a conversion experience

[a review, by Marc Posner, of Patti Smith's October 7, 1995 show at Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Cambridge, MA (with comments on the 12/95 Orpheum shows in Boston, MA)]

First, some history. Although I've only recently become a full-fledged Patti Smith fan, I have been not been completely unaware of her work. I remember reading an article in the Rutgers University newspaper about "Patti Smith, who chants angry poems over a loud punk band" and was performing at an art gallery in New Brunswick, New Jersey (where I lived from 1973 through 1975). I did not go. I also recall an announcement for "Bruce Springsteen, hard rock, at the State Theatre." Two more entries on the "shows to which I should have gone, but did not" list.

I also missed Patti opening for the Grateful Dead at the University of Massachusetts in 1979, not gaining entrance to the stadium until after her set. A friend skipped the Dead show (not realizing that Patti was playing) because she was appearing at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston later that night. She had the flu and her evening show was a disaster.

In the intervening years, I've acquired about half of Patti's albums. In September 1995, PBS broadcast its "History of Rock and Roll" series. The segment on punk was wonderful, opening with local hero Jonathan Richman and including footage of a very young Talking Heads at CBGBs. It also contained some riveting clips of Patti. At the time, I had no idea I'd be seeing her later that fall.

In late September, I read in the newspaper that Patti would be reading at the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac event. I had already decided to skip Lowell and had a ticket for a show in town that night. It was later announced that Patti would be reading at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church the night after Lowell, as well as doing a book signing in conjunction with an exhibit of her photographs. The gallery was not open hours convenient to those of us who work and live on the other side of Boston, and the show sold out before I could get a ticket. Fortunately, a second show was added and tickets were offered at a (slightly) more convenient location.

Still not having undergone my Patti Smith conversion experience, I did not attend the signing (another regret). I arrived at the church in time to get a seat in the first pew. The room was lit by candles. A pianist entertained the audience until show time. It was probably the most boho event in the greater Boston area since John Cale played Nightstage several years ago. Janet Hamill, an old friend of Patti's from New Jersey, opened. After a short intermission, Patti stepped up to the altar, looking just like, well, Patti Smith. Older (but not that much older than me), graying, a couple of ratty braids falling across her t-shirt -- she was beautiful. She asked the audience if anyone had been in Lowell the night before. When a sizable number applauded, she suggested, in good humor, that they need to get lives. When her question about how many of them attended the show earlier in the evening also provoked quite a bit of applause, she said "What's the matter, couldn't get a date for the prom?" She seemed honestly shocked (and touched) that so many people in the audience were following her mini-tour.

While Patti read from books and notebooks, her right hand moved over her body like a reptile with an existence independent of, yet tied to, the woman who recited poetry and seemed to be unaware of its explorations as it played with a braid or touched a breast. Between poems, Patti chatted with the audience, occasionally amusing herself so much that it interfered with her reading. She was charming. I'm not familiar with Patti's poems, took no notes, and cannot pretend to approximate a set list for the spoken word portion of the evening. "Dog Dreams," "Seventh Heaven," "Land," and "Ha Ha Houdini" are the titles I remember or found in the Boston Globe's review. Before she read "Seventh Heaven" (an audience request) she said "I don't repudiate anything that I wrote when I was younger, but I now look at it with a more parental eye. And frankly, I'm appalled." Words (or at least my words) cannot do justice to the look on her face as she said this.

The performance was billed as a "spoken word event." But after forty-five minutes Lenny Kaye appeared carrying an acoustic guitar. The first song they did was "Dancing Barefoot" complete with Patti's ritual stripping of shoes and socks. She was a joy to watch. During one guitar break, she stepped back from the microphone and made one of those big rock and roll gestures we've all seen a hundred times, while her face held an amused expression that said "I know I'm in a church with one acoustic guitarist, but I'm doing my best to rock n' roll." Ten seconds later she was at the microphone with both arms wrapped around her torso and radiating enough emotional intensity to cause hard drives to crash all over Cambridge. At the conclusion of the song, the audience exploded with applause.

She crouched and spoke with Kaye, then stood up and said "We haven't done this for a while, but you're so great, we'll try it." They launched into "Because The Night." Being ten feet away while she sang was overwhelming. I held onto the pew with both hands so I wouldn't take off. She then brought Janet Hamill back to play rattles during "Ghost Dance" (which had been covered by Marianne Faithfull during her "Don't Smoke In Bed!" show at the American Repertory Theatre about a month earlier). After Hamill left the stage, Patti introduced another guest -- Thurston Moore! Moore played adequate acoustic guitar. (I saw Sonic Youth a couple of weeks later -- an absolute guitar rave-up.) They played "About A Boy," Patti's song about Kurt Cobain. I read recently (in an interview posted or linked to babelogue) that she and Fred Smith had cried when Kurt died -- "not like fans, but like parents."

The next piece was a reading (perhaps "Last Hotel") which she dedicated to Brian Foye, one of the prime movers behind Lowell Celebrates Kerouac. And then, to the delight of this old (well, middle-aged) Deadhead, she closed with "Black Peter," Garcia and Hunter's song about death -- "See here how everything lead up to this day, and it's just like any other day that's ever been." And, in an unanticipated tribute to Mr. Garcia, she forgot some of the words.

She encored with an inspired and inspiring version of "People Have The Power." Earlier in the show, a man sitting near the stage had told her that he had once traded a New York Dolls poster for one of her guitar picks. Before leaving the room for the final time, she gave him the pick she had used during the show.

The performance was stunning. I crawled home.

In December I attended both Bob Dylan - Patti Smith Group shows at Boston's Orpheum Theatre. The second night, Patti's set was a bit abbreviated. I think the promoter wanted to get us home early on a Sunday. That evening did feature Patti and Dylan in a duet on his "Dark Eyes" during an astonishing Dylan set.

The first show, on Saturday, December 9, was all Patti's. Her performance combined a fierceness and an intense artistry with a complete lack of pretension. She opened with Dylan's "Wicked Messenger," followed by her poem "Perfect Moon," "Dancing Barefoot," "Because The Night," "Ghost Dance," "Walking Blind," "Mortal Shoes," "Rock N Roll Nigger" and "Not Fade Away" ("in memory of Jerry Garcia.") During "Rock N Roll Nigger" she unintentionally kicked over her water bottle. While Lenny Kaye was singing, and Tom Verlaine and Kaye were taking solos, she got down on her hands and knees and dried the stage, using the socks she removed during "Dancing Barefoot" and a t-shirt someone had thrown to her. She stood up, noticed more water in front of the monitors, walked to the front of the stage, got back down on all fours, and went back to wiping. I was captivated by the humanity that Patti brought to the performance through the simple act of cleaning up after herself. It was a rock n' roll moment. It also was a reminder that she's been a mom for 14 years.

She encored with "Farewell Reel." And, yes, that was Michael Stipe in the ski mask accompanying her on acoustic guitar. Allen Ginsberg was also in the audience.

What else can I say? For those of you taking notes, this was written on an old Zenith portable with a three meg hard drive and a screen held together with duct-tape while listening to Neil Young's "Decade" and Nirvana's "Nevermind." Ciao for niao.

Copyright © Marc Posner 1996

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