we like birdland : Patti Smith’s Birthday Show
Patti Smith & Band
Bowery Ballroom, NYC
I wish I could say I chose the birthday show deliberately, but alas, I did not. After I got over not being able to justify the money for all three nights, I picked the middle night because it wasn’t the first show and it wasn’t the extra money for New Year’s Eve.
Every year for the last six, I missed these shows because I would be getting on a plane back to Seattle the first night. I always wanted to be home for New Year’s (more like, I hated flying home and going straight to work the next day). And every year, I would kick myself, because I would go back to Seattle and do pretty much nothing, or at least nothing that came close to seeing Patti Smith.
[Of course, this would be the first or second year that there was another show booked after her show, thus disabling any ability for anarchic rock and roll takeover of the Bowery Ballroom by the Patti Smith Group circa 04. Nothing says New Year’s Eve by being firmly ushered out of a venue so the Drive-By Truckers can take it over. (Feh.)]
I deliberately went to experience and not document so I don’t even have a setlist for you. But I was and am still struck by her continual validity, her presence, her energy, how the fire still glows in her eyes, and how you still do not want to fuck with this woman, at all. She diffuses with more humor now than she did when I was 15, but that’s a function of life and age and growing.
The keyboards on the first number – which I didn’t recognize – tipped me off that it had to be a Doors song (“The Changeling”). I can forgive Patti her obsession with Jim Morrison, really, it is her fault that I traipsed out to Pere Lachaise the first time I was in Paris.
Decided highlights were “Space Monkey” (Patti on guitar, fierce as ever, I got my Fender Duo-Sonic in attitude), “25th Floor” (for much of the same reasons), “Broken Flag” with the dedication to Susan Sontag. Another song was dedicated to Robert Quine but the absence of notes prevent me from noting exactly which one.
But the ultimate moment came early in the show, when the roadie brought out a lyric book, Patti put on her glasses, and began:
“His father died and left him a little farm in New England…”
and my jaw hit the ground. Hard. “Birdland”? She’s going to do fucking BIRDLAND? And then the part of me said, man I wish she didn’t need the book, but you know what, it kept her focused and made it a more forceful and direct version, there was honestly no loss of energy or that feeling of stream of consciousness that it always used to have. There were nights she would do “Birdland” and you would think she was going to float away up into the belly of the ship she was talking about, and now she stays firmly on the ground, thanks to those boots, and the book in hand.
It was absolutely stunning, it took your breath away, if you were willing to just let go and follow her along. That performance of “Birdland” was that kind of magic that you sort of give up hoping for when you go to see artists from your past. Somehow, Patti always manages to bring it back, every time I see her – last time in Seattle (with Sleater-Kinney opening, still one of the best bills ever) it was “Rock and Roll Nigger” where she ended the night by pulling the strings off her guitar (and I knew her road crew at the time, so they ended up in my hands, I gave four away to fans on the spot and kept one, it’s still some of the most powerful talismans I own).
There were stories, of course, and a few readings, and she played the clarinet (later apologizing for going off in a different key than the rest of the band). I walked in upset that I wasn’t going to more than one show, and I walked out feeling like I had gotten more than my share. It was enough.
At 57, Patti Smith still remains a role model I can realistically aspire to. Okay, maybe not realistically in terms of talent or influence, but I hope to be kicking ass the same way she does now, and grow into being as beautiful and powerful as she still is. May I be able to stalk the streets in ripped up jeans and combat boots and grey hair.
Enjoyed this post? Consider signing up for my monthly newsletter.