Review by Roy Trakin.
Patti Smith Group @ Roxy Theatre, Los Angeles
Can’t believe it’s been 40 years since I arrived in Manhattan from a sojourn in upstate New York at Colgate, returning to Manhattan, where one of my first stops was the old Gotham Book Mart on 47th Street, where I celebrated my homecoming by buying a 45 single of Patti Smith’s “Piss Factory” on Mer Records.
I’d read this skinny-ass Keith Richards lookalike poetess/priestess of rock’s reviews of Todd’s A Wizard, A True Star in Creem magazine. I was intrigued that a critic/writer could metamorphose into that which she wrote about, with a front-row seat to see it happen in those glorious late-‘70s on the Lower East Side, where it appeared, for at least a fortnight, that we could change the world.
Of course, Patti was full of shit, too – her message of peace and love belied by her own ambitious grasp of cultural power back when that meant something – but she never stood down from preaching her ideals in words and song, and that fervor remains intact, even if the hair has long since turned grey and the anarchic streak which once caused her to literally break her neck falling from the stage has been harnessed into the benign exhortations of a grandmother.
The longer you stick around, the better chance your message gets heard by successive generations, and this rare, intimate appearance at the Roxy – which she first played 40 years ago for a show broadcast on FM radio (remember that?) – was greeted by a full house of glitterati, from Morrissey seated behind a bodyguard, sipping on champagne, to Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, Tim Robbins, Pharrell, Rodney Bingenheimer, Rosanna Arquette, and — perched like a pampered pasha with his fiancé, model Liberty Ross, in the club’s best VIP seat – newly minted Apple billionaire Jimmy Iovine.
Slightly the worse for wear after a regimen of 11 live shows in 15 nights – including two sold-out performances at the snazzy, new Theatre at Ace Hotel – Patti complained of some sinus problems, but launched the often thrilling, two-hour-long set with “Ask the Angels” and went pretty much non-stop from there, except for the always-interesting between-song banter. That ranged from “thanking her mother for having her” in a mock-Oscar speech after accepting a bouquet of roses from a fan to dedicating songs to Dr. Who’s David Tennant (“Distant Fingers”), Amy Winehouse “This Is the Girl”), Groundhog’s Day star Bill Murray, Iovine (“Because the Night” and her new grandson Frederick (a cover of Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy”).
There was also a brief a cappella take of Annie’s “Tomorrow” and a straight-on recitation of Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Eye-Mote,” while longtime bandmates Lenny Kaye and bassist Tony Shanahan traded leads in a tribute to Sunset Strip’s own Love, with punky, back-to-back covers of “My Little Red Book” and “7 and 7 Is.”
Highlights included an epic “Beneath the Southern Cross,” which she described as “not a song about death, but life,” a gauzy paean highlighted by Jack Petruzzelli’s feverish, droning guitar solo and a reggaefied “Ain’t It Strange,” with a searing Kaye solo and Patti’s biblical rant about David vs. Saul for the hand of Queen Sheba.
“I move in another dimension,” she wails, and indeed she does. “Pissing in a River” leads to “Gandhi,” a song that goes back to 2004’s Trampin’ and proves a worthy addition to the Smith canon. “It’s not a name, it’s an idea,” she chants before affirming her anti-political populism: “We will not be slaves to corporations/We will not be slaves to the government/We will not be slaves to the military” to a cheering Tim Robbins, among many other hoots and hollers.
By the time she gets to the encore, she admonishes critics who refer to her loose-fitting jacket as a “blazer,” wishes happy birthday to William Burroughs, then brings the house down with a rousing “People Have the Power” (“Don’t forget to use your voice”), then a cathartic one-two finale of “Land” (interpolating the “there was nothing happening at all” line from Lou Reed’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll”) followed by a glorious, all-in “G-L-O-R-I-A… Gloria.”
On the day I bought that long-ago vinyl single, who knew it would land me in L.A. four decades later — still marveling at this punk priestess, exorcising demons and celebrating the spirit and the flesh — making a living (however meager) writing about rock ‘n’ roll? Who woulda thunk it?