Theater Review: Patti Smith Mesmerizes on Closing Night of ‘Words and Music’ Retrospective

The veteran rocker's look back at her life and career was moving, intimate and unexpectedly hilarious.

Theater Review: Patti Smith Mesmerizes With ‘Words and Music’

“Can I walk up to the microphone again?” Patti Smith asks the audience gathered at the Minetta Lane Theater for her “Words and Music” retrospective. “I feel like the way I just did it, I looked like I’m 100 years old.”

It’s a comically unnecessary request — she’s playing for a couple hundred devoted fans; no one’s filming except a few people surreptitiously doing so with their phones; and, after all, it’s her show. But Smith returns to the back of the stage, picks up her book and glasses, and sidles back to the mic with an astonishing amount of insouciance and swagger — and you realize as if for the first time: she’s Patti Smith, pioneering punk poetess, rock star without precedent, peer or parallel. It’s like seeing your grandmother pull off a deft martial arts move or shoot the head off of a snake. At 71, she’s as badass as she ever was.

And there’s literally no one else like her. Equally influenced by Rimbaud and the Rolling Stones, incubated in the cultural cauldron of late ‘60s/early ‘70s New York, she rose as a poet, collaborated on a play with Sam Shepard and ultimately became the first rocker from the first wave of 1970s New York punk to break through (although her music incorporated many other styles, as well as a heavy dose of beat poetry). She released four albums that were a profound influence on succeeding generations — including U2, R.E.M. and every female rocker that followed — enjoyed a surprise hit single with “Because the Night,” her 1978 collaboration with Bruce Springsteen… And then she gave it all up to do the least punk, least rock and roll thing possible at the time: get married (to Fred Smith, guitarist with the equally pioneering MC5) and raise a family.

Upon his death nearly 15 years later, she revived her career and has continued to tour, release albums and books — “Just Kids,” her 2010 reminisce about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and their early days in New York, won a National Book Award and is indisputably one of the greatest-ever rock memoirs — while nurturing an adoring audience with the kind of warm, intimate and unexpectedly hilarious rapport that took center stage during the three nights of the “Words and Music” life-and-careepattr retrospective. She chatted, read excerpts from “Just Kids” and its follow-up, “M Train,” and performed percussionless arrangements of songs from her early career accompanied by her and Fred’s two now-grown children, Jessie and Jackson, and longtime accompanist Tony Shanahan. (The performances were limited to these three nights, but were recorded and will be available Nov. 2 on Audible.com; a lovely new edition of “Just Kids,” featuring loads of photographs from the era, is coming on HarperCollins next month.)

It’s difficult not to compare her show with the thematically similar “Springsteen on Broadway”: The two shows’ based-on-a-memoir premises are almost identical, as is the era they’re describing. But their stories are very different, with Smith’s focused alternately on her Zelig-like early days in New York — where she actually hung out with everyone from William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin — and her domestic years raising her family and making music with Smith. And while Springsteen’s show is shot through with a different version of the teeth-gritted intensity he brings to seemingly everything, Smith’s is unexpectedly warm and loose, given the melancholy of the subject matter (several characters in her story are long deceased) and the seriousness of much of her work, not to mention her towering history.

It’s also extremely funny: Smith displays an unexpected sense of comic timing and tossed off casually poetic lines like, when noticing how dirty her glasses were, “They look like the clouds sh– on them!”

Clad all in black, her hair in loose pigtails, she took the stage holding hands with daughter Jessie and greeted the audience amiably and read a Rainer Maria Rilke poem — the pronunciation whose name she botched and then made fun of herself — before picking up a copy of “Just Kids.” And as she began to read, her accent and demeanor changed to the voice you hear during the poetry passages of her galvanizing 1975 album “Horses,” a kind of tough, g-droppin’ cross between New York, her native South Jersey and a 1940s gangster. She read passages from the books, illustrating them with comic asides — about the characters she’d see in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, about the first time she smoked hashish and then couldn’t figure out where the past three hours had gone, about her Instagram account, about the furniture decorating the stage, which included Fred Smith’s guitar and a cat-chewed chair “that has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times” — before concluding each passage with a zinger and then performing a song.

She recalled how Mapplethorpe always wanted her to have a hit song and his pride and delight when she finally did; she spoke of how her 1988 anthem “People Have the Power” was born one day when she was peeling potatoes and Fred Smith walked into the kitchen and said, “Tricia! ‘People Have the Power’: Write it!’” She moved through “Wing,” “Dancing Barefoot,” “Peacable Kingdom” and “Frederick,” but the show’s most powerful moment came when she delivered “The Jackson Song,” the piano-driven lullaby that closes her 1988 album “People Have the Power,” written when she was pregnant with her son, and a tear-jerker of a song if ever there was one. She recalled Mapplethorpe — then desperately ill from AIDS — and Smith were in the studio when she recorded the song, and when she’d finished, the former had fallen asleep on the couch; the latter wept, as did many people in the audience. (Jackson, now 36, broke the somber mood, drawing laughs when he returned to the stage after she’d finished, with arms outspread like, “Here I am, mom!”)

She also recalled the countless times she’d walked past the Minetta Lane Theater, starting with her early days as a teenager bussing in from New Jersey. “I thought I was so cool, I’d go to the Café Dante and drink coffee and write poetry and I used to pass this theater all the time and wonder, ‘Whos in there? What are they doin’?’ Now I know.”

The set wound down with a sublime “Because the Night,” an unexpected U2 cover (the recent “Love Is All We Have Left,” and her own “Pissing in a River” before she ended by saying, “Okay people, let’s peel some f—in’ potatoes” and followed with a rousing “People Have the Power,” which she delivered as the “banner” she intended it to be, her fist raised, exhorting the audience to vote, to “use your voice.”

She graciously thanked the audience and began to walk offstage, incongruously to the strains of Golden Earring’s cheesy 1974 hit “Radar Love.” She bolted back to the microphone, and the audience got a bonus story about why that unlikely song was her and Fred Smith’s song: because it was the only record in a rented house they once stayed in. It was an unexpected ending, but a fittingly warm and witty way to send the closing-night crowd home.