By Ross Altman, Ph.D.

Epigraph: “…No longer presidents but prophets…” (Birdland, from Horses, 1975)

patti smith

Bookended by her international protest anthem People Have the Power, Patti Smith was greeted by the most overwhelming outburst of applause I have ever heard when she walked out on the stage of the Walt Disney Concert Hall last Friday night. She acknowledged the audience’s enthusiastic anticipation by thanking us and then turning around as if to walk off the stage. But she was just joking—and the concert she gave more than lived up to its promise. She opened with the song we had all come to hear—a spoken word version of People Have the Power, just her alone at the microphone:

People Have The Power

I was dreamin' in my dreamin'

Of an aspect bright and fair

And my sleepin' it was broken

But my dream it lingered near

In the form of shinin' valleys

Where the pure air recognized

Oh, and my senses newly opened

And I awakened to the cry

And the people have the power

To redeem the work of fools

From the meek the graces shower

It's decreed the people rule

People have the power

People have the power

People have the power

People have the power

“To redeem the work of fools…”

We all knew who she meant.

Only then did she introduce the concert by acknowledging Herbie Hancock, and thanking him for inviting her to participate in his Power to the People! series—the first time, she noted with real pride, she has appeared at Disney Concert Hall. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer then launched into her two hour program, going all the way back to her first landmark album Horses—with her iconic opening line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

I had no idea she was friends with Last Tango in Paris co-star Maria Schneider—who sadly passed away in 2011—but her song Maria was dedicated to her. She said that they were best friends when Maria lived in Los Angeles in the ’70s. Who knew? I never saw them together and I lived in L.A. during the at that time. You can’t tell from the lyrics—not one word about Marlon Brando or Last Tango. But I’ll take her word for it.

Similarly, I had no idea she was friends with Kurt Cobain either, until she introduced her song About a Boy by saying it was about him. Except that it turns out that Cobain had a song called About a Girl, on the 1989 album Bleach, which was obviously the source of her title. Once again, though, there’s nothing else in the song about Cobain—and no mention of Nirvana to give you a hint.

Nor did I know of any connection movie star actor Johnny Depp had to the song Nine, until Smith introduced her song by saying she wrote it for him: “I went to visit him in Puerto Rico when he was filming Run Diary. It was his birthday and I didn’t have a present, so I wrote him a song.” Well, Mazel Tov and Happy Birthday, Johnny—but really so what? A song has to stand on its own bottom—that’s what Robert Frost said. And knowing it was written for some celebrity—be it the star of Last Tango in Paris, or the author of Smells Like Teen Spirit, or the super-star lead of Pirates of the Caribbean—should not affect one’s appreciation of it.

Then I remembered why we were there, and it wasn’t to hear her celebrity songs:

It was to hear her anti-celebrity song—the song she wrote with Fred “Sonic” Smith. In that connection she introduced both of their children—guitarist Jackson Smith, and her daughter (at the keyboards) Jesse Paris Smith. The rest of her band included guitarist and sometime co-writer Lenny Kaye, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, and on bass and piano Tony Shanahan. During her Remembrance of Things Past she described some heartwarming moments she shared watching TV with her late husband, and read from her most recent book Year of the Monkey. (passage - I dreamed of a long train of migrants.) Then she sang her exquisite song for Fred, simply called, Frederick, from Wave. One verse evokes the whole song:


Name of care

Fast asleep

In a room somewhere

Guardian angels/up above

On the one I love.

Her famous true love song—also for him—is Because the Night, co-written with Bruce Springsteen, waiting for the phone to ring:

Have I doubt when I'm alone

Love is a ring, the telephone

Love is an angel disguised as lust

Here in our bed until the morning comes

Come on now try and understand

The way I feel under your command

Take my hand as the sun descends

They can't touch you now,

Can't touch you now, can't touch you now

Because the night belongs to lovers ...

After her tribute to legendary guitarist for MC 5 (Motor City 5) Fred “Sonic” Smith she reprised her recent appearance on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon where she covered the Neil Young classic After the Gold Rush, (also on Wave) accompanied by just her pianist Tony Shanahan. It was shimmering, sumptuous and beautiful, including Young’s updated lyrics for his cautionary tale from 1970, “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the twenty first century.” 

I was fortunate to hear one of the last shows at Disney Concert Hall before it joined the list of major venues closed due to the Coronavirus shut down until further notice. Coming up this week in the same series (and now postponed) was supposed to be Angela Davis, who I was looking forward to seeing—if only to see Walt Disney spinning in his grave at the sight of Ms. Davis holding forth on the subject of Power to the People and no one coming to arrest her. It almost makes me wonder whether it wasn’t the ghost of Walt Disney somehow behind this pandemic. Perhaps he drew the line at Angela Davis.

From that same album, Wave, from 1979, comes a song that speaks to and for all the refugees in today’s world, Citizen Ship:

I was caught like a moth with its wings outta sync.

Cut the chord. Overboard. Just a refugee.

Lady liberty, lend a hand to me, I've been cast adrift.

Adrift. Adrift. Adrift. Adrift. Adrift. Adrift.

On the citizen ship we got mem'ries

Citizen ship, we got pain.

Lose your grip on the citizen ship,

you're cast, you're cast away.

On the citizen ship you got mem'ry.

Citizen ship you got pain.

Citizen ship you got identity.

A name. A name. A name...

It was so powerful, just to hear it in the magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall—her ode to Lady Liberty. It brought to life all the recent refugees stuck at our southern border, with nowhere to go, or worse yet, stuck in cages across the border, separated from their kids—also in cages. That is Patti Smith at her best, a voice for the voiceless, seething with compassion.

No doubt that is why Bob Dylan asked her if she would stand in for him at the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm—where she wound up singing his classic song for the refugee—A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall:

Where the people are many and their hands are all empty

Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters

Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison

And the executioner's face is always well hidden…

And, as she alluded to at the Disney concert, she had to stop before she came to his line about “And I’ll know my song well before I start singing,” because she forgot the words! But she tried again and got through it—and the audience embraced her and turned her moment of embarrassment into a triumph.

Her last song was the first song off her first album, Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances—which segues into Van Morrison’s Gloria. It’s an epic which Smith must have sung a thousand times—but she sang it tonight as if for the first tine—just a magnificent performance. When she had finished telling this Homeric story with its overtones of a male gang rape that she most likely got from photographer Robert Mapplethorpe—her lover at the time—who was in the process of coming out of the closet himself—the applause was so deafening that it made me cry. She won the National Book Award in 2010 for her memoir Just Kids about their relationship—the book she promised him she would write as he lay dying. As she slipped behind the curtain the audience continued applauding, demanding an encore. When she finally returned they were ecstatic.

But she didn’t come back alone, or with just her band. While she was backstage her tech crew set up eleven additional microphones in front of the band—for her guest performers, YOLA—the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles—to accompany Patti Smith and Her Band in a full choral version of the song she began with, The People Have the Power. They were beautiful—eleven young people—girls and boys of all races and colors—who looked like America. They sang and looked and sounded like a trained chorus—as indeed they were. What a joy they were to see and hear!

It was the perfect ending to a great concert. Patti Smith ended the show with her words of wisdom—“Use your voice—Vote!” And then her meaningful postscript—speaking in her own quiet prophetic voice: “Keep up your strength—your immune system is what will protect you, so protect your immune system.” In one sentence she said exactly what we needed to hear. Thank you, Patti Smith, for an amazing concert—and giving us words of comfort and hope as we face an uncertain future.

Bob Dylan and His Band will be at the Hollywood Bowl Thursday June 18, 2020.

Special thanks to Lydia Fong and Kassandra Winchester for last-minute press pass.

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton (1973); he belongs to Local 47 (AFM); heads the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club; writes for FolkWorks and he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.