The first words of the Patti Smith’s album “Horses” — “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” — form arguably the best and most arresting opening line to a debut album, ever. But that’s not what resonated most from the Patti Smith Group’s complete, dynamic performance of the record at the Wiltern Theatre on Friday night.
It was the last word:
That, the word that concludes “Elegie,” the final song on “Horses,” was the keystone, the touchstone for a concert celebrating the 40th anniversary of the landmark album’s release in December 1975.
Yes, there was a lot of looking back in the show, part of a tour featuring the album, which concludes tonight at the same locale. And there was plenty to look back on. That opening line didn’t just kick off her glorious reworking of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” with a blast, it didn’t just launch a Hall of Fame career, but for many, and many in the audience this night, opened a whole world of art and poetry and emotion and the power not just of rock ’n’ roll (not for nothing is it cited as a spark plug for the punk movement) but of a liberated brand of personal and communal energy.
But as is also the case of her recent memoir “M Train,” it’s just as much about the vantage from which the looking is happening. And what a vantage this is — singular yet shared, defining an era, defining lives, itself defined by equal amounts of embracing love, urges to action, visceral release, artistic grace and, ultimately, sass.
“Take it off!” shouted one lout in the audience, after Smith had remarked, pointedly, about the audience’s having been “well-behaved” thus far.
“Oh right, for you,” Smith responded, steely and sarcastic. “Honey, I’ve got better in the grave than you. Can’t mess with a 69-year-old broad.”
Then without missing a beat she and the band — including guitarist/co-conspirator Lenny Kaye, of course, and founding drummer Jay Dee Daugherty — launched straight into the fever-dream, troubled-teen “Land” suite, the epic climax of “Horses.” But in this excursion, Johnny, the teen-in-question, dreaming of the titular “Horses,” wandered the streets of L.A. to the site of the now-mythical Tropicana Hotel, where so much down-and-out rock ’n’ roll and art and literature happened, then through a door to the sea, and into the Wiltern itself to the very party where her-name-was-G-L-O-R-aye-aye-aye-aye-aye-aye (that song reprised here for the now-not-so-decorous audience) was doing the Pony like Bony Moronie. …
Phew! It was enrapturing, it was exhilarating. It was 1975, it was 2016, she was 29, she was 69. We were…. we were… elated, exhausted, breathless. Those of us who fell headlong into the world of “Horses” when it was new, those who found it at later times through the years, and yes, some kids with their first-generation parents.
And like their creator, the songs have not just held up through the years, but become stronger, taken on new aspects of life. “Gloria” never tires, of course, nor does the light-reggae skip of “Redondo Beach” (suicide body washed up on the shore and all) or the raw, big-dream urgency of “Free Money” (the line about buying a lottery ticket drawing whoops from current hopefuls in the Powerball pool as it approaches a cool billion). All have been part of her regular repertoire since her return 20 years ago following a lengthy hiatus during which she married and had kids.
Two song that might sometimes get overshadowed in the shade of our memories stood out Friday, with dimensions not just unimagined, but impossible when we were all 40 years younger. In the fantastical, stream of consciousness “Birdland,” the loss and leavings that informed it (and much of the album) in the first place now encompasses so much more. As she took on the character of the boy, bereft over the death of his father, with a vision of a ship — a ghost ship, or spaceship — piloted by his father, her very being seemed to change as she embodied his yearning, his pleading to be taken up up up up up up. Her own losses, most notably her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred Sonic Smith, her best friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and her brother, all in crushing succession in the mid-’90s, have infused into this, of course. But so much more as well. (That came into play again, naturally, in “Elegie,” originally written by her and the Blue Oyster Cult’s Alan Lanier in memory of Jimi Hendrix, now appended to feature a litany of departed giants from John Coltrane to the four Ramones and Amy Winehouse.)
“Kimberly,” a sweet nod to her youngest sibling’s fragile, sickly childhood, was the other that took on such new dimension, though in ways harder to pinpoint. It was just something about Smith’s countenance, and about the richness the band brought to it as it built from a little shuffle into a dreamy sock-hop impression, Smith dancing with Kaye, like a shy girl at a sock hop finding blissful confidence in motion.
Almost remarkably, the rest of the show was not the slightest letdown after “Horses,” both the band and Smith buoyed and pumped. The song selection was great — a soaring, stormy “Beneath Southern Cross” (from the 1996 album “Gone Again”) and the late-’70s anthem “Dancing Barefoot” clear highlights. But more than that was the family-and-friends warmth of the set. Literally. Longtime friend Flea came on to take over the bass for a version of Hendrix’s “If 6 was 9,” which Smith introduced as the theme song for the age both she and Kaye turned within the last few weeks — although it took her two botched entrances to get it going.
And joining Smith and band for much of the show was her son, Jackson. Anyone who saw her comeback show at the same place 20 years ago ought to remember the then-teenaged boy coming on stage to lead the band in a spirited “Smoke on the Water,” his proud, giddy mom dashing out from the wings to sing background on the choruses. Now he’s a strapping, tall man, fully integrated into the musical family. Then daughter Jesse completed the scene, taking a spot at the keyboard for the rest of the night.
The show closed with “People Have the Power,” Smith exhorting the fans as always to use that power, and then an encore of the Who’s “My Generation,” a staple of the band’s early years, Flea and band regular Tony Shanahan dueling it out on the John Entwistle bass break.
“I don’t want that fucking shit,” Smith sang, reworking the confrontation of life’s frustrations. “Hope I LIVE because of it!”
At the end she again urged the fans to take power, “with sex, with drugs, with rock ’n’ roll. … We can still do it! We can rise up again.”
Oh, and “through love … love … love, motherfuckers!”
The last word.