5)
After the first song, I was hoping Patti would decide to honor my request for "Southern Cross," but then someone shouted out for "Because the Night." I groaned. It's undeniably a great song, but I think it's very over-played. Patti has dozens of great songs, but still "Because the Night" is the only song of hers that ever gets played on classic rock radio. It's her only hit single and it's the only song that the average non-fan knows (either through the original or the successful 10,000 Maniacs cover.) For such a rare, intimate performance , I was hoping for a rarely-played gem.
But "Because the Night" IS a great song, so I wasn't going to groan too much. And after checking with Jackson that he could actually play the song and acknowledging that the song was hard to pull off without drums, Patti launched into a near-definitive version of the song. Her voice, perhaps a bit tentative for the opening song, soared!
And the crowd took up the invitation to join her on the chorus. I felt a great feeling of community. The hardcore fans, the casual fans and the unknowing curious were united. Because everybody knows "....the night belongs to lovers, because the night belongs to lust." For a moment I shed my elitest super-fan attitude and was freshly swept up into the beauty of the song.
Patti then acknowledged the upcoming Pennsylvania primary and gave subtle support for the divisive Ralph Nader. Fittingly, she then launched into "People Have the Power" from the Dream of Life album. The song has a anthemic fist-in-the-air quality. It was relevent when she wrote it at the tail-end of Reaganism and it's still relevant at the tail-end of Bushist. The sentiment of the song seems a bit too dreamy and optimistic for my cynical "Darkly" self but every time I hear it live, I get swept up in the song.
The album version, ironically, lacks power. Its late-80s production is too smooth. It dilutes the raw righteous joyous anger of the piece. But on-stage the song really soars. The melody is simple enough to be carried effectively by a single acoustic guitar. The simple repetitive chorus lends itself to singing along. And "People Have the Power" sounds more POWER-ful when the People in their seats sing along.
And that was it. After 3 songs, the mini-concert was over. Patti simply walked off the stage through the crowd and out the door. I left feeling lifted.
Apparently Patti went to use the theater's public restrooms, just one of "the people" acting on universal necessity. Acting on that same urinous necessity, I passed Patti in the hallway. I was hoping she'd just get a few pats on the back with people saying "that was a great performance." But instead she immediately got surrounded by an autograph-hungry crowd wielding sharpies and LPs. She didn't seem enthusiastic. The bathroom hallway was a small space to start with. And with a starstruck mob it quickly turned into pure claustrophobia. Patti humored the crowd for a moment, signing a few things. She told people to back off and give her some space. I could see the anxiety in her eyes. Then she just gave up and with the help of her associates (friends? guards?) she pushed through the crowd and was gone.
It was a slight blemish on an otherwise wonderful event.
You probably noticed I didn't write anything yet about the actual documentary "Patti Smith: Dream of Life." And that's because the actual live performance was far and away the highlight of the evening. Steven Sebring's film was a documentary in the loosest sense. It was non-linear, non-chronological. It was a collage of performance, backstage, home, and travel footage spanning from Patti's mid 90s return to the stage and recording studio and onward to the mid 00s. I actually looked at my watch twice during the film, a sure sign that I found it less than enthralling.
I wanted a film that made Patti seem real. I wanted someting that got me inside Patti's head, and past the myth of her as a witchy mystic. But there was too much footage of her walking in graveyards and dancing in flowing dresses on beaches. It seemed more like an extended music video. It seemed like Patti acting out the narrators of all her songs. In grainy black and white, there was too much "art" and not enough "life."
I love Patti's art. That's why I have her poetry books, all her albums, and have seen her in concert 5 times. But the documentary, fitting to its title gave us just a dream of Patti and not enough of her real life.
There were a few really gratuitous moments that dragged. Towards the end, she and Flea (yes, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) were shown a beach playing trumpet and clarinet respectively. They then went on to exchanging awkward peeing stories.
Perhaps this was supposed to show her a a real, fluid-filled person. But it provided no insight and only a few cheap laughs.
Short of providing insight into her life, I'd hoped the film would at least include a lot of great performance footage. But there was surprisingly little of that. What was included was fragmented and interspersed with other sounds and scenes. The on truly great on-stage piece was a joyous excerpt of her and her band playing the feisty, controversial "Rock and Roll Nigger" during her first tour after 16 years. Everyone on stage was smiling and moshing with one another as they all huddled around the microphones shouting the song's chorus, "OUTSIDE of SOCIETY!"
The film's most sweetly insightful segment was of Patti with her parents in their humble South Jersey abode. Patti's mom said her favorite piece by her daughter was the "Horses/Gloria" medley. Patti's mom served burgers and coffee as she showed her collection of cow trinkets and she and Patti's dad talked about going to see their daughter perform at one of her sound checks at the Troc. Patti's mom (and maybe her dad now too) recently died and the segment was a candid tribute to a family that was earthy and "normal" but loving and highly supportive of their firebrand, arty, iconoclast daughter. Seeing Patti's parents at home made me think of my own normal yet very supportive parents in their own humble abode (also in New Jersey.)
I also enjoyed the inclusion of a few haunting clips of lo-fi home recordings of Patti and Fred "Sonic" Smith working on songs not long before his death.
The most overall moving, powerful part of the documentary was the audio of Patti performing the Declaration of Independence. She read the document, which seems eerily fitting for current times under the tyrannical rule of another George. And this reading morphed into her direct indictment of Bush's crimes against the environment, war crimes, crimes against civil liberties, and crimes against flooded New Orleans. Different points of this indictment got loud cheers from different sections of the crowd.
When I saw Patti perform at UPENN in the Fall of 2003, she performed a segueing "medley" of the Declaration>Indictment of Bush>People Have the Power that got me all riled up, cheering, and singing along with my fist in the air. And hearing it again as part of the film was nearly as powerful.
Here's the one clip of the documentary that I could find on youtube. It's not particular insightful and in that way it's sort of representative of the film.
Also, for anyone looking to recreate the experience of my evening as closely as possible. Here's the nearly complete Q&A session with Steven Sebring and Patti Smith.