City Life

Punk by the Pacific: Patti Smith rocks it poolside for the Dream Inn, Cowell crowds

Patti Smith at the Dream Inn
The Patti Smith Trio at the Dream Inn.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Talk about your “Only in Santa Cruz” happening. Against a backdrop traditionally associated with the Beach Boys, Patti Smith growled, charmed, and basically rocked the swim shorts off a guesstimated crowd of 800 or so on Dream Inn balconies and 200 more on Cowell Beach on Wednesday night.

At the beginning of the show, she looked around, took in her surroundings on the Dream Inn pool deck, and declared it “the most wackiest show we’ve ever done.”

The Patti Smith Trio show, one of the Dream Inn’s so-called “vertical concerts” that have become a pandemic staple, was also a safe, socially distanced “only in COVID times” happening. It was the sixth in an ongoing series that has seen another American classic, Los Lobos, play twice.

The cliché about Patti Smith is that she is the Godmother of Punk Rock, which is true, but overused to the point of being stripped of meaning. Yes, her contribution to the early 1970s alternative art scene gave birth to the next generation of really cool bands, including R.E.M., the Clash, and possibly thousands of thrashing and very verbal garage bands we never got to hear.

The point is: Even if you’ve never heard of Patti Smith — like the lovely Dream Inn valet who helped me with my bags — American culture is different and better because she continues to rock on.

Her bio is easily accessible with a quick Google search, so I won’t go into details here. What matters is people like me go to concerts in hope of salvation. Rock music artists at their best are shaman/priestesses who unite the human souls in attendance in an experience of shared transcendence. Each attendee returns home having touched something unique and holy. It’s really great when there’s only three chords involved.

Patti Smith delivered such an experience. She performed as part of a stripped-down trio: her son Jackson Smith on electric guitar, longtime collaborator Tony Shanahan alternating between keyboards and guitar. A catalyst for this performance was the opening chapter of Smith’s 14th and latest book, “The Year of the Monkey.”

Patti Smith at the Dream Inn
The Patti Smith Trio at the Dream Inn.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She read aloud the book’s opening to open the show: It is New Year’s Day 2017, and she is planning to spend the year tramping around the globe. After performing a New Year’s concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco, her ride drops her off in Santa Cruz at a place she thinks is called the Dream Motel.

The following morning, while searching for coffee, she encounters the giant Dream Inn sign on West Cliff Drive, and engages in a hilarious Alice in Wonderland-like dialogue with the sign, a conversation that continued in the book and into Wednesday night’s concert.

Also special to the OISC (Only In Santa Cruz) event was the Dream Inn pool as both front row audience and apparent nemesis of guitar strings. Smith apologized several times for the effects of surf and sand on her band’s instruments, which required frequent retuning, and for the sea breeze that whipped her hair into her mouth while she sang.

The set list was eclectic, including covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun” and Bon Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings.” She offered memorial tributes to the recently departed, to Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sam Shepard, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Charlie Watts.

And she played her danceable crowd-pleasers: “Because the Night,” “Gloria” (her rendition on her first album, which includes the coda “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”, made me fall in love with her back in 1975), “Dancing Barefoot,” and “In My Blakean Year.” She gave a shout-out to the blackened fish tacos at Olitas on the wharf.

Respectful of the 9 p.m. curfew, the show ended with all in attendance singing and dancing — the for-free beach crowd united with those of us lucky enough to be able to afford a room. That final song is her anthem for our time: “People Have The Power.” If you don’t know the song, find a YouTube version now.