“This Is Goodbye”: Inside Patti Smith’s Epic Farewell To Australia

At 70 years old, Patti hasn't lost any of her power.

With health issues likely to prevent her from making the long-haul trip again, this month Patti Smith returned to Australia for her farewell tour. BRODIE LANCASTER caught The Godmother of Punk one last time at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall.

It would be easy to compare Patti Smith to Jesus. Here she is, the 70-year-old artist, rising again for what she tells us is the final time in Australia, on Easter Sunday. While framing the punk legend as a spiritual icon is tempting, it’s ultimately misplaced to compare a woman so uncompromisingly and painfully human to any sort of deity.

That didn’t keep her from fiddling with the symmetry of the holiday, though. After playing the eight songs from her instantly influential 1975 debut record, Horses, for a sold out crowd at Hamer Hall, a stage-hand brought Patricia Lee Smith her reading glasses. “These words are from the gospel according to Saint Matthew,” she said, before launching into a passage from the Bible about Christ’s resurrection. It turns out that voice, that Patti Smith rasp that manages to be both brutal and tender all at once, can turn even the holy book into a beat poem. “There, you shall see him,” she finished, “I have told you.”

She told us a lot from her place on stage, beneath the towering image of that record cover. Shot by her lover/friend/soulmate, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, that image of a 29-year-old Patti Smith – with her halo of wild black hair, one delicate wrist toying with the button of her dress shirt, the other holding a black dinner jacket over her shoulder – was immortalised in Just Kids, her 2010 book that cemented her place as a luminary of not just the punk music world, but the literary one.

Many artists have succumbed to the pressure to revisit their past successes, but this show is more than just an exercise in nostalgia. Patti has slipped that jacket off her shoulder and buttoned it up across her chest, just as ready as we were to pay tribute to Horses.

“Even at 70, with that pile of black hair now grey and hanging down to her heart, Patti is here to fuck with us”

Even at 70, with that pile of black hair now grey and hanging down to her heart, and a finale tour of Australia grounded in the least-punk reason possible (her doctor warned against the effects long-haul plane trips will inevitably have on her respiratory system), Patti is here to fuck with us.

After we’re told to take our seats promptly before the 8:30pm curtain, and cautioned about Hamer Hall’s strict no photography policy, Patti and her band – with the exception of the late Richard Sohl, the original Horses line-up of Jay Dee Daugherty, Lenny Kaye and Ivan Kral back her up – march onto stage and launch into the Easter-appropriate ‘Gloria’ and ‘Redondo Beach’.

After 40 years, she still relies on a lyrics sheet to track the sprawling New England tragedy of ‘Birdland’, but before the song ends she decides to change the dynamic. She motions for those in their front row seats to stand, and soon after the dam walls have broken. People at the back of the room pour towards the front. The numbers on our tickets stop mattering so much, and so does the difference between who bought the “cheap” ($99) tickets when the crowd swarms the front of the stage.

I see an usher who, a moment earlier, was warning people to stop taking pictures on their phones, fight her way through the crowd. All it took was a flick of that wrist.

“Whether you’d listened to Horses a million times or only a few, you’d never heard it like this before. Because this was goodbye.”

Whether you’d listened to Horses a million times or only a few, you’d never heard it like this before. Because this was goodbye.

Before launching into an encore that included ‘Privilege (Set Me Free)’; ‘Because the Night’, a song she wrote with Bruce Springsteen while in a long-distance relationship with her late husband Fred who, even 23 years after his death, she says “still feels like my boyfriend”; and The Who’s ‘My Generation’, she takes on ‘Elegie’, Horses’ final track.

When she invites us to sing the names of the loved ones we’ve lost, it feels like an unspoken reminder that one day we’ll be saying goodbye to her for real, not just for tonight. The first name on her list is James Marshall Hendrix – her friend for whom she wrote the song originally – then there’s “all our friends”: Frank Zappa and Janis Joplin; Joey Ramone, then Dee Dee and Tommy and Johnny; Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse; Prince and David Bowie; Lou Reed. And, of course, Robert Mapplethorpe and Fred “Sonic” Smith.

“It’s part of the privilege of being human is that we have our moment when we have to say goodbye,” she told the ABC earlier this month. At one point, a voice echoes out from the rafters to cut through the silence of Hamer Hall: “Make sure you come back, Patti”. But she doesn’t entertain it. Because this is goodbye.

Before she leaves for good, she pleads with us via ‘People Have the Power’, the lead single from Dream of Life, her only dispatch from the 16 years in which she and Fred retreated from public life to raise their children and learn who they were away from their work.

“People have the power,” she impresses upon us, “To vote, to strike, to rid the world of fools, to turn the world around.” She slips on a guitar for the first time all night and cries, “This is my fucking weapon!” With a yellow flower slipped into the sleeve of her jacket to keep those powerful wrists company, she ravages the guitar, ripping the strings off. Forget “This machine kills fascists”; in the hands of Patti, that machine destroys apathy.

I don’t need to compare her to Jesus, because she did it for me. On Easter Sunday, Patti Smith repeated the eleventh commandment the way only she could – “Love one another, motherfucker”. She tossed the flower into the crowd, spat without hesitation, burped in our faces, and assured us that, “We will rise again”. Then she was gone, for good this time.

Brodie Lancaster is a writer and editor from Melbourne. She edits Filmme Fatales, a zine about women and cinema, and has contributed to Rookie, Rolling Stone, Vulture and Pitchfork. She is a senior editor at The Good Copy and a mediocre DJ.

Article image by Natalie Grono