Detroit honors Patti Smith

It will rise from the ashes.

Detroit honors Patti Smith

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I attended last night’s Live from Detroit: The Concert at Michigan Central and wrote about it for Variety.  Prior to the show, I attended an awards ceremony for something called The Michigan Central Honors.

The “Michigan Central Honors” ceremony will recognize Detroit’s artists and pay homage to the city as we celebrate the grand reopening of Michigan Central Station following an extensive restoration by Ford Motor Company. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Ford Philanthropy President, Mary Culler will honor Patti Smith, Jack White, The Clark Sisters, Kierra Sheard, Illa J and Slum Village for their contributions to Detroit’s great musical heritage as well as their roles as global ambassadors and community leaders. Patti Smith will also accept the honor posthumously for her husband, Detroit guitarist Fred Smith.

When I got the invitation I could not RSVP to this part of the event “yes” fast enough, for obvious reasons. 

Around 4:30pm, media and guests were gathered in a random corner of the backstage that had some chairs and a plexiglas lectern. The Mayor of Detroit and some Ford honcho presented Patti with her award – the awards are leftover pieces of marble from the train station, with a plaque on them – and then she said a few words. 

[something something the wind cut out] to be at your celebration today and to represent my late and most beloved husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. He loved the train station; we actually snuck in it in the 80s*. And he really dreamed, daydreamed so much, envisioned what it would be like to save it and open it to the people. And I just know that he would love to be thought of today. My deep connection with Fred is completely through Detroit. I met him at Lafayette Coney Island in 1976; we lived together at the Detroit Book Cadillac Hotel; we were married at the Detroit Mariner’s Church; and our son Jackson and our daughter Jesse Paris were born at St. John’s in Detroit. So some of the most beautiful parts of my life happened in your great city. 
Fred’s contribution to the Detroit music scene and to the enduring Detroit legacy are well known. From the MC5 to Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, to the work we did together. And in the song that we wrote, “People Have The Power,” are the words:

I believe everything we dream
Can come to pass through our union
We can turn the world around
We can turn the earth’s evolution
For the people have the power

And in this spirit of unity and solidarity, I will read on behalf of Eminem the letter that he wrote to Detroit.
"There is no letter."
woman runs over and hands Patti a piece of paper

It would not be a Patti Smith event without some kind of technical difficulty and without Patti making a joke about the difficulty. I joked that being able to attend this ceremony was part of my compensation for covering the concert – for someone who spent two years writing a book about her, it was a full circle moment I felt lucky to witness, but I did not expect to be so incredibly moved. When she read the lines from PHTP in honor of Fred, in front of the train station, in Detroit, it was stunning and beautiful and heart-rending. Of course it was a perfect moment. She made it about Fred, about Detroit, about the kids, when she also deserved to be honored and it’s about damn time the city remembered that she had been here.

I wish there had been a way to include her in the concert, because she belonged up there as much as anyone else did, singing “People Have The Power.” That song was written here. The video was filmed here. It was definitely inspired by this place. If you try to tell me she could not have performed in front of 20,000 people it will only betray that you have never seen her. The same way she created a moment by reading Eminem’s words in the most uninspiring corner of the show setup she would have been able to deliver an epic rendition of “People Have The Power” that we’d still be talking about. Maybe she was asked to do just that and declined; maybe they tried to fit it in somehow and could not; maybe that is the reason for the award. I am glad she is getting these things while she is here and able to accept them in person, as opposed to years from now when someone realizes they made a mistake and award it posthumously. 

But after PHTP, her reading of “Letter to Detroit” was equally compelling. I wish it had not been gale force winds out there Thursday because her reading was utterly fantastic. People underestimate Patti’s ability as an interpreter of other people’s work. This ceremony was in a corner of the backstage area, the wind was blowing like crazy – the certificates that went with the awards blew away into the adjacent landscaping before the ceremony started because they weren’t weighted down –and the sun was in everybody’s eyes. It was the least inspirational setting for anything, let alone a poetry reading, but she is always able to delve into the essence of a piece of work and brings it forward. Nobody was talking; everybody paid attention, because she made them pay attention through the energy and attention to the words. Again, imagine that on a larger stage. 

When I first looked at the lineup of the show when I was asked if I wanted to cover it, I have to confess I almost said “No, get someone who is better at this music than I am.” This wasn’t imposter syndrome, it was knowing what I am good at. But what I am good at is context and history and how to identify what is important in a piece of music or in a performance. I can look up what album a song is on or what year it came out. 

I was thrilled beyond belief to be able to see Diana Ross in Detroit, but didn’t realize how much everything else and its relevance would resonate with me as strongly as it did. I live here now and I knew a lot about the history of this place before I got here, and I continue to prioritize learning as much as I can about it. I was glad that a concert in a majority Black city had a majority of Black performers on the stage without explanation or apology. 

The audience could definitely have been more diverse. The areas closest to the stage were guests and Ford VIP and, like, big car dealership people. They kept handing out tickets to the local neighborhoods and you could tell they got down front by responses to certain things but if you watched it you know how not-diverse that group was based on the crowd shots. I was back in the seating made available to the media, which was a bleacher area that was for some level of VIP as well as ADA seating (the ASL interpreters were in front of my section).  By the time I realized I’d chosen badly it was too late to move – I had to be able to see and pay attention and take notes. If it had been a Springsteen concert I could have relocated and not missed a beat, but there was too much going on onstage to lose focus.

I did not need to be sitting near 75 year old men offering their opinions on Big Sean (who they’d never heard of before) or middle-aged white ladies shocked at how much they enjoyed the Clark Sisters. Also, I will always underestimate people’s need to talk loudly during a musical performance. When the old dude walked out after Jack White I was secretly glad they were going to miss the big surprise appearance by Eminem because all he did all night was complain that the speakers were blocking the screens, not ever considering that the reason that neither were up at the top of the rigging because it was entirely too windy. (“I don’t understand. Both of them are attached to pulleys. All they have to do is raise them up.”)

Most people around me were glad to be there and were there to pay attention and watch. The joy in people’s faces when certain acts were onstage was a tonic. The two women in front of me ran out of the bleachers to dance during the Clark Sisters. So many folks incredibly excited to see Eminem. Even the Bob Seger tribute (which, Fantasia aside, was the weakest of the entire night) hit home for seemingly everyone. 

I'm proud of the Variety piece and am definitely going to figure out how I can see the Clark Sisters again.

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*I am compelled to tell you what friends who were born here told me, that you didn’t need to “sneak into” the station back then, because otherwise they will hound me

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