Sitting at the edge of the Granada theater stage, the godmother of punk rock shook her silver hair out before jumping down, landing with a feathery thud into the thin carpet. A collective gasp came from 272 audience members sitting in the front section who held their breath as she moved past them, dancing and clapping for her band onstage. Humble as ever, she tried to make herself a member of the crowd, giving her beloved guitarist of over 25 years Lenny Kaye time to shine. But it didn’t work. All eyes were on the otherworldly woman roaming through the aisles: Patti Smith.
Sexy, expressive and constantly in motion, Smith and her band played a 15-song set as part of UCSB Arts & Lectures winter season. Wearing jeans that bagged around the knees and her signature menswear blazer, Smith bent gender roles through her feisty cool girl stage presence. Described by the late rock critic Lester Bangs in 1976 as a “badass who pulls off the feat of being simultaneously idol of women and lust object of men,” the 68-year-old rocker continued to bring the badassery.
In between verses of “Ain’t It Strange,” she sprayed saliva over her right shoulder, nearly hitting her bassist, Tony Shanahan, standing four feet away. During the heavier songs, Smith prowled around the stage like an animal, letting Kaye’s explosive guitar riffs pulsate throughout her body. At one point there was so much fierce tension onstage between singer and guitarist that a fire seemed to erupt from their knees, as they kept bending back and forth towards each other in a frenzy.
At other times, Smith displayed a feminine flirtiness. During “Pumping (My Heart),” she climbed towards the drum kit, playfully waving her body in front of drummer of 40 years Jay Dee Daugherty. Her dancing ranged from the feistiness of an angsty teenage boy to the slow, fleshy movements of a woman seducing her lover. “She danced as if she was a 50s back up dancer with an up-do and a miniskirt, and it honestly made me want to take my clothes off,” said fourth-year English major Natalie O’Brien, who paused a second before adding, “I think I’m in love with a woman.”
While she undoubtedly had enormous sex appeal, Smith also exuded a mother-like warmth throughout the venue. Gracious and humble, she never tried to out-do her band. Instead, she showed support and love, visibly encouraging them to jam harder and slipping into the audience and the side of the stage to observe the whole scene.
It wasn’t just the band that felt the warmth; the whole of Granada felt the golden honey cover their bodies and melt away the stresses of tomorrow. Her love for her fans was evident when she trotted through the aisles, holding hands of people who reached for her and receiving hugs and kisses with a smile.
Linda Benet, a faculty member of SBCC, saw Smith at festivals in the mid-70s, but Tuesday’s show was the first time she saw the rocker perform on a solo bill. “Patti is someone many, many of us seem to trust to take into our psyches perhaps ’cause of her honesty and rawness combined with love,” Benet said.
This idea of trust resonates especially with those who work closely with Smith. “Her love goes to all people, all people around the world [who] she helps. Patti never had enough food when she was growing up, she never had a toy … she slept in streets. These experiences made her warm,” said Yuki Burns, Smith’s personal assistant, in a conversation after the show. A peppy Japanese lady, Burns has worked with Smith for over 15 years, and handed out prized set lists in Smith’s handwriting to anyone who wanted it.
Another thing about the lady rocker is that she’s got no shortage of wit. During an improvised rendition of “My Blakean Year,” she stopped the poetry on a line about Ethel Barrymore to rant about John Barrymore being a black sheep and how humans give pigs a bad name. A natural performer, she maintained a lively conversation with the audience throughout the entire show. “Wing!” a man in row Y shouted, referencing a song from Gone Again. “Oh we’re not doing that one,” she answered, but then went into a cappella on the chorus. It was rough around the edges, but her spirit was there and claps ensued afterward. “Sang a little flat, but it was for him, so,” she winked towards the back row.
Songs were sung in memory of Amy Winehouse, Monty Brown and Fred “Sonic” Smith, the last of whom is her late husband. “I wrote the words of this song for my boyfriend in 1978 … He became my husband, the father of my children and though he is departed, we think of him always. When I sing the words of this song, it is as if it were the first time,” she said, slowing her voice to annunciate “first” and “time” as separate units. “Because the Night” followed this sweet introduction.
A second tender moment came when she told the story of how The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” was the first song she hit all the notes to when she was 16. “Eric Burdon and the Animals … were for us, they were for the disenfranchised, the mavericks, the black sheep, maybe they were for John Barrymore. I say this because tonight we all got to meet Eric and I didn’t get to express this little story to him … I am singing today because I hit all the notes.”
But the best part of the night came when Smith began the poetry of “Gandhi.” Pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose and reading off two sheets of paper stapled together, she started off slow, so slow one could’ve been lulled to sleep.
Then came the thunder, the firepower that gets unleashed when Smith gets in the groove. Over the course of eight minutes, she threw the paper down, shoved her glasses into the blazer, spat over her shoulder three times and knocked over the mic stand twice. The song pulled and pulsed, the build moving gradually until all of Granada was about to explode with a carnal euphoria.
In a moment that went unnoticed by the frontwoman, a man sitting in row P behind a couple sharing binoculars smiled to himself. “Nobody does a build like Patti Smith,” he announced out loud. “Nobody.”