We Can Be Heroes: A Night with Patti Smith on David Bowie’s Birthday

Smith and her band close out a year of touring behind the 40th anniversary of 'Horses,' and there was plenty to spit about.
January 11, 2016, 4:00pm

All photos by Timothy Norris

Two of the gods in my pantheon were born within almost a week of each other: Patti Smith and David Bowie. They celebrated their most recent birthdays with tremendous events: Smith on the last leg of Horses’ 40th Anniversary tour, and Bowie on the release of the brilliant Blackstar and its accompanying videos. Like Patti, I tend to see significance in birthdays, and believe that I have Bowie’s birth, in part, to thank for some glorious alchemy as Smith performed Horses at LA’s storied Wiltern theater on his 69th birthday.

We arrived at the venue giddy, ecstatic, and in search of a ticket to the sold-out show. “Bowie Birthday Magic,” I chanted to my friend as we waited at the box office in hopes extra tickets would be released.

“You guys talking Bowie?” the woman behind the window asked, then lifted her leg to show us a full-portrait Bowie tattoo on her calf. The Goblin King worked his magic, and we scored not only a ticket, but another VIP pass for my friend.

Earlier in the day, I’d been warned about seeing Smith live: “Watch out, she spits.”

I'd seen her play twice before, mostly in deep crowds at free at outdoor concerts around LA, but tonight would be a decidedly more intimate affair: Over the next two nights, Smith and her band would close out a year of touring behind her landmark first album, and there would be plenty to spit about.

Horses debuted in 1975 to critical acclaim, a pseudo-pastiche of 1950s rock’n’roll and spiritual incantations, earning her the titles “godmother of punk” and “punk’s poet laureate.” Its discovery remains a rite of passage in rock music education. When your first record basically invents a new genre of music, like, say, Velvet Underground’s first LP, expectations for the rest of your career are low. But Smith has remained prolific in her both her musical and literary output.

The show is seated, a rarity for the venue but fitting for the crowd of Smith’s sexagenarian peers filling in. I look around at the women and am able to imagine myself in 30 years: some sport proud, Smith-style undyed locks, others have more muted “cool aunt” vibes, all radiance and swagger as they convene over beers. No one seems to have any idea where our VIP passes actually put us, so we try in vain to get into the pit. We break our Dry Januarys and get drinks, skipping Horses-themed libations like the “Redondo Beach”—a bluer, more disgusting take on a Long Island—in favor of celebratory tequila to quell our nervousness.

We eventually find a standing spot in the back, our view clear as the lights drop. Smith and her band take the stage in uniform: black jeans, white button-ups, and black vests. Like Smith, I dressed with reverence for the occasion, in all black with a white blazer, the inverse of her image on the iconic Horses cover photo. Smith and Lenny Kaye stand out, like twin scarecrows with thick silver manes. Kaye looks not unlike BOB from Twin Peaks going to a semi-formal wedding.

Smith begins by reading her poem on Horses’ back cover before pausing to deliver the album’s sucker punch of an opening line:

“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

I’m immediately on the verge of tears, and stay that way throughout the entire A-side of the performance, standing with my hands on my cheeks Home Alone-style, shouting the occasional curse when the emotions got too heavy. I finally understand those fawning girls at early Beatles’ shows.

Ten years ago, I made a list in my diary of “things that inspire me to live, and therefore, create.” Patti Smith was first on the list. At the time, I had just quit high school in my insular Central Coast hometown and was working at a record store full-time. Spurred by the disintegration of my home life, the death of my grandmother, and a breakup, and inspired by the artists I loved, I wanted to grow up quickly, to learn who I was as an artist. Like Patti, I wanted to do things on my own terms.

As a freshly-17-year-old cherry bomb, I was ripe for discovering Horses. Patti had Scribner’s, I had Boo Boo’s. I spent many mornings speeding down the 101 on my way to work, chain-smoking, and blasting Horses from my second-hand Chrysler’s already-blown-out speakers.

I started my first band that year, too, and wanted to write a lyric with as much devastating power as Patti’s first on Horses. My watered-down version: “Jesus Christ ain’t real, cuz he told me in a dream that he’s never gonna save me.”

Is it okay to do this? I asked myself when I first heard Horses. To pervert the familiar to the point that it becomes so new that there is nothing to measure it against? Smith clearly didn’t give a fuck about the goodness or properness of her singing voice. She accepted its limitations and stretched it like taffy. I marveled at her full-throated bray and sobbing whine. In her voice, I heard an ache, to be made holy by another, and I thought that other was music. Like Jimi Hendrix’s dilemma in “Manic Depression.” She held nothing back. She made authenticity seem effortless—the way it ought to be.

Forty years later, that much hasn’t changed.

“I guess you’re saving yourselves for the Golden Globes,” she quips, commenting on the subdued crowd. Maybe that was because the show was all seated, but I think it’s because we were all transfixed.

At 69, Smith’s voice—and everything about her, really—remains immaculate. Live, she is intense, but controlled. She guides us confidently from the gallop of “Free Money” to the cosmic liquidity of “Birdland.” She sways when she sings, halfway between a comforting mother and a coy seductress. Her hands move frenetically with the climax of each song. She dances with Kaye. She spits—and how—marking her territory. She sips fucking tea. She fucks up a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9,” then brushes it off, saying that, like the power of Elvis’ curled lip, “I’ve made a whole career of botching up songs, it’s part of my charm.”

In interviews following the release of Horses, Smith insisted that her being a woman didn’t matter. She was anti-“women’s lib” and confinement to gender, in general. But it does matter, I thought at 17, and I wanted to reconcile these statements with the artist I loved. I realized that she was rejecting the limitations put on female artists. She wrote songs from male and female perspectives: sister, mother, son, lover, and predator. Whether she cared to acknowledge it or not, with Horses she carved out a new and crucial space in music.

A few weeks later, in the same diary, I wrote (in true manic teenage fashion), “I used to idolize Patti Smith, but she’s not rock and roll.”

I had admired her because I naively thought of her as a flawless person. I found out about her affair with playwright Sam Shepherd, a married man and new father, with whom she wrote the exquisite play “Cowboy Mouth.” I read something about how she was disliked by some in the late 1970s NYC rock scene for being too ambitious, and a bit of a social-climber. These things—allowing herself to be the “other” woman and bucking the artistic community in favor of herself—were tantamount to cardinal sins in my young brain.

Rejecting her as an idol didn’t mean that I stopped loving her. It meant that I was ready to push myself, like she did, to do just as well, if not better, than my heroes. No more idle worship (but I’m not taking my Nick Cave shrine down).

My diaries over the years have documented my now waning struggle between “I am a writer!” and “I’ll never be a writer!” I continue to look to Patti, who appeared to have refused that self-doubt, for guidance. I came around on the sins I rejected her for, and understood them as part of the same complex, unapologetic person I respected. I came to understand that my own loathing of those tropes are tied to being a woman (the other woman and the power bitch), and let it go.

Smith’s 2010 memoir, Just Kids, showed an unsure dilettante in development, navigating a big city and holding her own with heiresses, superstars, rock stars, and everyone in between. She lived on close to no money or food, and worked and worked. If Patti can do it, I thought, so can I. I moved to Austin at 18 to play music and then to Los Angeles at twenty-two, pushing myself all the time.

I haven’t stopped, and neither has she. As the live set of Horses comes to a close, I realize I’ve barely breathed. Smith dedicates “Elegie” to everyone we’ve lost and held dear. At the end of the song, she launches into the rock’n’roll version of the Oscars’ “In Memoriam” segment, incanting the names of Brian Jones, Amy Winehouse, and Lou Reed to varying levels of applause. Today, I think about hearing Bowie’s name among them, and begin sobbing again.

The encore arrives, and Smith brings out Flea and her children with Fred Smith, Jackson and Jesse, to bring it all hope. I had hoped she would honor Bowie’s birthday with a cover, as she’s fond of doing, but no such luck.

“It’s Elvis’ birthday,” she says. We all start yelling, “Bowie!”

“It’s Elvis’ birthday,” she says again, in good humor. “It’s a lot of people’s birthdays. Happy birthday to all the young dudes.”

They play “People Have the Power,” basically Smith’s version of “We Are the World.” Its exuberance about love affecting change in the world feels dated, and at odds with the cocksure cool of Horses. I look around at the people standing with their arms raised, singing along, and chafe at the song’s empty liberal promise. It’s perhaps the evening’s only sour note, a hiccup in the career of an artist who has otherwise made an art of her refusal to be outmoded.

She closes out the night with the Who’s “My Generation.” A tech comes out and hands Smith a guitar, which she played on her own terms, strumming for squalls of feedback until she’d broken the last string. In this moment, I see Kim Gordon, PJ Harvey, Annie Clark, Courtney Barnett, and the other women who’ve picked up her tradition-shattering, zero-fucks-given style of playing and living. I whisper a prayer of thanks that she and Bowie were born in this time, and not any other.

Despite the corniness of the last few songs, it was hard not to feel empowered and reinvigorated watching this woman perform with as much vivacity as she had 40 years ago. We admire Patti because she is what we want to be: herself, human, woman, complete. I pull out my diary and make a note: This is the best day.

Tasia Trevino is a writer and babe living in LA. She fronts the band Dowse and she's in tears when you rock and roll with her. Follow her on Twitter.

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