“Don’t forget it! Use your voice!!!!”
So shouted 69-year-old Patti Smith, arms flailing, long grey hair flying, at the Wiltern in Los Angeles during Saturday’s sold-out last night of her tour performing her iconic 1975 album Horses for its 40th anniversary. She spit on the stage, danced barefoot and thrust her voice to the heavens, with the crowd roaring back. An older female artist thrumming with life, rage, rock and joy; aging, ageless, human.
About 24 hours later, David Bowie – only a few days after his own 69th birthday and the release of his new album Blackstar – died, and the internet broke open in mourning. I sat, in shock, and started writing a song for him, memories of Patti Smith twisting in my head.
There was the dichotomy, a woman beloved by many, on-stage in Robert Mapplethorpe-era androgynous garb – a black blazer, black vest, white shirt, dark pants, work hunting boots (choose your hunting boots) – and Bowie, a man beloved by many, who for so long also subverted gender in sinewy Ziggy Stardust cat suits and glittering makeup. How to live and die as an artist pushing 70. Art beyond death.
Use your voice, Smith said at the show, and I did, honing my years of singing her songs as a writer and musician born and raised in Hollywood, a place part glam, part molting concrete. I belted along to “Break It Up,” her soaring and dreamy tribute to Jim Morrison, and “Gloria,” a cover of Them’s garage stomp. The chorus “Glooooooria! G-L-O-R-I-A!!” hit the walls anthem-huge, Smith’s one-of-a-kind vibrato throaty, raw and loud.
She whirled and read poetry, her glasses perched on her nose, and joked about winning the lottery. She ripped strings off of a black Fender Strat, yelling, “My generation, this was our weapon of choice!” She was freedom incarnate, fearless, a feminist icon – whether or not she defined herself as one.
“All those we love, and have passed, live on in our memories,” she said towards the end, swooning into keyboard-filled dirge “Elegie,” a sad, beautiful ode honoring Jimi Hendrix, and more who have died. She named Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Smith’s late husband and MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. Bowie had not yet made the list.
Death is what first brought me to Patti Smith’s music, and her expression of life and loss – live and on record – have kept me listening. As with Bowie, I fell for her misfit ability to rebel, to use words and melodies as a slippery descent into the gut. Places we don’t want to go, but must, like dreams ripping the mind at night. Images that reach you unconsciously with a frantic zoom, with purpose.
Twenty years ago, in 1996, I first saw Smith play at small, packed L.A. club the Roxy, after my high school English teacher introduced me to Horses. She had started performing for the first time in years, touring passionately behind her album Gone Again, which mourned the deaths of her husband, her brother Todd and her longtime friend and soul brother Mapplethorpe.
I was a fledging woman then, 17, punkish and academic, singing since I was 4, in bands since age 15. I was shaped by the grit of PJ Harvey, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Prince, The Pretenders, X, Hole and Bikini Kill.
My mom had died years earlier, a week before my 10th birthday, and that throbbing mass of loss inside my body cracked open in junior high and high school. Dyed magenta hair, ripped jeans, combat boots. Songwriting, writing and singing – feeling my voice stretch open and wide – were my main releases, and still are. Patti Smith was everything. A smart, literary poet, musician and woman who knew loss.
After that Roxy show, I wrote a poem called “Homage to Patti Smith” – urgent, teenage, sharp – one day knowing I would give it to her. I did. In 1997, during my first year in college in New York City, I saw her play her first show at CBGB in more than 15 years.
It was dirty, sweaty, hip-to-hip heat, and I snuck backstage – on the way to CBGB’s graffiti-splattered bathroom – to give her the poem and a red rose. She took both – bright eyes, no words – and frantically ripped the rose on-stage. She descended into that larger-than-life shamanistic place. I stood mesmerized, directly in front of the stage. She played for three hours.
Since then, from fan to performer, I’ve poured poetry and soul into my own music. To move, sweat, sing and let words and emotion pour out. My songs go dark, light and race through my heart, about the death of my mom, about love, friendship, memory, pain, Charlie Parker, Big Sur, about being a “Cruel Hearted Woman” and inverting the traditional rock ‘n’ roll norm.
In 2012, interviewing Smith for the first time, for Entertainment Weekly, before a tiny private L.A. show, I finally talked to her directly about her influences, her songs, her writing, including her glorious 2010 memoir Just Kids, and her love of movies and art. We sat tucked away in a corner.
I couldn’t help but tell her about giving her that poem years before. She nodded, acknowledging gifts from fans year after year, and feeling grateful. Then she stepped on-stage and filled the room with convulsive power. She was 65.
“Don’t forget it! Use your voice!!!!”
That rally, that declaration to stand up and believe in creativity, in expression, in not being silent or alone, no matter how young or old.
We did just that at the Wiltern, singing with our voices low, high, melodic, bold, shouting our blood, bones and lives – women of all ages – to the rooftop, with 69-year-old Patti Smith, on the cusp on Bowie’s death, leading us forward.
Solvej Schou is a Southern California based writer-reporter and musician whose national stories have been published in outlets including The Associated Press, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard and Los Angeles Times. Formerly an EW senior staff writer and AP staff writer, she has interviewed a range of directors, actresses and artists, including Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Alicia Vikander, Jane Campion, Xavier Dolan, Chrissie Hynde, Aretha Franklin and Patti Smith. She sings, stomps, sweats and plays a Fender Strat. Her music can be found at CD Baby, Amazon, and iTunes.