because the night : patti smith at CBGB
1 May 2005
8pm and the doorway to CBGB opens up and we rush in. That doorway, where I used to stand with my fake ID and try to look the age it advertised. Then, the interminable walk past the bar, underneath the gallery of neon signs. I know exactly where I’m going but the people in front of me do not, so I finally edge around them and lead us over to the right side of the stage, not the left, I hate being in the pathway to the bathrooms. It has been a very long time since I have been here and yet it is still the same, it is still CBGB, it always feels semi-unreal, this black cave stretching back to meet the angled stage. I have never sat down for a show at CB’s and I was hardly going to start tonight.
It was May Day and Patti Smith was at CBGB’s and was there even a question that I would be in attendance? I didn’t know the occasion for the gig, Patti likes to play on May Day and she has played CB’s within the past, oh, 7 years (I think). And, yeah, sure, if this is the last time I’m inside CBGB, what a way to go.
So from the top there was absolutely no way this would have been a bad night. It began somewhat sedately, quiet numbers, “Hunter Gets Captured By The Game,” “Redondo Beach,” another number – and then all of a sudden, Michael Stipe is clambering onto the stage and they go into “Ghost Dance.”
Well, this puts a little bit of an edge on things, doesn’t it now?
Lenny Kaye gets the spotlight with “Part of the Union” in honor of May Day. So at this point it feels like this nice little special show that will kind of meander, Patti said she was a little under the weather (everyone in NYC has a cold, it seems), and, again, really, what could be bad here?
On the other hand, switch to: Patti kneeling back at the amp, choking feedback out of her Stratocaster, and careening into “25th Floor.” “Space Monkey” took things down a little, and then Tony Shanahan got his spotlight dance with a cover of “Rhinestone Cowboy” (it’s a long story).
“I hope I don’t fuck this one up, since the person who wrote it is here” preceded an absolutely gorgeous cover of “Saturn Return” by R.E.M. “I hope Michael went to the bathroom, or something,” Patti pleaded, when she didn’t remember how the song ended.
The problem is that all of the show, even Michael Stipe on “Because The Night,” even, again, that incendiary “25th Floor,” Patti throttling her Strat as though her life depended on it, all of it faded away once she spoke the line:
The boy was in the hallway drinking a glass of tea.
Then, then, Patti did what she has always done for, her role as guide and storyteller and enchantress, she opened a door into another world and took us with her. Except this time, Johnny is watching people die and children being exploited and the rich getting richer, and while I never thought of “Land” as a vehicle for political messages, it worked, it fucking worked, because it was still free-form and passion-filled and Lenny is up there, no one else works together quite the way the two of them do, he can follow her absolutely anywhere and give her a thread to hang onto, just hitting the strings on his guitar, atonally, just the right pace and tone and feeling, supporting her, guiding her in a way. He’s waiting for her to finish, he is circling slowly until she’s ready:
Horses, horses, horses, horses
coming in all directions
And all hell breaks loose. It is frantic and frenetic and the goosebumps from earlier translate into actual shivers, which I stave away through heat and sweat and joyous rancor, singing along as though it was the first time I had heard this song, dancing feverishly.
Do you know how to pony like bony maroney?
Mayhem now, and she is feeding off of it, it was an oddly paced show and just when we’d get a little rhythm they’d stop or some odd number would come in, but now, sick or not, she is on her game, her eyes are bright and shiny and she is here but she is not here, she is the high priestess, she is channeling the energy and raising more and feeding it back to us.
Johnny looks out the window and sees a sweet young thing
Humpin on the parking meter, leaning on t he parking meter
Is she just visiting or is she taking us there? We don’t know yet, there are shouts of recognition, and then:
And her name is
and her name is
Yeah, that’s where she’s taking us. It’s call and response, the club vibrating with shouts of “GLORIA!” until the end, the very end…
Jesus died for somebody’s sins…
She winks at us, a little, postures, preens, poses.
But not mine.
Jay Dee hits that four-beat roll and we’re back into the chorus, dancing like crazy until it’s over.
I am always so critical of people who go see artists of a certain stature when they evaluate the artist based on what they did 20 years ago, or evaluate performances in 2005 based on 1975. I hate it. But tonight Patti was channelling the ghosts of CB’s so I guess it’s okay that I say that this felt like old times, and it felt oh so good, forbidden, scary, familiar and beautiful.
Patti tells the story about recuperating after she walked off a stage in Florida in 1977 and broke her neck. How four geeky guys came to visit her, and they kind of reminded her of Lenny, and they brought her a bottle of tequila in a paper bag, even though she didn’t drink, she thought the gesture was very sweet.
The four guys were the Ramones, and then, just as we are choking up, and she is choking up, thinking of everyone who has been on that stage and is no more, including three members of her own band, she dedicates “a little number” to them, except that that little number is “Elegie” which guarantees we are going to cry: “I think it’s sad, it’s much too bad/That our friends can’t be with us today.”
“People Have The Power” was an afterthought, preceded by an exhortation in tribute of Ralph Nader; and it was during this speech on her part that I realized that I didn’t care that I disagreed with her, but it was her stage and her belief and her passion and she puts her money where her mouth is for Nader and it didn’t bother me one iota that she used the stage as platform even if I don’t know that I agree with her. Anyway, it’s beautiful, like it always is, and Michael comes back onstage for this one. I always loved how he owned this song during the Vote For Change shows, memories of which of course come flooding back right now.
And it’s over. Over. And I realize that she played nothing new and that with all of the stories about writing songs with Richard Sohl in this very club, and the tribute to Hilly’s dog, Jonathan (PUNK magazine even interviewed Jonathan once, putting a leather jacket and sunglasses on him) and the Dead Boys, that this was, simply, her way of saying goodbye to CB’s, and chances are that it will most likely be mine as well.
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