Having earned her name as the godmother of punk in the late 70’s and being the voice of youth and rebellion through four decades, “the princess of piss” Patti Smith stroke down on a hot summer night in Antwerp at OLT Rivierenhof. A performance I’ve been awaiting ever since I first heard her music and read her book “Just Kids”. The crowd at OLT Rivierenhof was a melting pot of generations. I was wondering why my mother wasn’t there, as she was the one who taught me about Patti Smith. I’ve never had the chance to see Patti perform. I’ve always been too late to buy a ticket as her concerts always sell out. However, this was the moment. This was it. I couldn’t really grasp the feeling I got 5 minutes before Smith appeared on the stage. Overwhelmed. Nervous. In awe.
Patti Smith walked up the beautiful little stage at the bottom of the amphitheater, situated in the middle of a park surrounded by water. An idyllic setting to see this lady perform. The crowd cheered at the sight of her smile, often hidden behind her long grey hair. The song Wing started playing and the crowd started swaying, each and every individual present had his eyes fixed on the mesmerizing creature on stage.
Hearing the first notes of the second song, me and my friends took off our shoes. We danced barefoot to Dancing Barefoot, digging our feet in the dirty ground and screaming out our lungs. We stayed like that until Smith began a speech about how mothers everywhere lose their children to our world. The weight of the silence that fell upon the crowd was indescribable as Smith sang Mothers of the Disappeared, which is a U2 cover.
Smith searched for her book next to her cup on the stage, but she had to disappoint us as she must have forgotten it. Whilst she’s telling us about the poem she wanted to read us another copy of the book was brought on stage. Smith opened it to recite a poem of Andrei Tarkovsky, a Russian filmmaker who inspired her when she travelled through Russia. The track is a response to the film Ivan’s Childhood, the lyrics could be seen as transcriptions of Tarkovsky’s film although Smith’s words are very dreamy. The horrors of war became clear in a verse Smith repeated as if it were a mantra. “The boy, the beast and the butterfly.” The poem flowed over into a song she dedicated to Tarkovsky.
In between songs Smith tells us stories and wisdom about her life and the world. She opens up conversations with the crowd, replying when someone shouts something political and cracks a joke from time to time. I couldn’t be more surprised by Patti Smith’s presence. She’s a warm, charming and honest person and we barely get to see such appearances in today’s musical world.
Patti: In Excelsis Deo
When the famous piano tune of Because the Night started playing, there was no soul in the crowd that didn’t stand up to dance and yell every single lyric. Next to me an elderly woman, who could have been anybody’s mother, started jumping up and down, dancing and screaming along completely out of breath. (side note: although she was singing the wrong lyrics her presence was appreciated.) Older generations dancing together with younger generations, understanding each other with the music of Patti Smith. The sentence that opens her album Horses resonated over the crowd. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” The crowd chanted Gloria from the very beginning of the song until the very end of it. Smith left the stage and as I looked around me I saw everyone singing Gloria until Smith came back because she owed us one more song.
People Have the Power. Smith turned the spirit of the 60’s into a protest song, to reintroduce the kind of energy that lived back then, to inspire people. This song never really lost its relevancy and neither did Patti Smith. If you’re not very familiar with Patti Smith, you wouldn’t really understand why this was such an important concert. Here I am, about to open your eyes and your mind to one of the most beautiful artists to ever bless the artistic universe.
How a shy kid became the godmother of punk
Today Patti Smith is a 70-year-old woman, owning the stage with more confidence and power than ever. However this wasn’t always the case. When Smith was a young kid, she struggled with coming to terms with her body and mind. Being a tall, slim and shy kid, Smith was confused about so many things. Often being described as a tomboy because of her male features, she experienced some confusion about her gender. Until art teachers introduced her to Modigliani and Picasso’s blue period. Then she realised great artists pictured women built like her and they were still beautiful (she hung pictures of those art pieces around her mirror).
Smith had the ambition to become an art teacher. Yet she couldn’t dedicate herself to her studies and found herself spending all her attention on ambiguous artists. At the age of 21, Smith followed her guts to become an artist. She moved to the city of New York and started working in a bookstore. Smith dedicated herself to writing, published several poetry books (which I strongly recommend to read) and wrote articles for Rolling Stone magazine. An interesting love affair developed when she met a man and fell in love with him, artist Robert Mapplethorpe was the lucky man, who sadly ended the relationship when he discovered his homosexuality.
Smith once brought a guitarist to one of her poetry readings, melting poetry with rock ’n roll and soon she recorded a song called “Piss Factory”, which is considered the first real punk song. Soon Bob Dylan was a fan and in 1975 her debut album Horses instantly claimed its spot as an early punk rock album in the list of the best albums of all time. Although Smith only had one real hit single, co-written by Bruce Springsteen, she never really meant to be a rock star. Yet she managed to become a figurehead of American punk and one of the biggest influences of her time.
What Smith taught the world
Being a pacifist and a strong believer in human rights, Smith wrote tons of protest songs or at least had lyrics with an underlying political meaning. She became a revolutionary icon for many generations. Today she still is the voice of the people as she reminds everyone to use their own voice. An icon who taught us to embrace androgynous styles, to embrace our armpit hair, to be yourself, to be unique, to be brave, to never give up, to devote yourself, to what you love and to embrace your body and mind.
Patti Smith wrote two books, Just Kids and M-Train, and if you haven’t read them, you should run to your local bookstore or library and read it. Listen to her music in the links below. Look Patti Smith up on the internet. Look at how beautiful she is. Read what she has to say and let her entire being inspire you to become who you really deserve to be.
Photo credits: Damon De Backer