Patti Smith's Most Notable New York City Gigs

Patti Smith
Patti Smith
Photo by Jesse Ditmar / via PattiSmith.com

New York City has been home base to Patti Smith and her band since the very beginning. The Patti Smith Group — the "group" qualifier was added at Patti’s insistence not long after she was signed by Arista, to try to counteract the label’s immediate Seventies instinct to soften her image — was always a live band. That’s probably because Patti herself was always about performing in front of people no matter what shape her art was taking at any particular moment. She enlisted Lenny Kaye to accompany her at her earliest stage performance and kept coming back to their duo until she felt like she got it right, and then kept adding to that combination as she built the band, piece by piece.

The Patti Smith Group was (and still is) a working band, a live act that toured widely and played often, especially in the Tri-State area. But it was here in New York City that she could easily command a three-night stand at the Bottom Line or sell out two nights at the Palladium, or announce in the late afternoon that the band would be appearing at a random East Village bar later that night. She could woodshed here to get ready for a tour, or try out new ideas and know there would be a receptive audience; she’s played shows in clubs and churches, theaters and cabarets, university auditoriums and museums, private lofts and rooftop bars.

So in honor of the 40th Anniversary of Horses, to be celebrated at the Beacon Theater on November 10 — the anniversary of the album’s actual release date — here’s some of Patti’s more notable, memorable or important NYC performances from over the years.

February 10, 1971 | St. Mark’s Church 

This is the one for the history books, the first time Patti appeared on a stage with rock 'n' roll and poetry, the first fully-formed performance of that concept. What’s notable about this evening is how much of her later (and even current) show format was already there: the bravado, the ferocity, and even the humor.

After an introduction by Anne Waldman (“She’s a terrific poet and a great songwriter”), Patti asks the audience to tell her if they can’t hear her; she sounds flustered, and yet utterly in command the minute she stops apologizing and starts reading. Patti reminds the crowd that it was Bertold Brecht’s birthday and sings “Mack The Knife.” The reads several poems, including “Oath,” which you’ll know from its opening line: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/but not mine.”

The set closes with three songs, “Fire of Unknown Origin” (later recorded by Blue Öyster Cult), “Picture Hanging Blues“ (dedicated to Bob Neuwirth), and “Ballad of a Bad Boy” (which she still reads today), dedicated to Sam Shepard. She was accompanied by Lenny Kaye, making his guitar sound like a car crash, as Patti requested when she’d recruited him for this gig, the launch of a near-lifetime collaboration. Brigid Polk (of Warhol fame) recorded this performance, which circulated underground for years until Patti’s and Lenny’s own Mer Records put it out in 2006.

The duo would return to St. Mark's Church 40 years later, almost to the day, for a performance to commemorate that first gig, standing on the altar once again together, invoking the ghosts and paying tribute to a very memorable day.

November 11, 1973 | Le Jardin, Hotel Diplomat: “Rock n Rimbaud”

After the (literal) collapse of downtown underground performance mecca the Mercer Arts Center, and before CBGB was an alternative, artists playing original music tried to start their own scene somewhere, anywhere that would have an unknown artist playing original material. Patti, still trying to figure out her direction, put together this evening of music and poetry, billed as “Rock n Rimbaud” after poet and influence Paul Rimbaurd. The venue was a gay bar on the roof of a Times Square hotel, and she would be once again accompanied by Lenny Kaye (as well as pianist Bill Elliot). The set consisted of a selection of original material, both spoken word and sung, as well as a few carefully chosen covers, all around the theme of her love for Rimbaud. She would put together three more events of this nature over the next few years.

March-April, 1975 | CBGB

This series was more than a residency — it was an occupation. This seven-week run is what put CBGB, and Patti Smith, in the consciousness of the rock 'n' roll establishment, and eventually into the history books. It was seven weeks of playing two sets a night, four nights a week, sharing the bill with Television, with whom they took turns alternating opening and closing slots with, giving each band a chance to headline.

Aside from truck stops, cheap motels and a crowded van, it gave the four members of the Patti Smith Group all of the benefits of a tour — the chance to relentlessly hone their craft and their sound in front of an audience — without having to leave the city or even the neighborhood, playing together two times a night, four nights a week, for almost two months. And by the end of it, they walked out with a major label deal for seven albums with Arista Records.

Patti would return to the club, over and over again, more than any other venue in the city, coming back for benefits, for surprise shows, for headlining gigs; when she fell off the stage in Florida and needed to rehearse post-rehab before heading back on tour, it was CB’s where she booked in a week, calling it “Basic Training.” And of course, she was the obvious choice to be the last band to play on that stage after Hilly Krystal lost his fight to keep the place open. (More on that later.)

May 28, 1975 | WBAI Benefit

WBAI — whose slogan was “Your Peace And Justice Community Radio Station” - -was a NYC-area non-commercial radio station at the apex of their cultural influence in the Seventies. On May 28, 1975, the Patti Smith Group appeared at a benefit concert for the station, broadcast live (and well-bootlegged later). Patti spoke of her connection to the station as a teenager, telling the story about how she and friends would set up a relay so they could pull in the station in South Jersey.

The set opens with two spirited covers, the Velvet Underground’s “We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game,” before taking shape with the jazz improv of “Birdland,” during which Patti takes full advantage of the station’s free-form ethos. She plugs Television; she talks about her dreams, invokes Jim Morrison. The set would close with delightfully doo-wop “Down The Aisle of Love” by the Quin-Tones (“C’mon, Jersey!” Patti exhorted.) This would be the band’s last performance without a drummer; Jay Dee Daugherty would join them shortly thereafter.

June 25, 1975 | The Other End: Patti meets Dylan

Not long after the CBGB residency was this five-night run at the Other End; there still weren’t a lot of clubs showcasing original, unsigned bands (even though Patti was signed by then, they didn’t have a record yet), so some of the Village folk clubs began hosting the newcomers from the Bowery. At this gig, Bob Dylan showed up and sat at the bar, which most people weren’t necessarily aware of, but Patti and the band were, and probably upped their game a little — although by all accounts, they were already playing extremely well.

James Wolcott notes the following in the July 7, 1975 issue of the Village Voice: “On the opening night she was tearing into each song and even those somewhat used to her galloping id were puzzled by lines like, ‘You gotta a lotta nerve sayin’ you won’t be my parking meter.’ Not only was Patti in good voice, but the band is extending itself confidently…'Break It Up' is now more sharply focused, 'Piss Factory' is dramatically jazzy, and their anthem, 'Gloria,' ends the evening crashingly.”

Patti and Bob would meet upstairs later, the occasion documented by many (including the inestimable Danny Fields); in her nervousness she would tell Bob “Poetry sucks,” and encourage the photographers to take her picture and not his. But there were no hard feelings; he would soon try to recruit her for his Rolling Thunder Revue, which he was in the process of putting together, and there would be other meetings over the years.

December 26-28, 1975; November 23-28, 1976 | The Bottom Line

The 400-person capacity Bottom Line, located on W. 4th Street and Mercer in the Village, was one of the city’s best venues, and a step up in respectability for Patti and the band. This is where artists played label-backed runs of dates upon an album’s release. Lou Reed had recorded Take No Prisoners there; Bruce Springsteen played a week around the release of Born To Run in August of 1975.

Patti played two stands at the club at the end of ’75 and ’76. They’re great documents because she’s clearly at home, comfortable and relaxed, interacting with the audience, taking requests — and the audience at Patti Smith Group shows shouts out requests for poems as well as for songs to this day — answering questions, and reciting poetry. At one of the ’75 shows, Patti notes, “The one neat thing about New York that I’ve always loved in performing here, is that you always let me try out a new thing. If we had a new song we were working on, you always let us work out our songs. Because when I go someplace else, I already writ them.” The band was operating on all cylinders, the result of a relentless year of performing.

There’s a marked contrast in the 1976 shows; Patti still opens the show by reading poetry and interacting with the audience, but she’s more authoritative and in control, not afraid to tell people to shut up. John Cale and Bruce Springsteen show up one of the nights and switch off playing guitar and piano; although Patti refers to the occasion as “memorable,” unfortunately the fidelity of the existing recording does not reveal that to the listener.

July 31, 1976 | Lower Manhattan Ocean Club

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Mickey Ruskin (of Max's Kansas City fame) decided to open a new place after the decline of the first era of Max’s. He opened the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club down on Chambers Street back when TriBeCa actually meant "Triangle Below Canal." For some reason, many of the shows here were phenomenally well-documented, and it seemed like all of downtown showed up for the gigs and got onstage and played with each other.

On July 31, the Patti Smith Group played a typical set for the period, during which Patti complains that the audience must be from Jersey, because New York audiences are quieter and less confrontational. (The tapers are obvious fans, criticizing each other’s choice of shouted requests: “Really?” says one to their friend’s request for “Gloria”. It’s a great document.)

The venue didn’t last very long; it was just too far from downtown, back when Soho was deserted at night and lower Broadway looked like a war zone.

November 1, 1977 | Museum of Natural History benefit at the Hayden Planetarium

This benefit for the Museum of Natural History was a pricey gig. $35 in 1977 would be close to $150 today; by comparison, a ticket for a show at Madison Square Garden back then was $10.50-$12.50, and Patti herself noted during the show that $35 was “half an unemployment check.” Despite the ticket price, many of the PSG faithful showed up and ensconced themselves down front, much to Patti’s delight. Otherwise the room was full of donors, who may or may not have been curious or at least tolerant. There is no tape, but the reviews of the night note the shocked expressions when Patti opened with a reading of her poem, “Yum, Yum The Stars Are Out,” a graphic account of rape, and that museum staff tried to pull the plug on her microphone. The rest of the set included the usual covers (“Be My Baby,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Pale Blue Eyes”) as well as a handful of PSG standards and two new songs (one of which was “Till Victory”) ready for the soon-to-be-recorded Easter

December 30, 1977 | CBGB Second Avenue Theater

CBGB’s owner Hilly Krystal decided to expand the franchise and capitalize on the demand for the club by renting out an old Yiddish Vaudeville theater on Second Avenue (the Anderson) and turning it into the CBGB’s Theater. The entire arrangement was fraught with major operational problems (no heat; sloppy repairs; major electrical problems and sound issues, to name a few). The first (and only) week of shows closed with Patti headlining the three nights running up to New Year’s Eve. The show on December 30 was notable not just for being a great show, but also because Bruce Springsteen turned up and guested with Patti on “Because The Night,” the song he’d given to her via producer Jimmy Iovine. This performance would be the first time either Springsteen or Smith would play the song live; “Because The Night” would go on to bring Patti her first big commercial success and radio airplay. The show ended early because the fire marshall closed it down due to “unlawful dancing in the aisles.”

December 31, 1978; May 20-21, 1978; May 22-23, 1979 | Palladium

At the time, the Palladium (formerly known as the Academy of Music) is where bands played if they were too big for the clubs, but too small for Madison Square Garden. The 3,000-capacity space, residing on the unofficial border between uptown and downtown on 14th Street at Irving Place, filled a hole after the closing of the Fillmore East.

Patti would headline four shows at the venue: New Year's Eve of '76, two shows in May of '78, and two final appearances in May of '79. Given what the theater symbolized, there was always a sense of triumph in the audience when the band appeared on that stage, and the band always rose to the occasion. Robert Christgau would term the 1976 New Years' Eve show “the concert of the year” in these very pages.

As a fan, you felt the upward potential of the band, and stood there thinking that this might be the last time you saw them in a room this small. The 5/20/78 and 5/23/79 shows do well to represent the PSG at its zenith, with diverse setlists nicely representing the band’s repertoire, and riveting performances veering from improvisational to spiritual to straight ahead rock 'n' roll, “3 chords merged with the power of the word,” as Patti used to say.

The Palladium was torn down in 1997 and in its place stand NYU’s obnoxiously named "Palladium Dormitories.”

August 11, 1979 | Wollman Rink & CBGB

These would be the last two shows Patti Smith would perform in New York City prior to retiring at the end of the summer. There’s no foreshadowing, nothing apocryphal in either show; it’s a fairly standard Easter-era set, the PSG formula of new material, older standards, and a couple of oldie covers thrown in at the end, all well-performed by a powerful rock band who were by now well in sync with each other. The Wollman performance feels triumphant, and the CBGB show sounds like the band is just too big for the room. Most people wondered if the next time we saw the band would be at the Garden; instead, Patti would announce she was retiring after a performance in front of 80,000 people at a stadium in Florence, Italy, about a month later.

August 7, 1993 | Central Park SummerStage

This would be Patti’s first New York appearance (short of an exclusive Arista Records anniversary celebration in 1990) since she left for Detroit at the end of the Seventies. This was a spoken-word performance, and Patti would later tell a journalist that she had worried that no one would come; instead, the venue was filled to capacity. Smith would later call it “One of the happiest nights of my life.” There is no extant recording, and yet anyone who attended insists it was nothing short of rapturous. Writer Evelyn McDonnell related for the Voice, “The night had a magical aura; at one point Smith looked out over the mass of people and remarked that she felt like she could step off the stage and float above us.”

July 28, 1995 | Lollapalooza, Randalls Island

After leaving NYC for Detroit, there were two "official" comeback shows in Central Park, one in 1993, and the other just a few days earlier. But it was the second stage at Lollapalooza on Randalls Island where she played an one-hour surprise electric with members of her former band. Courtney Love was quoted as saying, “I was way too scared to meet her. I couldn’t.” MTV News 1) reported on the performance and 2) related that it seemed like half the audience was in tears.

December 11, 1995 | Opening for Bob Dylan at the Beacon Theatre

Patti’s husband, MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith passed away in 1994, and shortly after that, Patti recorded her first album since 1988’s Dream of Life: Gone Again. She had no plans to tour behind the new record because her children were still young, but Dylan personally asked her to open for him on a few East Coast dates, cities not far from New York (where she now lived) so she could bring the kids with, or only have to leave them for a night.

Bob also asked her to please pick a song of his she’d like to duet on. That song was “Dark Eyes,” which they played together in Boston, in Philadelphia, and in NYC at the Beacon Theatre. “It was really one of the great experiences of my life, singing the song with him,” she told UK journalist Alastair McKay. “The people were so electric, and the concentration of the two of us on this very beautiful song under hot lights…he has so much mental and physical energy that performing with him is very special.”

October 6, 2006 | Closing Night of CBGB

This was a crazy, emotional night for everyone in the crowd and for everyone on the stage. Just getting into the venue was an ordeal, with tour buses coming by, national news crews out front, and the crazy, the curious and the ticketless mobbing the sidewalk outside the club. Inside, things got off to a shaky start: There were monitor problems, the show was being broadcast on the radio, and everyone onstage was probably as upset as the rest of us at this being the end.

She opened by reading “Piss Factory”: “I'm gonna be somebody, I'm gonna get on that train, go to New York City…” Television’s Richard Lloyd showed up to play guitar;, Lenny Kaye played a Ramones medley for his solo spot; and the band covered “My Generation” complete with the original “WE CREATED IT, YOU TAKE IT OVER” exhortation that Patti used to invoke at the end of the song.

And then, after “Elegie,” Patti read a list of names in memorium, all of those missing and no longer with us who were part of the sweat and dust and energy of the room we were standing in, ending with “Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee.” If there was a dry eye in the house by the end of it, they weren’t human.

December 31, 2008 | Bowery Ballroom 

Patti set up shop here in 1998, and played three shows at the end of December (following a pattern she’d established in the Seventies) for fourteen years. Before Just Kids and before the National Book Award, these yearly get-togethers were cozy gatherings of the faithful, friends and family. The 29th was the gig for the fans; Patti’s birthday on the 30th would often feature an appearance by Michael Stipe, bearing a birthday cake; and New Year’s Eve would bring out a hodgepodge of tourists, aging punk scenesters and friends and family, singing “People Have The Power” at midnight.

It would be hard to pick one show from those fourteen New Year's Eves, but the 12/31/08 performance is particularly memorable because of the volume of Patti’s vehemence that night. Coming right after the Presidential elections, she cries out, “We made history!” during “Beneath the Southern Cross” and offers a prayer to Obama. She rails out against the bombing in Gaza, against the destruction of the planet, against children who are victims of war. During “People Have the Power” she raised her fist in the air, yelling “WE GOT THOSE FUCKERS OUT! Don’t forget! Be Vigilant.” A lovely cover and unexpected performance of “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” fell in the back half of the set, before ending the show with an incendiary version of “Rock and Roll N——r,” and giving the crowd a pep talk: “I hope you have a great new year. Work hard! Don’t be afraid to work. Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid if the money’s low! Don’t be afraid to eat bread and drink water! It’ll get better! Don’t be afraid!”

The residency came to an end after fourteen years in 2012, Patti noting that she wanted a younger band to have the room for New Year’s Eve, which hopefully assuaged Gothamist, who had complained in 2005, “Will Patti Smith die already? The punk icon is hogging the Bowery Ballroom for about the 82nd year in a row.”

October 30, 2009 | Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert with U2 & Bruce Springsteen

While U2 has always worn their fandom on their sleeve, and Patti cemented this by opening two shows on the Vertigo Tour, it was this event that closed that loop. Bono stepped to the mic, saying something about needing to do something special for New York City: “This is the song we wish we’d written. It’s a Bruce Springsteen song, so we’d like to ask him to come out here; it’s also a Patti Smith song, we’d like to ask her to come out here,” as the two walked out hand in hand and performed Patti’s version of “Because The Night,” alternating verses, Bono joining them on the chorus. The roof almost blew off of the venue with the announcement of Springsteen, but it was decidedly amplified when Patti’s name was mentioned. This version was a little rough around the edges for everyone involved, but the moment was definitely a bucket list item for many in attendance.

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Beacon Theatre

2124 Broadway
New York, NY 10023

212-465-6500

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