Last Night: Patti Smith at the Santa Monica Pier

Watching heroes perform, one of two things can happen: they can let you down horribly, wracked with age and ambivalence, or they can rise like a Phoenix to deliver the kind of show you will remember for the rest of your life. Patti Smith's performance at the Santa Monica Pier Thursday night as part of the Twilight Dance Series was a surreal experiment in cognition. You had to pinch yourself to remain planted in the present, so easy was it to get swept away by Smith's sermons of magical surrender.

She spit this message over and over again -- literally. She swilled water and sprayed it like a punk rock fountain into the crowd as she tore through such classics as "Dancing Barefoot," "Pissing In the River," "Redondo Beach," (due south, by the way), "Gloria," and nearly every other Smith hit of the last thirty years.

Smith is alive the way artists who cut off ears are; with her entire body and mind. As the line from "So You Want to be a Rock n Roll Star," conveys: "the public acclaim/you're a little insane." The moments spilled effortlessly and passionately, alternating between mournful beauty within the music and witty between-song banter. "This song is for Elizabeth Taylor" -- who was on the other side of town at that moment at Michael Jackson's funeral -- dedicating "Because the Night" to the timeless beauty. Later: "Ever seen that movie with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, A Place in the Sun? Monty looks sad and Elizabeth comes out in this white dress and says, 'Tell Mama all.' They don't make girls like that anymore."

Her band, which included original guitarist Lenny Kaye and guest member/Chili Pepper Flea on bass, followed Smith like bees rushing toward a frantic target. How could they not? Smith's voice is rich and quick, and the band seemed to chase her: They sweated, crunched up their faces and twisted themselves into grimaces trying to catch her. Even Flea seemed simultaneously overjoyed and exhausted with Smith's relentless pace, which ran from 7:30 to 9:30. She dedicated an improvised cover of "Be My Baby" to the late songwriter Ellie Greenwich. The men fumbled in a circle while Smith joked to the crowd, "I'm talking to you now because the boys are trying to work it out."

Her beauty is in her strength of character and relentless commitment to her personal song style and integrity, refusing to fold, apologize, or bend to what we expect from a woman of her, ahem, 'age'. The stage will always belong to her.

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