Patti Smith & Lenny Kaye, St. Mark’s Church, 2/9/11
Standing outside St. Mark’s Church, shivering as I waited to get in, I turned as someone came up behind me. It was Patti, and Lenny. “Happy Anniversary!” I said. She giggled a little, the way she does these days, before thanking me and heading into warmth.
Janet Hamill opened, reading with strength and aplomb and she forced the room – many of whom had no idea who she was, or her connection to Patti – to pay close attention, not just tolerate her. She was marvelous.
Anne Waldman followed with an introduction of Patti and Lenny so amazing I wish she would publish it. She noted that she was the poet who introduced Patti that day back in 1971. The introduction tonight was about five pages long, full of love and flamboyance and praise and things better said now while we are all still here in the same room to hear it than in 10 or 20 years at someone’s eulogy. We had enough ghosts in the room as it was.
Patti seemed flustered, and needed a minute to collect herself, and then opened with “Oath,” the first poem she read at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. You could have dropped a pin in the room. The room was a little too full of people there to be seen and there because it is cool to like Patti again – I was informed by the hipster kid in front of me that so many people were waiting online because she had recently interviewed Johnny Depp for Vanity Fair (I did mention, “There was also that little book award too, you know,” only to be informed that “these people” didn’t read books) – but it was silent, and reverent, and full of love. Even the occasional shouting asshole was essentially doing it out of love.
Speaking of love, the remaining members of the Patti Smith Band showed up a few minutes before she and Lenny were due to come out and promptly sat themselves down on the floor in the front row, fittingly taking their places in front of the people who usually show up hours in advance to watch them onstage. (According to Patti, they were all making fun of her and Lenny the entire night.)
She mentioned that February 10 is Bertold Brecht’s birthday, and 40 years ago, they played “Mack The Knife” because of that event. And if you know Patti, you know she is full of these dates and remembers every birthday and every death and is not shy about sharing those facts with an audience. Lenny began to play “Mack The Knife”… and poor Patti couldn’t get past the second line. She switched to German, which I think was slightly more successful, but then some fans who I happen to know understand German began to crack up, so I’m not quite certain as to the degree of success.
There was homage to Jim Carroll, who used to work in a room at the back of the sanctuary, as Lenny sang “Still Life,” the best song he ever co-wrote with Jim. He sang it with Jim’s inflections, which gave me goosebumps. There was “Fire of Unknown Origin”. There were stories, there was history, all of which I know, all of which I came here to be told again, tonight, in this place, in the very place in which it all began, in which an alliance was solidified, the incubator of – of, well, so much. How she met Lenny, how they would dance in the record store when no one was there, how she asked him if he’d play guitar for her, how the first time she heard “Fire of Unknown Origin” set to music was when she met Lenny.
“Southern Cross” was beautiful, and had the audience on its feet, and all I could think was, “You’ve never seen it with a full band, clearly” – not that the full band was better or that there was something amiss with Patti and Lenny facing off against each other during “Southern Cross” or that it didn’t grow and morph and launch and soar, but because I know that is what “Southern Cross” does. It never fails to conjure magic.
In the end, the very end, Patti wasn’t laughing or telling tales, she was up there performing, coming back to one of the first stories she told tonight, about how she’d written “Ballad of a Bad Boy” and then gotten up and walked around the room she shared at the Chelsea Hotel with Robert Mapplethorpe and how he told her she needed to read her poems in public, and how he was going to get her a reading. And here she was, every bit still that girl, every bit rebellious and defiant and sashaying around the stage as Lenny Kaye made his guitar sound like a car crash, just like she’d asked him to 40 years ago. And then Lenny puts on an electric guitar, and she opens her mouth once again we are back to ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine’ and I am chanting the words silently like a prayer and the dorks down the front row are feeding back “G-L-O-R-I-A” at the chorus because we can’t not, just because we’re in a church and sitting in chairs doesn’t mean we’re dead, and then she exhorts us all to get up and with relief we do, and we stand and we sing it back as loudly as we would if we had been facing Marshall amps and a wall of sound. It still astonishes me how this song has aged, how she can transform it, how it is rebellion and rallying cry and as defiant as ever. (“My soul is in Egypt, but my heart is here with you” was how Patti greeted the audience earlier.)
Obviously I was not here at this church 40 years and 364 days ago. I was not at Max’s Kansas City when Jim Carroll was recording the Velvet Underground, I was not at the Mercer Arts Center when the New York Dolls played there, was not dancing down front at the Crawdaddy in Richmond when the Stones were in residence, was not sitting in the front row of the top balcony at the Apollo Theater as Otis Redding serenaded the crowd. I wasn’t, but I was, because my heart is made of little pieces of the energy that came out of all of those places. And I was here tonight, closing a loop, forging another link in the chain, empowering and reminding me of who I am.
Happy Anniversary, indeed.
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Tags: patti smith