Patti Smith was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame last week. The other night I was channel surfing with little hope of finding anything watchable when I landed on the induction ceremonies at the precise moment that Patti was being introduced. I screamed, resurrecting the pure unadulterated joy of eras past.
Patti Smith is still at least as inspiring as she was in 1975, when she landed in my living room in the form of a black-and-white-covered album titled “Horses,” looking like the sexiest case for androgyny the world has ever seen, and sounding like…like nothing I or anyone had ever heard before. It was my friend Larry who’d brought the record all the way from San Francisco to his pals in New York, who had yet to hear the phenom. Hardly anyone had heard of her: Larry, a good friend of Patti’s band mate Lenny Kaye, had an advance copy.
That weekend we played Horses non-stop. We played it sober; we played it stoned; we played it drunk. We danced like maniacs to Gloria, and we sprawled on the couch intently listening to Birdland. Years later, at parties, anyone who’d been around that weekend would put Horses on the stereo and call out, “Where’s the Patti Smith contingent?” and we’d instantly form a circle. As years passed our energy flagged and our dance steps faltered—yet somehow we always managed to get it up for Patti.
I saw her perform a few times. On one occasion she was playing at Adelphi College on Long Island, where security was less than one might expect for a rock star—so lax that prior to the show a friend and I nonchalantly strolled backstage and through a door into the Green Room. Bunches of people were putting on makeup and chatting through a haze of cigarette smoke; when we realized where we were, we froze. Suddenly Patti, her face white as chalk, appeared from another room, took one look at the two of us, and growled, “What the fuck is goin’ on?”
“Uh…I’m a friend of Lenny Kaye’s,” I stammered. She called Lenny, who emerged from the back. Feeling idiotic, I told him I was a friend of Larry’s. Lenny, with the smoothest diplomacy I’ve ever encountered before or since, offered each of us an arm to hold and gently led us out of the room, down to the concert hall and into front row seats.
My friend and I agreed that Patti looked like walking death, and we wondered how she’d manage to put on a show. We soon found out, when she leapt onto the stage, lit from within by some crazy cosmic fire, grabbed a mic and began to sing. For the next two hours she did back flips and somersaults, crawled across the stage on her knees, jumped in the air, and defied gravity, all the while singing in a voice that was a strange hybrid of sweet harmony and raw gutsiness. She demanded that the audience give back as much as she was putting out: You think this is a one-way street?she hollered.
Thirty years later she’s still generating that level of intensity. There she was at the Hall of Fame, among the glitz and glam of rock ‘n’ roll royalty, wearing her signature outfit: a man’s oversized white shirt and a black tie, her brown hair hanging around her face, which bore not a stitch of makeup. She was absolutely elated, and let it show. She cried for the people no longer on this plane of existence, primarily her husband and brother, who died within a month of one another. She spoke like a delighted five-year-old about her “Mommy,” also deceased, who loved rock ‘n’ roll and her daughter’s music. She saluted future generations of rockers and declared undying passion for the music, equaled only by Jack Black in School of Rock. She thanked a bunch of people, then introduced the band. Lenny, who’s been with her from the beginning and every minute since, took his usual place beside her, and began strumming his guitar.
Then Patti Smith sang, in that gritty yet pretty / hateful yet loving/ confrontational yet healing/ whisper /shout: Because the Night–her only radio hit–and Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger. Censorious television bleeps accompanied the latter song, over the word fuck of course, but also over nigger. (Do they do that to NWA? Just asking.)
I was all alone in my bed, shaking my booty like it was 1975, thinking about the Patti Smith contingent, now scattered. I knew that if I called any one of them to say I was watching Patti Smith, they’d know exactly what I was feeling. This morning, I did.