When Patti Smith played her first show in San Diego in 1976 my dad wouldn’t let me go with him. It was a highly anticipated show and he preferred to spend it with his buddy, which, in hindsight, is understandable. Still, I was pretty fucking pissed at the time and have held a grudge against him ever since. Dad had brought home her debut, the John Cale-produced Horses, the month it came out in 1975 and suddenly Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Elton John weren’t the terribly important mainstays of my record collection that they had been.
Her follow up, Radio Ethiopia, was a spotty follow up to my ears, but with occasional flashes of brilliance like “Piss Factory.” Her third album, the commercial breakthrough Easter, saw her getting the glossy production treatment in spite of her previous free-form approach. Gone was the wide-eyed anarcho-poetess, replaced by a more radio-friendly (but equally venomous) Patti. Subsequent albums like Wave again had their moments, but she had begun treading a path marked as much by convention as rebellion.
As a result, I’ve blown her off every other time she came to town over the last twenty-some years, fearful that the evening would end up being a poetry reading instead of a concert. That sounds awful, but when one considers the brilliant, landscape-changing power of her early work, the thought of Patty the Poet reading sheets of paper without musical backing sounds kinda anti-climactic. To my eternal chagrin, none of her shows, as testified to by several friends, was anything but electric, often marked by entire sets of nothing but early material. D’oh!
At the 2004 San Diego Street Scene, Patti was relegated to an early, opening slot playing warm up for the Black Eyed Peas, A Tribe Called Quest, and Ben Harper. So it kind of goes without saying that the two hundred or so people who watched the first half of her show in rapt attention were there to see her. Halfway through the set, the fourteen-year-olds began arriving, complaining about having to endure Patti’s political lecturing just to get a good spot for the following bands.
The set was liberally spiked with more recent material, with several songs from her latest album, Trampin’, including “Gandhi” and “Radio Baghdad.” But it was when she whipped out earlier material, like “Break It Up” and “Free Money” that she seemed to be resurrect the old Patti Smith, full of piss and bile, challenging the universe to snap her like a twig and emboldened when it didn’t.
As she raged indignantly against the system, the crowd swelled with kids, griping about the crazy lady on stage railing against the Bush administration and the injustices suffered by the Palestinians. Maybe it was the accusatory finger she pointed at the crowd, maybe it was nothing deeper than a musical generation gap. Whatever, the kids weren’t having it and shuffled anxiously waiting for someone, anyone else to take the stage.
Told she only had two minutes, Patti signaled the band to switch gears and began a countdown into an abbreviated version of her incendiary “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger” that left even the most jaded little kid gaping in amazement.