Patti Smith
Comes Home to CBGB's

Story by Aaron Lazenby

Appearing for the first time in almost two decades on the stage she helped make famous, punk rock's high poetess Patti Smith opened the flood gates which began to trickle music when she released Gone Again in 1995. On October 28, 1997 at CBGB's, Patti let the eager crowd know in her own way just how happy she was to be back in these familiar surroundings.

"It's hot and shitty in here," Smith said, the glaring stage lights illuminating streaks of gray in her long, wild hair. "It must be CB's" Being a West Coast transplant, I could not have imagined a more quintessentially historical New York music event than seeing Patti Smith at CB's. It was out of some picture book of a bygone era (duh! the late 70's) when anyone who cared a bit about Western pop music was watching this city to see what direction it would go next. In my time in New York I've seen a few good bands on that legendary stage (and no small amount of shitty ones), but never have I felt the room fill with electricity, awe and respect the way it did that night.

Smith delivered nearly 3 hours of music that tripped the gamut from brilliant to frustrating, hilarious to gut-wrenching. She wove selections from her brilliant new album Peace and Noise together with the classics that defined her genius. And even at the performance's lowest points, Smith never let the audience forget that she is the consummate definition of a rock artist.

The opening 15 minutes of the show defined the emotional range for the whole night. Smith's first song "Rock and Roll Nigger" came across with and intensity that grabbed the audience by the throat. Guitarists Lenny Kaye and Tony Shanahan tore the song wide open, delivering with a power and urgency that caught the audience off-guard after a substantial wait between sets. Smith immediately took it down a notch, performing the title track from Gone Again, and an introspective and apparently impromptu version of the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes."

Smith eventually simmered down and displayed the trademark quirks that make her such a compelling performer. She wandered around the stage looking for her glasses. She blew her acoustic guitar treatment of Hank William's "So Lonesome I Could Cry" and forced herself and the band to restart the song. She lost her concentration while reading a selection from Allen Ginsburg's "Howl," screeching to a halt with the proclamation "Holy Shit!"

Smith delivered nearly 3 hours of music that tripped the gamut from brilliant to frustrating, hilarious to gutwrenching. ...never have I felt the room fill with electricity, awe and respect the way it did that night.

But the combination of Smith's intensity and quirkiness contributed the night's most amazing and frustrating performance.Smith launched into an epic combination of "Horses" and "Gloria" after almost 20 minutes of stalling, telling stories about the old days, and numerous restarts. Smith oozed apprehension in the face of "Horses" freeform narrative and tried as hard as she could to focus on the task at hand. Eventually, after telling a hilariously sad story about a dog that used to live at CBGB's back in the day, Smith finally found her groove and proceeded with the highlight of the show. By the time she reached the crescendo chanting "G-L-O-R-I-A," the audience had witnessed the artistic process laid bare an artist struggling against her will to create on demand.

Music aside, Smith's performance was haunted by its fair share of ghosts. At one point Smith remarked, "This has been a bad year," making reference to the deaths of William S. Burroughs, who is one of the subjects of the song "1959", and Allen Ginsburg, who she eulogized with the aforementioned "Howl." An audience member randomly shouted out the name the deceased Robert Maplethorpe, Smith's good friend and celebrated photographer, and Smith herself performed songs that dealt with the death of her husband Fred "Sonic" Smith. These references and so much history floating in the air combined with Smith's compelling presence and craft made this night one that even legendary CBGB's will long remember.


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