After 16 years of retirement and family life, Patti Smith marked her return to full-length live music performance with this Toronto show.
Ticket Price $20.75.
“Life is an adventure of our own design intercepted by fate and a series of lucky and unlucky accidents.” Patti Smith from the 2008 film Dream of Life.
The ‘90s was such a black and white decade for me. I know as I ponder the specifics that I’m overgeneralizing, but I always remember it as a time wherein I had stretches when it seemed like my luck was truly blessed, everything falling seemingly effortlessly into place. Then there were those other stretches when it seemed as if the skies would not stop crapping all over me.
The variety of circumstances that lead to this schizophrenia of light and darkness resulted in three of the best summers of my life — ’92, ’96, and ’99 — and three of the worst —’ 91, ’95, and ’98.
There were a steaming pile of reasons behind why the summer of ’95 was highly crappadoodles. For starters, while finishing up a Masters in Literature, I realized that following through on the planned Ph.D. with an eye on becoming an English professor would have made my already large student debt near insurmountable. Universities weren’t hiring and tenure was near impossible. I knew many who had gone through the process and were in debt up to their eyeballs, teaching half-courses per semester while taking on low-end jobs to try and make ends meet. The latter was precisely what I was trying to get away from and one of the key reasons I put myself through university in the first place.
Ergo, I decided to embark on a second Masters that would make me more marketable: a degree in Library and Information Science (LIS). I was — and remain — one of the most pro-library people you’ll ever meet, and had friends who had gone through the course or worked in libraries and it had turned out well for them. So I decided to use this course as a springboard to a stable career, specifically staking my future in this newfangled thing that everyone was yapping on about and that I found fascinating. It was called The Internet.
I was desperate to get out of London, Ontario, and had planned on moving to Toronto, where I had more friends and acquaintances than in my own hometown by that time anyway, to take the LIS program at the University of Toronto. But, on a number of key levels, the program in London was actually a better fit and had more long-term benefits. Not at all what I wanted to hear.
The course began in May of 1995.
I despised it instantly, more than words can possibly express.
I found most of it dreadfully dull and there was a decidedly anti-intellectual bias to the program and its culture which I found incomprehensible for university graduate work. Meanwhile, most of my classmates embodied the full deck of negative stereotypes one can attach to librarians (most of whom had no interest in that “Internet” thingy, surmising that it was surely a soon-to-be-gone flash-in-the-pan, or as one friend of mine who was a librarian put it: “The Internet is all very Johnny-come-lately and will be gone in a year”) and none of the good ones. These people weren’t anything like the cool, collecting culture mavens who I knew that worked in libraries and were infojunkies.
I felt alienated by LIS and its participants while concurrently mourning the loss of my dream of becoming a professor while trying to figure out how long it was going to take to pay off this massive debt I‘d accumulated from eight years of undergrad and grad work.
But it wasn’t just the course — I felt alienated in general. I was 32, and owing to a series of flukes and circumstances, found myself more or less alone and lonely in my loathed hometown of Londonia. I was thankful to have my family around, but most of my closest friends from my 20s who I was still chummy with — the meat and potatoes of daily living and well-being — had left town for a variety of unrelated reasons within a fairly short window of time. In two years I went from a life that was 25/7-packed, both socially and workwise to the point that I had a breakdown in early ’92, to a situation of practically no one being around concurrent with the most amount of free time I’d had in a decade.
Many of those great friends from my 20s were still a phone call away, and their support and lent ears were invaluable to me. But you can’t take a telephone out to dinner or for drinks, a concert or a movie, nor have a game of Scrabble with it. I had hoped that LIS would introduce me to new people and stimulating academic work, just like I had been used to in my heretofore university years — but that simply didn’t happen.
In the midst of all this, I started developing a series of mystery ailments and symptoms — crippling fatigue, cold chills and sweats, and feelings of disorientation. I thought for sure I was dying or had AIDS (despite being the most safe sex conscious person I knew) or cancer but was even more freaked out about going to the doctor at this time, certain that he was going to tell me I had days to live. And I had yards of time to constantly ponder and re-ponder every massively negative health scenario. Avoidance was a deeply stupid approach, I know, but that’s who and how I was at that time.
“People Have the Power” 45, 1988. I should have been paying attention. (Scans by VA)
Then there was my dead-end dating life. I had figured myself out in my later twenties and had been out for a few years. On the plus side, I was getting lots of fun sex when going out to the bars but wasn’t connecting with new people socially while starting to crave a more permanent relationship and bond. And when it comes to a relationship, my heart has to be into it. I don’t do the “relationship for now” thing. If I’m not truly feeling it, I can’t go forward, so even though I was looking for “the one,” it was me saying “nah” as much or more often as anyone else.
Until I was introduced to this one guy who I had an instant rapport with and, even more importantly, we had lots in common in terms of our interest in music, film and art — a rarity within the gay community for me. While I was struggling with wondering why I was feeling so out of it all the time, I didn’t let on about any of this to him, or at least tried to.
This relationship had begun in the late winter of ’95 and was the one and only thing keeping me happy and sane (that and my beloved cat, the mighty and much-missed Stella Minouche, who was always great company). Then, suddenly, without any warning or any sign that anything was up (and in tandem with the disaster that was LIS), he pulled the plug. “Sorry. See ya.” To this day, he’s really the only person I ever had any substantial dating time or relationship with, of either gender, that I feel genuinely negative about.
I was devastated. This was the last straw. I was unhappy in every aspect of my life, felt estranged, was barely existing financially, and now this. He dumped me just as I was going to be house-sitting for my folks while they vacationed for a bit. I remember that first week consisting of breakfasts featuring a bowl of corn flakes, a double Jack Daniels, and a spliff. Not necessarily in the order.
The JD was, of course, neat. You didn’t think I’d start the day with an iced drink now, do you?
I ended up skipping chunks of my dreaded LIS course during this period, spending days alone at my folks’ suburban home while they were away, getting out of my head trying to blur everything while laying supine on my parents’ garden swing on hot, humid June afternoons with the ghetto blaster blasting.
They say that misery loves company, and my friend M. Zeppelin was going through a similarly brutal time in her life. She was two hours away in Toronto and we spent a lot of time commiserating about the respective “delights” going down in our lives, each trying to verbally elbow our way towards each phone call’s “Most Miserable” Award.
However, there does remain one positive memory from that time in the form of six exceptional live shows that the two of us attended in Toronto or area between May and October. As gawd awful as things were in general, the crap would momentarily dissipate just before, during, and after these terrific gigs, offering a short reprieve of joy and adrenaline.
Things started with Mike Watt (with his backing band of Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl, and Pat Smear) along with opening acts the just-formed Foo Fighters and Vedder’s psychedelic side project, Hovercraft (I enjoyed a whole lot more than I’ve ever liked Pearl Jam); PJ Harvey with Tricky; the final of four Lollapaloozas we attended, this time getting to see Pavement, Sonic Youth, Hole, and Cypress Hill but unfortunately missing Beck and Elastica; Björk with Aphex Twin; and finally, Sonic Youth again in the fall (all of these shows will get full recaps down the road as my series catches up).
In the middle of this string of concerts was the most special of all, on July 5th: the live return of Patti Smith.
Patti had retired from performing in 1979 to marry Fred “Sonic” Smith, formerly of The MC5, and raise two children just outside Detroit. She had released her Dream of Life album in 1988, recited at a few poetry readings, and played a few local, low-key one-off shows in the Detroit area. Otherwise, she had completely withdrawn from performing and anything even close to the idea of touring was way off the menu.
In 1994, both Fred Smith and Patti’s brother, Todd, died of heart attacks. These were profound losses for Patti, occurring just a few years after losing her close friends and artistic collaborators Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Sohl.
Desolate, she was encouraged by friends Allen Ginsberg and Michael Stipe to re-start her career.
MZ and I had been among that generation to be profoundly affected by Patti and her appearance in the mid-70s. I can assure those of you who weren’t around that there was simply no one else even remotely like her at the time. A singular presence.
Following that stunning run of albums between ’75 and ’79 — Horses, Radio Ethiopia, Easter, and Wave — she retired after playing her final live gig to 80,000 people in Florence, Italy, on September 10, 1979. Aside from the aforementioned Dream of Life, nothing substantial had been forthcoming since.
We had read about Fred’s and Todd’s deaths and wondered if she may now return to performing. So MZ and I were wildly excited when it was announced that she would be starting Phase 2 of her career with a Toronto gig, and gobsmacked when I was able to get through and secure tickets to the 1,000-ish capacity venue. Tickets sold out quickly and a second, later-evening show was added. That too sold out instantly.
It made sense for Patti to choose Toronto as her re-launch as it was not far from Detroit where she was then still living, and that it had been one of the first places she played and developed a fan base outside of New York City. It was also appropriate that the return gigs took place at the Phoenix — my favourite live club venue in the city — as she strode out onto the stage like a Phoenix rising from the ashes before our collective eyes.
I was wondering what must have been going through her mind prior to the gig. She must have been pondering how she’d be received after all these years. Well, if the quick sell-out of both shows told a pretty positive story, the several-minutes-long ovation that greeted her from a wildly enthusiastic crowd confirmed it.
Standing alone on a largely unadorned stage, Patti beamed with a huge grin, trying to get a word in to an audience that would not stop the deeply felt huzzahs. MZ and I simply couldn’t believe our luck at having the honour to witness this, and the deep buzz in the room told us that it everyone else was on the same grateful page. That triumphant entrance was simply the first of many emotional moments from that night.
The Phoenix, Toronto, June 2012 (Photo by VA)
She began by giving five recitations, starting with what is probably her most famous poem and the one that formed the basis of her first independent single in 1974: “Piss Factory.” The crowd went wild, anticipating certain lines and passages with whoops and hollers. Midway through, she stopped to admonish a snap-happy guy at the front of the stage with “have you taken enough pictures yet?!”
Among the other poems was one called “Brown Dog,” about Bob Dylan’s pet pooch. She related how Bob had stopped her in Greenwich Village one night back in the ‘70s, asking her (said in her best Dylan imitation) “Patti, what does that poem mean? The one you wrote about my dog.”
Eventually Lenny Kaye appeared onstage to a euphoric reception, kickstarting a three-song acoustic set that rounded out the first segment of the show. Easter’s “Ghost Dance” was the first of many songs performed that night that referenced death — and life. Or more precisely, how the two played off each other like synergistic sides of a spinning coin.
She waved sweetly and sent out a hello to her then 8-year-old daughter Jesse who watched from an elevated area in the club. She also acknowledged her then 13-year-old son Jackson when she played “The Jackson Song,” the lullaby that closes Dream of Life. She and Fred had written the song for him when he was a baby and Patti acknowledged his now teenage horror and embarrassment at his mother onstage singing it.
In between she covered Nina Simone’s “Don’t Smoke In Bed,” and at the conclusion of the three songs, announced that she would be taking a break “to do some mothering.” In the interim, her friends, Carolyn Striho and the Detroit Energy Asylum, would play a set before she returned for another round with a full band.
Carolyn Striho was one of the persons who was instrumental in getting Patti back into performing, being a local Detroit musician who had played with Fred. The contrast, however, between she and Patti’s style was jarring to put it mildly. Technically adept but artless and personality-free, Striho and her band came off like an over-caffeinated Melissa Etheridge copy or any take-your-pick anonymous suburban bar band entity trundling out roadhouse blooze-rawk.
About halfway through the first number, MZ and I started looking at each other with utter mortification. Oh dear. Oh dear me. Oh …. my.
I think our response and way of thinking was commonplace within the assembled crowd: “These are Patti’s friends … they have been good to Patti … and they are part of the reason why Patti is here performing for us tonight … so let’s be respectful and thankful and clap politely while counting the minutes (seconds?) until Patti’s return.”
Striho and her band played for about 40 tortuous minutes, our dwindling patience finally rewarded with Patti’s return with a band that also featured former Patti Smith Group alumni Jay Dee Daugherty on drums.
The opening set had been sublime but it was this second set that was revelatory. She began by throwing a surprise into the mix via a brilliant, half-tempo cover of Dylan’s “The Wicked Messenger” from John Wesley Harding. This second half indeed featured many of the biggies the crowd had been waiting for as she kicked off her boots to the opening chords of “Dancing Barefoot”; announced “Because the Night” (“written by Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith—in that order”) to squeals and shrieks; delivered an impassioned version of her affirmative ode to the best in human potential, “People Have the Power” (“written by Fred Smith and Patti Smith—in that order”); and a spine-quivering reading of her re-imaging of Them’s “Gloria,” the song that for many there that night was the first thing they had ever heard from Patti upon picking up Horses in late 1975.
Gloria,” UK 12″, 1975
She played Dream of Life‘s “Up There Down There” and later “Paths That Cross” as part of the encore, while Kaye got a startime number of his own.
But it was the two new numbers that took everything to an out-of-body place. The first was called “About A Boy.” Smith explained that she had written it about a “boy” she had admired from afar, Kurt Cobain. While angry about Cobain’s suicide, as opposed to the pure sadness she felt for the loss of the others in her personal life, she was still affected by what he had created and what was now gone.
It began slowly, solemnly, with a recurring chorus of “About a boy / Beyond it all,” the song gradually building to looping waves of crescendos, the band crunching out a mesmerizing, repetitive wash of sound, inching up a staircase of building intensity. At this point, Smith began to sermonize: part preacher, part tough-love motivator, part shaman, passionately intoning thoughts and feelings in a song about loss, both personal and cultural. I cannot remember all of her words exactly, but with each recurring wave of the cycling sound behind her she began expound,
“… You’ve got to live …. Life is tough sometimes … Sometimes you fall down …. So what? … So WHAT! … You gotta keep going … You‘ve got to live … You‘ve got to go on …”
Patti stood there in the middle of stage, incantatory, shaking her raised fist to the sky, and through barely concealed tears began chanting
“Live! … Live!… Live!… Live!… Live!… ”
Even 16 years later, it’s rather overwhelming to recall this moment. As I stood watching this woman on that stage — a person who had recently lost two of the most important people in her life, in a life that from most accounts seemed like one she truly wanted — who now had to start all over again with two small children and without her beloved partner-in-crime, not even trying to mask her sorrow and loss yet not letting it derail or roadblock her, instead zealously championing defiance through possibility over defeat, I started thinking about my own problems. I suddenly felt like a whiny putz.
She very well could have been self-directing, trying to will herself through it all in the face of tragedy. But whether this speech was personal or populist in intent, she made one hell of a spokesperson for the concept of not being crushed, not being discouraged. Of acknowledging the darkness but refusing to be felled by it. And this is what I truly needed to hear, and see, at this time in my life from someone who couldn’t have been better positioned to deliver it to me.
It was a transformative, viscerally draining experience for me.
Patti performing “About A Boy,” her Kurt Cobain tribute, on Sessions on West 54th Street, September 27, 1997.
Its compliment appeared during the evening’s last number when Patti returned to the stage alone with an acoustic guitar to deliver a final new song. She explained that Fred had been teaching her how to play the instrument. Patti had been frustrated by her slow progress on the guitar (“Patience, Patricia, Patience” was Fred’s mantra she noted, joking that “He told me not to tell anyone who had taught me how to play”) but had persevered.
In tribute to her departed husband, she had written “Farewell Reel” and performed it here before an audience for the first time. Preceded by her looking up and talking to Fred’s spirit, hoping she would do him justice, she played the simple, heartfelt three-chord salute. In a number of spots, she became overwhelmed and could not hold back the tears yet remained steadfast, seeing the song and this difficult delivery until its conclusion.
Before her final departure, she expressed her genuine gratitude to her audience, remarking on just how special and important this evening had been for her. And this was only Round 1. Round 2, in the form of a second sold-out house, were biding their anxious time outside on this hot, clear July night.
As everyone floated out of the Phoenix, those in the long snaking line-up wanted the word: How was she? What was the show like? Does she still have it? The anticipatory patrons were well-assured by all that they were in for quite a treat.
Toronto Star Review
Globe & Mail Review
In the big picture, we had just witnessed an historic performance. But in a smaller, more personal way, I had just been given a few ideas to chew on in my depressed state. Patti’s words and actions weighed strongly on my mind in the days and months that followed. It would be an erroneous over-simplification to say that I instantly turned over a new leaf. But it planted a seed. On that night, Patti helped me along in the learning of a life lesson that I was really just starting to grasp, namely that it’s all transitory. We can only hold on to so much. Painful as life can be, it shouldn’t defeat us. Instead, we must gain strength and wisdom from some of life’s tougher things. And honour it all.
I learned that lesson imperfectly. Sometimes it is easier said than done. But my philosophy became about trying to get through the dark times—and I certainly went on to have plenty of my fare share of those in between — knowing that they most likely won’t endure indefinitely. And also that, when the good times happen, as they are with me these days, to cherish them, don’t take them for granted, and appreciate life in all its blessings. Be it good or bad, it’s never forever.
Incrementally, things did get better as the year progressed, with 1995 turning into 1996, one of the best years of my life. Owing to circumstances that involved breaking a baby toe by snapping it backwards, I not only learned that I was healthy as a horse but also came to understand the interrelationship between one’s mental, emotional, and physical health. As it turned out, all my ailments had been the result of stress and worry, something I have tried to keep in check ever since.
And that gamble on the Internet proved to be one of my better calls as well.
As for Patti Smith, her superb comeback disc, Gone Again, appeared the following summer. I played it relentlessly during a period of joy that stood in stark contrast to when I first heard some of its songs. I have continued to follow her renewed, celebrated career ever since.
Gone Again, 1996.
She seems in a good place these days, and released her memories of her youth with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, to great acclaim and a National Book Award in 2010. I haven’t seen her live since but hope to remedy that in the years ahead.
Hey Patti: Thanks! For everything.
Patti receiving her National Book Award for Just Kids.
The “People Have the Power” video, 1988.
Next On Stage –> Following this brief pit stop in the 1990s, I’ll be skipping ahead to the present decade, starting with a voluminous show that kick-started my 2011s ….
© 2011 VariousArtists