Patti Smith: Bringing Power to the People

On the evening of January 6, 2016, Patti Smith came to Portland, Oregon, where she brought the power of her words and music, along with the impressive strength of her fearless spirit, to the stage of Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It was a fiery performance (featuring a complete offering of Horses, Patti Smith's first album), in which the singer gave her all to the audience, vigorously testifying to the abiding value of rock'n'roll as a durable form of musical communion and proving herself to be a singular figure of rare authenticity, while also giving undeniable evidence of music itself as a living expression of the human equation.

Patti Smith started out as a writer in New York City, seeking to follow in the path of the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud. In 1971, she began to perform in public, making her first appearance at St. Mark's Church-in the-Bowery with Lenny Kaye, a friend who played his electric guitar while she read her own poems. Several years later, with three other musicians (Ivan Kral on bass, Richard Sohl on keyboards, and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums) joining their talents with those of Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye, The Patti Smith Group was founded, with Patti herself taking on the duties of singer and songwriter. In December, 1975, Horses was released on Arista Records, and Patti Smith soon was acknowledged as a major voice of freshness and honesty, with the wild abandon of her intense performances causing great excitement.

After Horses, she released Radio Ethiopia (1976), Easter (1978), which contained a hit, "Because the Night," that put her into the Top 40, and Wave (1979). She toured widely, creating a stir wherever she went, but in 1980, after her marriage to Fred "Sonic" Smith (a guitarist and former member of The MC5), she withdrew from the world of rock'n'roll and dedicated herself to pursuing the quiet rewards of domestic life with her husband and their children. Patti Smith did not release another album until 1988, when Dream of Life appeared. After her husband passed away in 1994, she began to perform again, and has released six further albums: Gone Again (1996), Peace and Noise (1997), Gung Ho (2000), Trampin' (2004), Twelve (2007), and Banga (2012).

In addition to Patti Smith's four decades of music and her volumes of poetry, she is the author of Just Kids, published by Ecco in 2010, a book in which she looks back to her youthful experiences in New York City during the early 1970s and poignantly describes her close relationship with the late photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe (a closeness that underwent a painful change from tender romance to enduring friendship when Robert revealed himself to be gay), who took the striking photograph of her that graces the front of Horses. She also is the author of M Train, published by Knopf in 2015, a collection of casual essays in which she depicts the daily flow of her current life and reflects on her frequent journeys to varied destinations.

Patti Smith turned sixty-nine a week before her show in Portland, but within moments of her appearance onstage, dressed in a black jacket and gray jeans, it was apparent that she still performs with the ability and the outlook of a much younger person. She and her four musicians (including Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty) plunged straight into a faithful rendering, song by song, of Horses. From the headlong rush of "Gloria" (with its famous declaration, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine"), through "Redondo Beach," "Birdland," "Free Money," "Kimberly," "Break It Up (written in memory of the late Jim Morrison, singer with The Doors, and inspired by a dream in which he appeared), "Land" ("Horses, horses, horses, horses..."), and "Elegie," it was a staggering example of rock'n'roll at its ageless best. It was hard to believe that forty years had passed since those songs were first heard.

A handful of other songs followed, with Patti Smith's voice sounding extremely strong throughout: "Privilege (Set Me Free)," "Beneath the Southern Cross," "If 6 Was 9" by Jimi Hendrix (a somewhat ragged, but unquestionably purposeful, attempt to sustain a tricky beat), "Dancing Barefoot," "Because the Night" (a highlight, with everyone singing along), and "People Have the Power." In addition, there was a medley of several songs by The Velvet Underground, performed by the musicians without Patti Smith. In between songs, the gray-headed singer spoke in an engaging manner, sharing her random thoughts with the boisterous audience (who repeatedly called out to her, lustily displaying their fervor) and preaching her proudly rebellious (or perhaps it only seems that way in the context of the 21st century) philosophy of love, peace, equality, and freedom.

The show came to a rousing finish with Patti Smith charging through "My Generation," written by Pete Townshend and recorded by The Who in 1965. As the caustic anthem of youthful defiance reached a thundering conclusion, she picked up a Fender Stratocaster and eagerly proceeded to thrash it, breaking all the strings and creating fierce howls of harsh feedback. She then held the guitar aloft with its loose strings hanging, lifting it up for all to see, as she victoriously shouted, to a roar of frenzied approval from the crowd, "This is the weapon of my generation!" It was an unrestrained end to a performance in which Patti Smith boldly confirmed her long-standing reputation as a valiant advocate of vital, heartfelt rock'n'roll.