Patti Smith Moves Through Song and Stories During Electric Lady Studios Performance

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

On November 27, 2020, Patti Smith performed at Electric Lady Studios. No stranger to the New York City hub, famed for its recordings by David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and more contemporary acts, it’s also where she recorded her 1975 debut Horses, and several albums thereafter. Like many artists in 2020, Smith was playing somewhat out of her element. There was no audience, no reaction, just a livestream in a familiar space. There to offer some solace after nearly a year of quarantine and living through the beginning stages of an ongoing global pandemic, Smith used the studio as a temporary haven—even adding on a Dec. 30 birthday show—and released Live at Electric Lady EP a year later. 

Commemorating 2-2-22, or Feb. 2, 2022, Smith returned to Electric Lady, alongside longtime bandmates and collaborators Lenny Kaye and bassist Tony Shanahan for a nine-song set, interspersed with readings, exclusively for her Substack subscribers, sharing stories behind some of her songs, readings from a hand-picked selection of books, and honoring the start of the Year of the Tiger, which began on 2/2/22, a date Smith didn’t connect to her performance at first until Michael Stipe pointed it out to her.

“I didn’t even realize at first that we were moving into 2222 until I got a message from my friend Michael Stipe,” said Smith. “He reminded me that it was 2222, a day of power and also a night of power.”

Smith added, “So we’re together on this night of power and very grateful,” before opening with “Grateful,” capturing the essence of the symbolic date singing It all come out fine / I’ve learned it line by line… All that you desire, rolls on ahead.

Joking that she washed her hair for the event, Smith shared an intermission, a tribute to the Chinese New Year, and the year of the tiger, singing William Blake’s 1794 poem “The Tyger” from his book “Songs of Innocence and Experience.”

Moving along, Smith sang through her ode to Blake on “My Blakean Year”—Embrace all that you fear, because joy will conquer all—before sharing a memory and link between her friend, the late Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Blake. 

“William Blake always makes me think of Allen Ginsberg,” shared Smith, “because Ginsberg always revered… his two favorite guys that he loved were Walt Whitman and William Blake. When Allen was in his last hours some of us were having vigil at his loft… Alan had hundreds and hundreds of books and shelves of hundreds of books and shelves and shelves of William Blake.” 

Lenny Kaye

Like Blake, who wrote comments in his copy of John Milton’s 1667 novel Paradise Lost, Ginsberg had done the same, adding his own notations in his copy, according to Smith. “Blake loved [John] Milton the way Allen loved Blake,” added Smith.

Breaking to share a passage from her book “Just Kids,” Smith recounted how she met Ginsberg at a now-defunct Horn & Hardart food automat. “I was always hungry,” shared Smith from her book. “Robert [Mapplethorpe] could always go without eating much longer than me.” Back then, added Smith, they would go without food if they didn’t have money because there were no credit cards. “If you didn’t have money,” added Smith in between reading her passage, “you just didn’t eat.”

Rustling up the 55 cents for her favorite sandwich, cheese and mustard with lettuce on a poppy seed roll, Smith headed to the food dispensary where Ginsberg came to her rescue. “I slipped on my gray trench coat, Mayakovsky cap, and I headed to the automat,” Smith continued from her passage. “I got my tray and slipped in my coins but the window wouldn’t open. I tried again without luck and then I noticed the price had gone up to 65 cents. I was really disappointed, to say the least when I heard a voice say ‘Can I help?’ I turned around and it was Allen Ginsberg. We had never met but there was no mistaking the face of one of our greatest poets and activists.”

Smith said the two often reminisced about their first encounter. “He once asked me how I would describe how we met,” added Smith. “I would say ‘you fed me when I was hungry.’”

“And he did,” added Smith, before moving into her 1978 track “Ghost Dance,” with Kaye chiming We shall live again. The one-and-a-half-hour set continued on with more reminisces and songs from Smith’s nearly 50-year career. Satisfying some viewer requests, Smith performed “Free Money,” one of the first songs she wrote with Kaye, and inspired by her mother, who would always dream of winning the lottery.

Reading a passage from Janna Levin’s “Black Hole Survival Guide,” Smith also referenced the 1971 War song “Slippin’ into Darkness” reflecting on life during the pandemic.

“Don’t you sort of feel like we’re in a black hole right now,” said Smith. “We’re in the field of some entire nuclear tube like some giant nuclear tube taking us to some weird place, but it’s a good, weird place because it has the power of [2, 2, 22].”

Jumping around her life and times and the music that painted it, Smith sang “Redondo Beach,” a song later released on Horses and written while she was living in the Chelsea Hotel. “I actually wrote the lyrics to this at the Chelsea Hotel long before it became a song,” shared Smith. “It was just like a little poem, and then Lenny Kaye and our late pianist Richard Sohl made it into a little reggae song.”

Rounding out the set, Smith broke to plug Kaye’s recent book “Lightning Striking, Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll” before sharing another passage from her 1992 book “Woolgathering,” and intro-ing “Kimberly,” a song about her younger sister. She then recounted her first visit to the resting places of Arthur Rimbaud and Jim Morrison, while in France in 1973, singing “We Three” and “Beneath the Southern Cross.”

“It’s really a song of remembrance and also a song of life,” said Smith of the latter track, closing with cross over people, cross over.

“Cross over what you might say,” asked Smith before closing her performance with “Dancing Barefoot.” 

“It’s been almost two years since we were thrust into the demands of the pandemic and it’s transformed our word quite a bit, not just our external world but our internal world,” said Smith. “We must remain prudent and look back at all the things that we’ve learned, and how to take care of ourselves.”

Smith, who has been contributing to her ongoing project The Melting, a collection of literary and diary entries shared exclusively with subscribers on Substack, added:

“We have to reclaim our desire to work, our desire to do good work, our desire to extend our hand to each other, to extend our hand to people in need. It’s the year of the tiger and new energy. We’re still going to have to navigate all the changes in our world. We still have to navigate whatever threads, whatever vapors of the virus remain… We are ourselves. Each person, each human being has his own story, has his own fate, has his own capabilities. I feel ready.”

Photo: Substack / Mandolin

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