Massey Hall, Toronto
Friday, September 6
Patti Smith’s show at Massey Hall wasn’t a must-see event, despite the fact I own almost all her albums, finally got around to reading her fine memoir, Just Kids, and had heard rapturous reports from her intimate AGO performance and stripped-down evening of poetry and music at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, both in the last 12 months. I bought a ticket at the last minute and signed on for some rock’n’roll redemption.
Which—of course—Patti Smith delivers, especially when she has right-hand man Lenny Kaye on guitar (a man who truly understands how to play with both punk and poetry), original drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, bassist Tony Shanahan (in the band since 1996) and new guitarist/keyboardist Jack Petruzzelli. It didn’t matter that she eschewed some of her best songs (the opening chords of “Gloria” were aborted in favour of “Land,” which eventually segued into the conclusion of “Gloria” out of “Land of 1,000 Dances”) or only included three songs from her excellent, underrated new album Banga (“Fuji-San,” “This is the Girl,” the title track) or that she looked like a ’90s grunge grandma hanging out at a farmer’s market. It also didn’t matter that not everything she touches is gold; a newer song penned for Amy Winehouse, while musically strong, contains the cringe-worthy line, “This is the wine of the house, it is said.” C’mon, really?
This was Patti Smith, rock’n’roll legend, in full effect and, arguably, in finer voice than she’s been at any other stage of her career. The audience was eating out of her hand, and she was more than happy to play the part of royalty, at times doing little more than strolling the edge of the stage to simply wave at the balcony during an instrumental break.
Not that she was phoning it in. She was well aware of where she was (largely because the last time she played Massey Hall was shortly after Horses came out, which might explain why it comprised half this night’s set list), what was going on in Toronto (she and Kaye went to the new Jim Jarmusch film at TIFF the night before), and happily danced in the aisles while Kaye led the band in a set of garage covers (dedicated to Toronto nuggets the Paupers and Luke and the Apostles).
The crowd was a mix of newbies, looky-loos and diehard fans of all generations. (Favourite eavesdrop: the woman telling her friend that she loved the CBC Radio 2 show Smith hosts where she plays other people’s music. Um, that’s Patti Schmidt, ma’am.) They also looked good: unlike other aging rocker audiences, the kind of people who still come out to see Patti Smith don’t look like they’ve given up on life. Maybe poetry does supply the fountain of youth after all.
Which brings me to my favourite cranky grandpa moment: during the climax of “Gloria,” Smith was prowling the front of the stage in front of dancing fans, one of whom was practically shoving his smartphone in her face and filming her. “Put that fucking cellphone away!” she snapped in between lyrics, before leaping back to centre stage to close the song: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins… [pregnant pause] THIS IS NOT A FUCKING MOVIE. THIS IS REAL LIFE! [cheers] But not mine…” Cue Daugherty’s drum fill, and chills rippled through the audience. And so closed the main set.
When she returned to the stage for an encore, she immediately went back to where the altercation occurred, and engaged in some kind peacemaking discussion. Then she hauled a young guy on stage and commanded him to play one chord on an acoustic guitar for “Banga.” I hoped it was the video stalker; his awkwardness suggested it was, and it would be a perfect lesson to get from Patti Smith: stop observing, start participating.
Smith closed with the song I really wanted to hear all night: “Rock’n’Roll Nigger,” a song that sounds as incendiary today as it must have in 1978 (long before gangsta rap desensitized us all), starting with an opening spoken-word salvo called “Babelogue”: “I haven't fucked much with the past / But I've fucked plenty with the future / Over the skin of silk are scars / From the splinters of stations and walls I've caressed.” The rest of the song is a rallying cry for the marginalized, the rebels, the outlaws: “Outside of society, that’s where I want to be!” On this night, Smith took her fury to more specific, timely topics, altering the lyrics (“Edward Snowden is a nigger”) and concluding with the exhortation: “Fuck Obama! Fuck Syria! Fuck Israel! Fuck them all and their war games! You are fucking FREE!”
So let’s set aside the fact that this white woman is saying “fuck Obama” in a song called “Rock’n’Roll Nigger”—one in which Jesus Christ, Jackson Pollock and “grandma” are also called niggers—I think we all understand the central metaphor in play, which doesn’t change when the president is black, however uncomfortable it may be (or inconceivable at the time she wrote the song).
I’m not a fan of war mongering either, but there are absolutely no easy answers right now, so let’s try to forget that isolationists on the right and the left are uniting to claim that Syrian atrocities are something the West should just ignore like China and Russia want us to and let a brutal civil war play out, even if despicable weapons are being used (not merely suspected of being used) that flout every international standard, and that by ignoring that, we’re surrendering entirely to self-interest and ceding tacit authority to regimes even more oppressive than China or Russia—and yet meanwhile all of our fellow alt-culture, Cuban-vacationing lefties are fixated on Putin’s persecution of homosexuals, which is (so far) considerably less brutal than the outright terror and slaughter happening in Syria. (Why do our hearts only bleed for Arabs when we’re the bad guys?)
But hey, this is a rock show and not a nuanced onstage debate between Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens, so let’s forget that whole little buzzkill, shall we? After all, Smith once wrote an elegiac ode that cheery fellow Ho Chi Minh, as well (“Gung Ho”), a man with a history of crushing dissent, establishing gulags, and no small shortage of his countrymen’s blood on his hands. I’ll accept peace and love or “a plague on all their houses” from a Buddhist or a Quaker, but not a Maoist. (I’m with her on Snowden, though.)
I don’t go to see icons to merely feel better about myself, to pat myself on the back for my own political beliefs, or to accept everything with the passivity of a nod-and-grin sycophant. If Patti Smith managed to make me feel uncomfortable right in the middle of the most rousing portion of the evening, that’s actually in her job description. From that same song: “In heart, I am Muslim, in heart, I'm an American artist and I have no guilt … I would measure the success of a night by the amount of piss and seed I could exude over the columns that nestled the P.A.”