words by Tanya Madorsky
Climbing up the stairs of the 72nd street subway station, the hustle and bustle of people draped in wet coats crisscrossed and weaved through each other on their way to get home during Tuesday night rush hour. Just beyond, the crowd was even denser, standing under the illuminated marquee of the beautiful Beacon Theatre, trying to get dry and waiting to enter to find their seats: tonight Patti Smith and Her Band are commemorating that, on this very day 40 years ago, Horses was released.
Inside, the public cushioned their seats with their coats and settled in before the evening began. Amongst the crowd was everyone from teenagers to white-haired seniors with canes and wheelchairs. Everyone was there for a reason: because in some way, Smith’s Horses touched their life. Included in this group was surprise guest opener Michael Stipe. A good friend of Smith’s, Stipe delivered a rare public performance with a set of karaoke covers (complete with a projected lyrics screen facing the audience) including Neil Young’s “Young Man,” Mott the Hoople/David Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes,” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” He even strutted his signature Michael Stipe dance during The Doors’ “People are Strange.”
A quick trip to the bar and the bathroom later, the lights were dimming. The Godmother of Punk takes the stage. The raucous applause slowly dies and poking through come those first few slow, calculated piano notes…Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine… By the end of the wind-up before the eruption into “GLORIA,” the audience seemed to collectively rise to their feet with the crescendo’s cathartic explosion.
The band pummeled through Side A of Horses, wrapping up with the strained and passionate “Free Money” before taking a quick gut check to ensure everyone was still with them. Still standing, the entire venue burst with energetic cheering. Side B. Guitar-less for most of the set, Smith read her poetry in between songs, and sang as clearly as she did in 1975. She seemed to be the conductor of the symphony that was before her, tensely spreading her fingers and appearing to conjure a magical orb that is then launched into the crowd at the climactic points of the songs. “Kimberly,” “Break It Up,” then “Land,” during which Smith transitioned into a reprise of “Gloria,” as she galloped along the edge of the stage, punching the air with power, prompting a mirroring effect of hundreds of fists pointed back towards her.
After Horses, the band still had time for additional songs off of subsequent albums, like 1983’s “Because the Night” as well as a tribute to The Velvet Underground with a medley of “Rock & Roll,” “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat.”
She pauses to deliver her thank yous to New York and to Clive Davis, who signed her and help make Horses possible. Smith recounts a phone call she received from Davis one night to let her know some bad news. She had wanted to release the record on French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s birthday: October 20. But because of an oil shortage that temporarily halted the production of vinyl, the date would have to be pushed back to November 10. “Well, Clive,” remembers Patti as she answers into the receiver, “That’s his death day.” The significance is not lost. Alright.
Closing out the night with the apt rendition of The Who’s “My Generation,” she brings out Stipe along with son Jackson and daughter Jessie for a brawling cacophony of noise. “Wake the fuck up, people,” she bellows, while each string of her now-attached electric guitar snaps off as she wails.
Thank you, New York. Thank you, Patricia Smith.