The Patti Smith Group, August 2021: live music in the time of COVID

I'll know my song well before I start singing.

The Patti Smith Group, August 2021: live music in the time of COVID
Minneapolis, MN, August 7, 2021

It feels so odd to move through the world again as though nothing has happened, no one has died, nothing has closed. It felt that way last week as I drove from Detroit to Evanston, Illinois and then Minneapolis, Minnesota last week in order to watch Patti Smith perform. In Evanston she appeared at an outdoor stage set up on the first hole of a public golf course which is in and of itself a crazy sentence to be typing; the venue required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. In Minneapolis, it was yet another “put a stage in a field and pretend it’s a legitimate venue” situation, at a location which many local friends avoided because of its questionable labor and business practices. (You can do a web search; there is ample coverage in the local media.) Evanston was comfortable but cut short due to an impending storm; Minneapolis was what those things always are, with the exception that the venue staff were exceptional and not the kind of hired jerks that usually run these ad-hoc venues. The rain held off this time.

There was a moment before the show began in Minneapolis; the stage was prepared and the posted showtime had arrived. From my vantage point, I saw bodies behind the stage walking through: bright red and black striped pants that obviously belonged to Jay Dee Daugherty; the lanky, easy-going lope of someone in a black cowboy shirt with red piping that was clearly Lenny Kaye; and then, a melange of black and khaki that was Patti and her son Jackson. It was a brief instant, a tiny glimpse, and I relished the witness of it because of its familiarity -- it’s the kind of minor production note that I’ve watched happen countless times; its reassurance -- the show was about to start, and the knowledge that that feeling of interminable waiting was about to conclude; and more than a touch of eternity: I have experienced these feelings and emotions for longer than I have not experienced them. I get to stand here and be part of this.

It is repetition, muscle memory, family, the past, love, connection, ritual. Patti walking to the stage arm and arm with Jackson. Her blanking out at the first line of the first song, “Redondo Beach,” cracking up to herself, dropping back to Lenny who feeds her the line with an affectionate grin. We lost these moments in quarantine, in endless livestreams, these unspoken bonds, invisible trip wires, the underpinnings of a rock and roll show.

We also lost the ability to stand there and sing Dylan’s “Hard Rain” together in a crowd. Minneapolis knew the words, one of their state’s own, they sang it loudly and with feeling, you could feel it rolling in from behind you, and Patti could clearly feel it onstage, asking for more, demanding it: “C’mon!” She needed it and so did we; so did we all. It was a two-song tribute to Bob -- “Blessings upon him,” Patti invoked -- “One Too Many Mornings” and “Hard Rain,” the latter turning into a literal act of manifestation in Illinois as the pressure dropped, the wind swirled around her in the spotlight, and lightning flashed in the distance. I sang along with trepidation in Minneapolis but we escaped unscathed, the rain didn’t arrive until the show was well over and we were waiting for the car. Evanston had me tied up in knots as though I had never attended a general admission concert in my life; my stomach hurt, I forgot things. It was like riding a bike with training wheels again.

But Minneapolis was great because the audience was great; while it doesn’t really give music the respect it deserves, it remains a city where a healthy population deeply cares about music, values it as a life force. The crowd was diverse in a way that it rarely is for legacy acts, age and gender, poets and punk rockers. However, I still had to deal with That One Guy who began to attempt to berate me for having been at the show the previous night; he was with a woman on a date, it was her first time seeing Patti, and she was a delightful show companion. Their pre-show conversation revealed that they were both recently divorced and also very much enjoyed the music of Bruce Springsteen, and then they proceeded to try to impress each other with their knowledge of all things Springsteen, all of which was wrong. I did not insert myself into the conversation because it was not their fault that they ended up on the rail next to me, and that I am an inveterate eavesdropper. I wish them well. but am pretty sure she can do better (he was the man who decided he could lecture me on how I spent my free time).

The set was the same as Evanston, except we got the entire set this time, Patti declaring that this might have been their second show, but it was their first full show. She told a story about driving to Illinois with Jackson, who took the occasion of this five-hour drive with his mother to play her an array of heavy metal: Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Yngwie Malmsteen, who was Patti’s favorite. Jackson then proceeded to throw out a Yngwie riff like it was nothing. The Lenny spot was “I’m Free,” dedicated to Soul Asylum, whom he declared was his favorite Minneapolis band; Patti had namechecked both Tony Glover and Grant Hart, of blessed memory. She danced along to “I’m Free,” elbows akimbo in her best Jagger strut, brilliant grin on her face.

I'm Free

I have written about her performances of “Land” before, but I never ever get tired of watching the different methods she uses to approach the first line of the song. I mentioned “The boy was in the hallway drinking a glass of tea” so many times in my book manuscript that the various editors had to gently suggest I use something else, but that was the first line that always came to mind because it is never delivered the same way. I think my favorite is when she steps right into the hallway with no indication that this is the next song in the set; she recites the line, opens the door, and brings us through with her. It also amazes me that this song is still a moment of improvisation but it also shouldn’t amaze me because the song is magic; magic is the reason it is so powerful, magic is the reason it was the thing I pulled out of my head whenever I was trying to make a particular point. The audience yelps, gasps, cheers, shouts, takes a deep breath, does whatever it needs to do to go off on this journey with her and the band. Watching them watch her, each in their own very different ways, is a lesson on longevity and faith and unerring loyalty and devotion. She is r.e.f.m., radio ethiopia field marshall. She is leading the troops. I think the thing that bothers so many men about her is her musicians’ willingness to abdicate control and follow her.

The other thing about “Land”/”Gloria” is that it is never ever the same. It is never the same, and it is never precisely planned out. In Minneapolis, there wa a point at which Patti spit on the stage, and then a few moments later she came to the mic and noted that it was the first time she had spit on the stage in 18 months and that she had promised she would never do that again -- it was a thing she specifically joked about when I saw her in San Francisco before the world shut down in March of 2020 -- and she apologized for having done it, but also, she wasn’t a man so she was capable of cleaning up her own messes, and she grabbed a towel and got on her hands and knees and did just that.

Cleaning up her own messes.

It was a moment that said everything about every single thing that is happening right now, that had happened, that is still to come. I appreciated, so much, that she came out wearing a mask, that she beseeched us to be prudent, but didn’t pretend that it was over or that we were through anything. In so many ways we are back right where we started the last time I saw her at the Fillmore, where we went from thinking “It’ll be okay” to “no, this seems bad” to those months of quarantine. Back then, I didn’t have to come home and cancel plans because I was working on the election and I had no plans until that was over with; this time, I had to cut my trip short (I drove back to Detroit via the Upper Peninsula, a place I have never been, and had hoped to stay on a day or two, but it is a COVID hotspot) and I came home and cancelled trips to New Orleans and Asbury Park -- Jazz Fest is cancelled, and the Shore is a hotspot, and I am not going to cover a festival during a pandemic.

Patti’s voice is still in fine and powerful form; everyone in the band seems to have gotten thinner and their faces slightly older, but I can also say the same about my face. I found a video of me in August of 2019, right before I moved to Detroit, and it’s like I have aged a decade. This is hard; it is hard for all of us. The Rolling Stones are touring without Charlie motherfucking Watts, the exact kind of thing I feared happening. There is a giant part of me that does not want to see them without Charlie, that wants to keep the last memories I had of the four of them intact. I am immensely grateful that I can see Patti Smith and her band play, intact and healthy. As I said to the man interrogating my life choices, “She’s 75, and I’m going to see her as often as I can for as long as I can.” But I worry about the people who can’t ride out the rest of this bullshit year, the musicians and artists and venue staff and road crew and bartenders and sound mixers and guitar techs who will get sick or have to get another job because a bunch of fucking morons wouldn’t get a fucking vaccination. I saw some idiot invoking Joe Strummer’s name and how he wished the Clash were still touring because Joe wouldn’t have stood for this; this is a person who very very very much did not hear the lessons Joe was trying to teach us.

Stay safe. Get vaxxed. Wear a mask. Hug your friends.

easter egg. on the rail in minneapolis.