Last Wednesday, for the first time in my life, I was fortunate enough to be in the presence of the original queen of punk rock, the one and only legendary, incredible, poetic, and awe-inspiring Patti f*cking Smith.
I’m trying (and failing) to maintain some chill while I write about this. When I got home from the show, I was recklessly shoveling Ben & Jerry’s down my throat as an attempt to wrap my fangirling brain around the experience, and so I thought that maybe I should take some time, cool down, and allow the post-Patti fever to break in hopes that my word vomiting would be considerably more controlled whilst writing this review. Needless to say, days after the fact, I’m still in limbo — AKA, I’m on the couch in my underwear, eating an avocado as if it’s a peeled apple, and listening to my collection of Patti Smith vinyl as I write this.
The event was called “A Night of Words and Music with Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, and Tony Shanahan,” and it kicked off what is to be the three-week long Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. The festival, which is one of the oldest and totally free summer fests in the country (yes, I saw Patti Smith for absolutely FREE), boasts a loaded lineup that focuses heavily on influential women artists belonging to various mediums such as music, dance, and spoken word. So, it only made sense that Patti Smith was selected to start it all off with a thunderous bang.
The show took place outside in Damrosch Park, and began just as the sun was descending in the sky. The weather was perfect; it was a breezy evening in the low 80s/high 70s after the sun had set. Fans could not have asked for better conditions to see the goddess of rock ‘n’ roll.
The opening act was by a group called Mariachi Flor de Toloache — a four-piece, entirely female mariachi band. Founded in 2008, it’s the first and only established female mariachi band. They were exceedingly talented and entertaining, playing a set packed full of their own original pieces, as well as a combination of covers that included classics by Nirvana and Led Zeppelin, proving themselves to be more-than-deserving of their Latin Grammy nomination.
After they finished their set, the stage was prepped for Patti. Taking full advantage of my press pass, I approached the stage and, despite my lack of professional camera, stormed the photography pit in order to be as close to the action as possible. Nearly 10 minutes passed, and finally she emerged; the divine being herself, clad in her classic menswear-inspired look consisting of a white, collared button-down beneath an open black vest, dark jeans, and a pair of worn work boots. I was within 10 feet of her, this woman who has inspired me and so many of my favorite female artists for years. She flashed a full-faced, genuine smile, waved, welcomed us all and thanked us for coming, and without further ado, she began to read excerpts of prose from her beloved memoir, Just Kids. Her voice was strong, unwavering, dripping with the same passion she had so clearly been affected by when she put these thoughts to paper for the first time. Her prose flowed seamlessly into her song “Wing” from her 1996 album, Gone Again, and led back into one more excerpt from Just Kids.
From there, the show picked up major momentum. The sun had disappeared and was replaced by a colorful and ever-changing stage display. She performed an urgent reading of the footnote to Allen Ginsberg’s illustrious poem Howl and, ever-so-casually, swung into one of my favorite P.S. songs ever, “Dancing Barefoot” from her album Wave (1979). Now, at the age of 69, she still possesses the most robust, authoritative voice I’ve ever witnessed firsthand (and that’s saying a lot, because I’ve seen Sleater-Kinney and Kathleen Hanna live). She growled while managing to caress, danced spiritedly while maintaining an air of seriousness and intimidation. She demanded full-throttled attention. Even I, an admittedly phone-addicted millennial, had no interest in my iPhone. I took three photos, and that was the extent of it. I couldn’t bear to look at her through the divide of a screen; I had to be present, experience it fully and without distraction.
There was not a dull moment in the show. Not a single second. I’m not even sure I blinked — I was too afraid I would miss something. Even between songs, Patti managed to entertain with blunt and, at times, verging on harsh dialogue, though one couldn’t help but laugh at her unabashed edginess; after all, she’s one of the few people on this earth that can pull it off and preserve authenticity. For example, a crowd member threw something, a gift of some sort, onto the stage, and her knee-jerk reaction was to kick it off, right back into the face of the audience, and scold them for throwing things at her “fucking stage,” because “this isn’t the Republican National Convention.” There was also the moment when some random dude took it upon himself to sneak under the barrier and into the photography pit (which had been emptied after the second song), and Patti brazenly called him out. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” She said, only moments after beginning another song, which she halted entirely. “Get out of here. Get out!” And she shooed him out, proceeding to address the audience and say, “It’s nothing personal against him…That’s just a distraction from all of you,” and she opened her hands, motioning towards us, the basic peasants below her. Everyone erupted in applause, she regrouped the band, and re-started the song as if nothing had happened. I don’t know for sure, but I may or may not have been crying a little during this. I was just in utter disbelief, like, how could someone possibly be so extraordinarily badass? She defines the word. She created the word.
The show came to a close far too soon. Though, the truth of the matter is, she could have played a dozen sets and I still would not have been ready for it to end. I would have stood there in her presence until my knees buckled and I croaked. She could have recited the alphabet for ten consecutive hours and I would have been there weeping joyously. She has a life though, and better things to do with her time. So instead, she rounded out the impressive set with her song “People Have the Power” from Dream of Life (1988), and, doused in technicolor light, she preached about politics and activism, demanding that the media “get off their asses,” urging us all to love one another, promising us that we have the power to make change, fueling us all with her contagious and fiery passion. Then, in classic punk goddess fashion, she shredded the strings of her guitar before closing with an astonishingly earth-shattering performance of her rendition of The Who’s “My Generation” from her debut and perhaps most cherished album, Horses (1975).
She is ethereal. She is untouchable. She’s Patti f*cking Smith, and no matter how cliche it may sound, seeing her live changed my life.
For further information and dates of rad events like this one, check out the website, Lincoln Center Out of Doors.
Header image via Lincoln Center Out of Doors/Férial, second photo is my own
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