With its pool tables, pinball machines and busy bar, the Belly Up Tavern here can be a noisy place. But the atmosphere was reverential as the one-time punk goddess took the stage Wednesday. "We love you," fans shouted at various points during her two-hour set. It had been scheduled as a poetry reading, but turned most of the time to music - not the furious rock 'n' roll of the old days, but cleansing, comforting acoustic music. When a loudmouth near the bar began to interrupt Smith, several in the crowd shouted aggressively for the man to shut up. This was a night that many in the audience bad been dreaming about since 1979, when Smith. whose passionate and uncompromising style established her as the most important female rock artist since Janis Joplin walked away from stardom to raise a family in Detroit with her rock musician husband, Fred (Sonic) Smith.
Smith, 48, returns to the pop world as an even bigger influence than Joplin was. Many of the leaders of a new generation of musicians explore their desires and doubts
With an intensity that they learned in part from Smith's records. It's an influence that has been cited by everyone from Courtney Love and PJ Harvey to Eddie Vedder and the late Kurt Cobain.
The show here was part of a short West Coast series of spoken word appearances that concludes tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano-the most public steps Smith has made since releasing an album in 1988.
Diana Martinez, the talent booker for the Belly Up, echoed the sentiments of many in the audience as she waited for the performance to begin.
"Patti was life itself to me when I was growing up," she said. "I listened to her music every morning through high school. It was a tension release. The music made me feel like there was someone out there feeling a lot of the things you were."
Despite the long layoff, Smith seemed relatively at ease as she walked onstage around 9 p.m. wearing a black jacket, a white T-shirt and jeans. After putting on glasses she read a poem that, like much of her work, spoke about the struggle for dignity, self-respect and freedom.
After half an hour, both Smith and the audience seemed eager for music, and she responded by calling guitarist Tony Shanihan to join her on stage.
Though Smith didn't assert the arm-waving fury of the old days in this informal context, her manner was just as inspirational as before.
Smith has been wounded in recent years by the deaths of many people she loved and/or admired - photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and former bandmate Richard Sohl to musicians Jerry Garcia and Cobain.
Closest to home were two deaths her family last, year: her husband, who was a guitarist for the radical '60s rock band MC5, and her younger brother Todd.
Smith and her husband had been working at the time of his death on songs for a new album, which has since been completed and is due from Arista Records in February. Just as she was encouraged by ends to finish the album, she was urged to make a few personal appearances as a way of healing wounds.
Sometimes accompanying herself on guitar, Smith, still looking rail-thin and agile, supplemented some of her own songs - inlcuding ones written for her husband and for Cobain - with versions of the Grateful Dead's "Black Peter," Bob Dylan's "Dark Eyes" and the Rolling Stones/Buddy Holly hit "Not Fade Away."
The evening's most haunting number was the final one, "Paths That Cross." Though written for Smith's last album, its key lines express the optimism that comforts her now:
Backstage before the performance, Smith spoke about the way the shows have lifted her spirits.
"Everywhere I go, it is so touching that people really want to comfort me," she said. "Sometimes these young kids will come up and you can tell that they don't even know what to say. They look at me and I wind up telling them that things are OK. I can see in their face that they really feel bad."
Smith doubts that she'll ever tour regularly, preferring to stay close to her son Jackson, 13, and daghter Jesse, 8. She does hope to continue recording and make occasional appearances.
"You know the phrase, that "Time heals all wounds,"' she said. "I don't think anything really heals wounds. I just think that you learn to live with these things, and I think more work is helpful to me.
"I am not only talking about artistically, I think I can be of help in ways, raising money for AIDS which is something very close to my heart, and just sharing what I've learned. I have seen a lot of life, and I just feel that maybe somehow, if I conduct myself well enough through this period, people of any age can see that no matter what kinds of things happen to you in life that you can get through it."
Smith was so moved by Cobain's suicides last year that she wrote a song, "About a Boy," in memory of the Nirvana leader.
"Fred and I wept when that kid did that," she said softly. "I loved that 'Unplugged' record, but we didn't weep for him like fans. We wept like parents. It was like we felt some of the guilt or frustration that a parent would feel. We mourned the loss of someone who was so gifted and obviously in so much pain . . . and we all know there are lots of kids in that same pain.
"The best thing I feel I can do is help other people who feel bad or feel that life has dealt them a rough blow . . . I want them to understand that life is still worth living because life is worth living.
Copyright © Los Angeles Times 1995