The French expatriates of Manhattan, at least the ones not occupied with fashion week, gathered last night for a Patti Smith concert at Webster Hall. The concert honored the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. The show was free, recorded by France’s Inter Radio for broadcast tonight in Europe.
After an introduction, in French, there was a lag as Ms. Smith prepared for her performance. From our place on the balcony, The Observer felt slightly out of place, surrounded as we were by a dozen or so beautifully middle-aged French women with impeccable blond bobs, pressed Oxford shirts, large pearl earrings, and even one with a leather mini-backpack. Air kisses echoed around us. Michael Stipe stood to our right, behind a velvet rope and flanked by middle-aged Frenchmen who wore sport coats with hooded sweatshirts underneath. We remarked upon the general ruddy good health of French people in their fifties.
Ms. Smith began, as she often does, with an easy rendition of “Redondo Beach,” her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye by her side. At first she spoke not a word to her Francophone audience. She was, it seemed, initially determined to avoid all faux newscaster melancholia or forced homily. Only after several songs did she obliquely reference September 11, shifting abruptly from “Birdland” into a poem about the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“It was the first day of spring,” read Ms. Smith, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses balanced on her nose and a book of her poems in her hand. She looked up. “It was the first day of spring. That’s what I’m remembering this week.”
She sang “Ghost Dance,” palms upraised, after which the French women conferred about the lyrics of the chorus. “We shall leeve again,” they decided, nodding to one another and exchanging more kisses with suddenly-noticed late arrivals. Ms. Smith covered a Rolling Stones song, “Playing with Fire,” then finally addressed the audience directly.
“François,” she said. “Hola. Le bibliotheque.” The crowd cheered.
“Yes, I took a year of French in high school and ou est le biblioteque will follow me. From country to country and city to city,” Ms. Smith said dreamily. “When I cross the threshold I will say ou est le bibliotheque and there will be all the books in the world.”
Ms. Smith sang “We Three,” her homage to the band Television. Then she stopped again.
“Quoi?” she asked.
“Ici est le bibliotheque!” someone yelled out (we think — we also took high school French).
Ms. Smith moodily scanned the room. “I’m sorry I haven’t been very talkative,” she said. “I know we were all expecting something profound but you’re not going to get it. That’s the way I am.” Defiant, she began singing “Pissing in a River.”
But maybe Ms. Smith just needed to warm up a bit. She sang “Because the Night,” and another couple of songs. Then she began thinking out loud.
“In the last ten years what have we done to create a better world?” she asked. She listed: Guantanamo Bay; the imprisonment of John Walker Lindh as “a scapegoat”; the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan and the recent bombing of Libya. “I had great hopes on September 12 that we could communicate and rebuild our world,” she continued. “I think we haven’t done a very good job of that.”
It’s hard to describe what happened next. Ms. Smith caught the spirit. She played a medley of “Horses” and “Gloria” that brought her audience to a frenzy of emotion. She incanted: “We are alive. We are alive. This is a new time. We don’t want any more fucking wars. We want freedom.”
The concert ended with an encore, of course, and with Ms. Smith worked into an inspiring rage. “You can’t bring a fucking bottle of shampoo on an airplane,” she yelled, to a roared response (the middle-aged French ladies had by then disappeared, in a flurry of kissed farewells).
“We remember,” she yelled. “We remember! We remember EVERYTHING!” Then she ripped the strings off her guitar.