review of 6/21/96 concert, irving plaza, nyc

[from "Patti Smith , Surrounded By Ghosts, Still Rocks" by Neil Strauss, New York Times, June 24, 1996]

Patti Smith opened her sold-out concert on Friday night at Irving Plaza with a 1974 poem about a 16-year-old escaping a dead-end job to come to New York City and "be somebody." She ended the two-hour show with "Farewell Reel," from her first album in eight years, a song about a 49-year-old woman recovering from the death of her husband and preparing to re-enter the world. In between these autobiographical sketches, an entire life unfurled.

The show was an early stop on Ms. Smith's first headlining tour since 1979, when she moved to a Detroit suburb to marry Fred (Sonic) Smith of MC5 and raise a family. Over the course of the concert, she dedicated songs to dead and living friends; she sang lyrics of deterioration and recovery, skepticism and faith, bohemianism and motherhood; she even brought out her 13-year-old son, Jackson, to play "Smoke on the Water" on guitar, and her sister, Kimberly, to sing an original folk song, "I Don't Need."

The audience's adoration—the kind reserved for icons and stars who have overcome personal tragedies—beat down on Ms. Smith like rays from a bright sun, becoming too strong at times. "I am so well-loved lately that I am turning into a walking Hallmark card," she said before she removed her unlaced combat boots and socks to perform "Walking Barefoot."

Ms. Smith has been through a lot in the last few years, having lost her husband, her brother, Todd, and several close friends and collaborators. Her new album, Gone Again (Arista), is a sparse, chilling collection of waltzes, madrigals, elegies and dark rock ballads in which she spends as much time trying to make sense of the deaths of loved ones as she does trying to make sure their memories live on.

The album is neither sad nor joyful, but haunted, delivered by a woman surrounded by ghosts. "I cried," she sang about her late husband as she sat alone on stage with an acoustic guitar in "Farewell Reel." "But I'll get by, salute our love and send you a smile and move on."

Ms. Smith's compassion extended to songs about Kurt Cobain and Jerry Garcia, and even when she performed Prince's "When Doves Cry" she added an ending in which she empathized with the crying doves.

Though the concert had a few rough spots, including three songs in which Ms. Smith momentarily blanked out on the words, over all it was powerful, with Ms. Smith still a provocative and mesmerizing mix of symbolist poet and dramatic rocker. Backing her street-hardened recitations and banshee wail were as many as three guitarists—her longtime collaborator, Lenny Kaye, the songwriter Oliver Ray, and the former Television guitarist Tom Verlaine, who sat half-hidden on the side of the stage adding quiet textures to most songs.

Unlike many of the punk musicians she inspired, Ms. Smith didn't just present anger and critique in her songs. She also offered a way out of the dark. "You got to lose control/And then you take control," she sang in a medley that included "Land." Ms. Smith gave the line a fresh spin by juxtaposing it with a mandate directed at the audience: "Do you like the world around you? Then change it."

Her tone, a combination of motherly advice and youthful anger, showed that she still has a lot more to contribute to rock as she continues her broader search to find a bridge between holistic thinking and subversive reasoning.

Copyright © Neil Strauss 1996

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