I have always very much liked and appreciated Patti Smith. As a child who was raised on a steady diet of punk music, my musical education would obviously not have been complete without the genre’s acclaimed Godmother in frequent rotation. Her influence is also clearly notable in my top musical heroines. The Distillers covered “Ask the Angels” on their self-titled debut, and I believe it’s safe to say Garbage wouldn’t sound quite the same if Shirley Manson hadn’t discovered the singer at the age of nineteen. But it was not until four months ago that I truly started to love Patti Smith, when a month prior to my migration to New York City, my mother insisted I read her memoir, Just Kids, about Smith’s own move to the Big Apple and pursuit of artistic endeavors.
New York city may not be the same place that Smith ventured to in 1967 from her New Jersey hometown with only enough money to pay for bus fare. And being a music journalist may not be the same career that it was when Smith wrote for magazines like Crawdaddy and Rollingstone before becoming a musician herself. But the theme of her story-uprooting to the so-called “Capital of the World,” to try and “make it” as an artist with a substantial work ethic, but no plan, was exactly the kind of thing I needed to read before making a similar move (albeit in much more comfortable conditions).
Hearing her music after reading Just Kids was like hearing it for the first time. Songs like “Dancing Barefoot” and “Pissing in a River,” no longer just sounded really good to me; her music was all of a sudden one of the greatest fucking things I had ever heard. So almost needlessly to say, I was beyond ecstatic when I heard she was playing a free show at Battery Park’s Castle Clinton on July 14th, as part of the River to River concert series.
Thinking I would be arriving fairly early on a gorgeously breezy summer day, I got to Battery Park around 4:45, just over two hours prior to show time. A massive amount of people apparently also share in my immense admiration for Smith, as by the time I got there, the line of people waiting for tickets stretched from the entrance of Castle Clinton, to Battery Place and Little West. Not everyone waiting for tickets was eventually able to get in, as the rotunda fortress holding the stage was only able to hold 1200 people. (I had been doubly lucky, obtaining one pair online that went to another friend and fan of Smith’s, and another two via a family friend’s connections.)
By the time we arrived inside the “castle,” (which for you history junkies was actually the first immigration station in New York before Ellis Island), the seats were full, and the only spots available were off to the sides. Only glimpses of the stage could be caught throughout most of the standing room, since planners of the event had ruled a large walkway in the middle had to be clear at all times, but the surrounding view of the open air venue provided a great glimpse of New York city architecture.
I could only tell when Smith finally took the stage by the sound of cheers around me, as she kicked into “Because the Night.” I couldn’t see the singer at all during the Bruce Springsteen penned track, but it didn’t matter. As one of those in our group had said before the show, all that mattered was being there. Luckily by the second song, I was able to see Smith, sporting braided pigtails and a black jacket, as I stood on my toes and people in front of me briefly tilted their heads to the side.
Those who weren’t fortunate enough to actually be inside the venue had to settle for hearing the concert from outside Castle Clinton’s walls, though they didn’t seem too bummed since cheers could be heard from afar when Smith gave them one of several shout outs early in the show. Later in the set, she sang to those listening from outside, “If I cannot see you, I can feel you,” just before “My Blakean Year.”
One of the things that I love so much about Smith is how she seems to be able to cover just about any song she wants to with absolute ease. The set featured many of those moments, including Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” and Neil Young’s “Helpless,” which she dedicated to her late, great husband and former guitar player, Frederick “Sonic” Smith.
The highlight of these covers, however, had to be her version of Adele’s hit “Rolling in the Deep,” which may have marked the first time I have felt happy hearing that song. (I say that out of complete adoration for Adele; it just happens to be one of those songs that hits me so hard because every time I hear it I think, “Oh girl, I’ve BEEN there!”) Smith didn’t know all of the lyrics, but she played it off well, improvising hilariously to the melody on the second verse, “I wish I could remember the words…I love this fucking song, Adele, she’s great!” After the song’s end, she promised she would learn the lyrics by her 65th birthday at the Bowery Ballroom, referring to her annual NYC New Year’s Eve show.
While the quality of Smith and her band’s sound made for an amazing evening, her chats with the audience between songs stood out the most for me. She showcased her storytelling skills when describing her experience of acting on “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” as she bragged using Vincent D’onofrio’s bathroom. As she strapped on a guitar just before “Beneath the Southern Cross,” and the audience seemed to chuckle, she responded, “Are you laughing at the prospect of me playing guitar?” and then proclaimed, “I have been taught by masters!” Her socially conscious side came out when she told the crowd she had witnessed hundreds of thousands protesting corrupt governments in her recent time overseas, before “Peacable Kingdom,” which was appropriately followed by “People have the Power.” The two-hour show ended with her classics, as “Horses” transitioned into “Gloria,” before she closed with “Rock’n’Roll Nigger.”
The above review may be one of my most gushing stories to date, but I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how much Smith’s work has meant to me recently. On my worst days, I will throw on her music, and as my mood is instantly elevated, I always think, “I haven’t had to struggle nearly as much as she did, so if she could make it, I can too.” Her parting words at Castle Clinton were simple, but a perfect example of why Patti Smith is such an inspiring figure to me. Before leaving the stage, she announced, “Life is hard; life will throw a lot of shit at you, but it’s the best fucking thing we have.”