Patti Smith with some light Tuesday reading
Patti enjoys required reading for CREEM Staffers. (Photo by Suzan Carson/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

CREEMEDIA

When Fred Smith Met Patti Smith

An excerpt from ‘Why Patti Smith Matters,’ a very good book on why Patti Smith matters.

by: Caryn Rose

June 1, 2022

The year is 1991, and the Second Chance, a beloved rock ’n’ roll club in Ann Arbor, Mich., announces that it is closing and on its very last night will feature a benefit performance by none other than the MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith and his wife, who of course just happened to be the musician and poet Patti Smith.

The two had set up residence in Michigan at the end of the ’70s, but to the despair of local rock ’n’ roll fans and punk aficionados, the pair were not out tearing it up in the local scene but were instead installed cozily at home, doing yard work and having babies. This appearance in 1991 was unprecedented and rare, so the faithful came running from everywhere. Listening to recordings of that night, you can feel the excitement and the anticipation, but you can also detect something far more feral: There are dudes in the audience howling—literally howling—for Fred Smith.

Reporting on the show for The Detroit News was Susan Whitall, former CREEM writer and editor; the MC5 were always a favorite at CREEM, one of the first publications to publish Patti Smith’s poetry (as well as some of her record reviews). Not surprisingly, Whitall’s account was the most insightful report of the event.

Excerpted from Why Patti Smith Matters by Caryn Rose, © 2022, published with permission from the University of Texas Press.

Patti Smith, with ex-MC5 husband Fred Smith in tow, appears at the Nectarine on April 6. Even though they live in tranquil domestic bliss in the far eastern suburbs of Detroit, it is a big fucking deal that this non-victim of the ’70s is playing Ann Arbor again.

Out of nowhere in spring 1991 came an announcement of a live performance, featuring both Patti and Fred Smith, in a benefit on the last night of one of their favorite clubs in Ann Arbor. Back in the day, the Patti Smith Group played so reliably at the Second Chance (also known as Chances Are and then the Nectarine Ballroom) that locals joked about them being the house band, and Sonic’s post-MC5 side project, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, was also a frequent flier. The club, a notable stop on the touring circuit in the ’70s and ’80s, enjoyed a reputation that extended beyond the Michigan borders. The venue was closing and becoming a dance club, and the owner, John Carver, called Fred Smith and asked if he would be willing to play closing night because their bands’ performances had been some of his favorite memories.

Book cover for Why Patti Smith Matters by Caryn Rose
The cover of 'Why Patti Smith Matters.' (Art Courtesy of The University of Texas Press)

Chez Smith agreed and called in some of their friends: Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty came out from New York and were joined by locals Scott Morgan and Gary Rasmussen from Sonic’s Rendezvous and former Stooge Scott Asheton on drums. The evening was billed as “Happy Trails: A Concert to Benefit AIDS Featuring Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and Patti Smith.”

Yes. It was a big fucking deal. Fans drove hundreds of miles and endured lengthy bus journeys. The club fielded media requests from all over the country. People who made it inside remember the club being packed and uncomfortable. Listening to the extant audience recordings, you can hear that; the crowd murmur is more like a roar, and people are ready. There are howls for Sonic, screams for Patti, other people yelling “All the way with Lenny Kaye,” an old T-shirt slogan from the 1970s. Patti had warned the Detroit Free Press that people shouldn’t expect too much: “It’s important for people to know the night will be special, but not like a formal concert. It should be happily flawed.”

Yes. It was a big fucking deal. Fans drove hundreds of miles and endured lengthy bus journeys.

It’s impossible to listen to the evening and not think about how this could have been the norm, had Patti and Fred gone on tour. Especially poignant is how Fred introduces his wife, possibly the only such moment they had: “Welcome to the Second Chance,” Sonic greets the audience. “The first person I’d like to introduce, I met at a little coney island in Detroit called Lafayette Coney Island.” The crowd applauds the restaurant with the appropriate Michigan level of enthusiasm. “If you’re down that way, you might want to check it out,” Sonic dryly acknowledges. “She was having a little pre-gig party, and I went just for the hot dogs and beer because I’d never really heard of her. So we met, she invited me to their gig at the Ford Auditorium, we played a couple of songs, we played ‘My Generation’; it was fun. One thing that struck me was how great she was with lyrics, and, of course, a little later on, I discovered her poetry. So, it’s a pleasure to introduce to you tonight a good friend of mine: Patti Smith!”

The audience response sounds like a crowd of twenty thousand. “All I can say is, if I win an Academy Award, it could never be this good,” Patti responds. She gets through “Piss Factory”—which Susan Whitall, formerly the editor of CREEM but at the time writing for the Detroit News, described (not inaccurately) as “her poem about nonunion piecework”—before a belligerent fellow yells for Fred several times. “Hey, buddy, why don’t you go for a walk, get a cup of coffee, smoke a cigarette, come back in about fifteen minutes,” she replies, shattering any illusion that somehow motherhood or the suburbs had diminished her in any way. She reads “Mitty” for Richard Sohl, calling out the recipe for “white java: Evian, Nescafé, too much milk.” She finishes with an abridged version of “Babelfield,” during which the crowd chatters impatiently, but they cheer enthusiastically at the end.

It’s impossible to listen to the evening and not think about how this could have been the norm, had Patti and Fred gone on tour.

Sonic opens with his amazing composition “Sweet Nothing,” later delivers a killer twelve-minute version of “Empty Heart,” and offers a rendition of “Dangerous” that will light your speakers on fire right now. These are exceptionally good songs that were largely overlooked outside the immediate geographical area, and the band sounds more practiced and polished than you would expect after not having played live in many years.

Lenny Kaye absolutely kills a rendition of “For Your Love,” evoking the memories of his PSG solo spots, before Patti rejoins the musicians on stage and we get to hear “My Generation.” Now we’ve entered the world of what could have been: Lenny Kaye, Fred “Sonic” Smith, and Patti Smith onstage together. It’s loud and messy and Patti forgets words and misses cues, but it is a glorious train wreck that we all should have been able to experience. Everyone—first and foremost, the people performing onstage.

Whitall was backstage after the show and reported this delightful detail: “Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith whips his wallet open with lightning speed. Of course he has pictures of his 8-year-old. Baby pictures. ‘He really wanted to come tonight,’ Fred says wistfully. Earlier mother Patti had said: ‘This just isn’t the right place for children physically. Spiritually maybe. But there’s too much smoke and noise.’”

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