I never actually expected to see Patti Smith live, let alone see her live twice in the span of nine months. I also didn’t expect that one of those shows would be in New York City and the other in London. Life has a funny way of realizing dreams that you didn’t even know existed, and it’s a wonderful feeling to allow those unexpected visions to wash over your body like slow-rolling waves. To stand in awe, watching someone you adore go through the motions that made you want to follow them. To immerse yourself in a crowd, faces lit up and hearts full of love, and to feel the unity that only comes along with collective experience. All of those boxes got ticked when I saw Patti at Victoria Park on Sunday night, and I’m planning on holding onto every one of those feelings as long as I possibly can.
I bought tickets to this show as soon as it got announced. I was on the credit card information page before I could even fathom what my hands were doing, my heart moving my limbs rather than my head. Back then it felt ages away, and I was in a state of both shock and denial when I boarded the coach to London on Sunday morning. It was only once I stepped onto the festival grounds that reality began to settle in, my body ignited with electricity and anticipation as I weaved my way into the crowd. And then she was in front of us and there were tears in my eyes and my voice left my throat and all I could do was watch while the woman on stage somehow managed to change me all over again.
As if the sheer fact of seeing Patti Smith wasn’t enough to kill me, she started off her set with a reading of “Footnote to Howl” by Allan Ginsberg. The incessant repetition of Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! felt like a recognition of the holiest parts of every member of the audience and of Patti herself as she stood there channeling Ginsberg’s words, reminding us all that The world is holy! The soul is holy! Everything is holy! Everybody’s holy! I lost my breath for a little while, my mouth hanging open as I took in the scene before me: Patti’s grey hair hanging over her shoulders like a cloak, her brown boots pressed into the stage, her hands holding open a clipboard, a sticker pressed onto the back that read “Howl if you love City Lights Books.” She is as devoted to those who guide her soul as I am devoted to her, and all of that seemed to be boiled down into this singular moment at the beginning of the concert.
After the poem, the band plowed into ‘People Have the Power,’ a track that is decades old but doesn’t show any signs of losing its relevance. I made desperate attempts to sing along, but all I could really do was cry, and I eventually resorted to watching Patti do what she does best, my eyes swimming with tears and my face certainly displaying a rather insane array of emotions. I managed to scramble out a few lines of the chorus, every member of the crowd standing with their hands in the air and their voices screaming words of revolution, and I have never felt anything more whole or unified.
‘Summer Cannibals’ followed, and it felt heavy and perfect. Patti hangs onto a golden fountain of youth, all her anger and passion and emotion coming out when she performs, and it was incredible to watch. She then played ‘Citizen Ship,’ another song that remains politically-charged and remarkably important, and the shift in energy was palpable as we all listened to her words, facing the truth of the lyrics and spinning the track into a call to action.
The force of her message didn’t stop there. The entire performance was laced with meaning, and she was preaching to the choir as she spoke and sang to the crowd. Her cover of ‘Mind Games’ by John Lennon was followed by simple words urging us to “make love, not war.” All our voices seemed to rise a little while we chanted Love is the answer and you know that for sure, every member of the crowd riding the high of kindred spirits and messages of love and peace and community. She played ‘Beds Are Burning’ by Midnight Oil, too, and the takeaway was always the same – that we can’t remain stagnant anymore, can’t continue to stand by while the Earth goes up in flames, can’t keep our voices quiet when we all have things that need to be heard.
The set was rounded out with a trifecta of tracks that will likely never come close to being topped. My jaw dropped when the first chords of ‘Pissing in a River’ wafted over the speakers, and I lost myself in the song as I added my voice to the air above Victoria Park, screaming an endless mantra of Come back, come take me back along with the rest of the crowd. She then moved into ‘Land’ and ‘Gloria,’ and my world shrank to that single moment as London was bathed in golden hour light and Patti played my favourite song and I got to sing along. The band left the stage after a final admission of Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine, and I stood in place for a moment before turning and making my way out of the festival, another shred of my heart left suspended above Patti’s body.
I am left in constant awe of the effect that Patti Smith has on me. The way she speaks up, pulling words out of her mouth that allow the followers at her feet to find freedom and creativity and light. Her movement on stage, how she dances just to feel something, her infectious gestures thrumming through the crowd as we all begin to mirror her. Her mistakes and fumbles and the unapologetic nature with which she backs up and does it all over again just because she can. She holds nothing back. When she’s there, she’s all there – her body and her soul and her emotions and light and love. And it’s all endless, stretching on into the future and never seeming to disappear.
Patti shows up, for herself and for the world. And people come out in droves for her, following the trail of light she leaves across the globe. She is purposeful and she creates meaning and she calls, loudly, for the members of every crowd to be and do the same. She wants to lift people up, and she does, she always does. Days later, I still feel the glow of her energy around me, but I feel my glow, too, and I’m sure I’ll feel that for weeks to come. She exists in me just as I exist in her, and I will always be grateful that I get to experience that in real life, throwing my entire being into a physical connection with a woman whose footsteps I will follow until they disappear.