The Best Minds of our Generation…Patti Smith, Philip Glass, and Allen Ginsberg at the City Winery

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Allen Ginsberg in 1984
Allen Ginsberg in 1984

On Palm Sunday at the City Winery, it was a great honor to see two great artists celebrate the life of their dear mutual friend, the poet and activist, Allen Ginsberg. This night commemorated the twelfth anniversary of his passing, and Patti Smith and Philip Glass held the audience in the palm of their hands or, rather, their warm embrace, channeling Allen’s presence in the best way they know how:  Ms. Smith reciting his poetry, among others’, while Mr. Glass played simultaneously some excerpts of his compositions at the Steinway grand and a special section that included Jesse Smith, Patti’s daughter. The combination of music and poetry was not lost on the audience as a hybrid “beat” gig Ginsberg would have enjoyed. Spanning the years of time and friendship, the performance was quite the paean to the iconoclastic poet’s life and this exalted spirit could be felt throughout the room. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I was struck by a strong sense of community and family, with the participation of daughter Jesse. But it’s not the first time they have performed together to remember their friend Allen. There’s a great shot in Steven Sebring’s documentary “Dream of Life” (2008) based on Smith that includes the two of them in poetic concert much the same way we heard them Palm Sunday. Even so, hearing them in such an intimate setting as the Winery localized it in downtown New York, where Ginsberg made his home and,  like the performersthemselves, found artistic expression.

Patti wore her iconic androgynous outfit: a man’s dark suit jacket over a tee-shirt, blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a wool winter cap pulled down over her forehead, framing her strong features with her long hair. I’m not sure if it’s reserved for poetry readings only. (In the “Dream of Life” she cuts a different figure, her arms flailing coming out of an over-sized tee-shirt and her mass of hair. (She is my hero in this costume, as I was relentlessly teased about how scrawny my arms were all through childhood.) Like Chaplin’s tramp, the street look wins our empathy right away. She’s the rock’n’roll misfit. This is just one facet of her performance persona; she’s no slouch. On the contrary, she’s quite the accomplished multi-media artist and poet, having been awarded Commander of Arts and Letters from the French Ministry of Culture. Further, she continues to be politically active, sticking her neck out speaking at rallies, urging political participation from her audiences, and most recently requesting a complete commission on war crimes of the Bush administration. Her confrère, Ginsberg, was a rabble-rouser himself, unafraid of confrontation. I see Patti following in his footsteps along with other musicians with a political conscience (John Lennon and Yoko Ono, for instance) for the cause of free speech and social justice, using her celebrity status to gain more followers. In the art world, she continues to create to this day. An exhibition of her photographs, sculpture, and a film just closed on April 18 at the Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea called “Veil.” More on this later.

My motivation to see this pair is quite personal. I confess I’m not completely familiar with their most recent work. I’m lucky to hear bits and pieces when my head rears out of the sand these last 8 years of political disillusionment. But last April 2008, I was fortunate to see Glass’s electrifying “Satyagraha” at the Metropolitan Opera, thanks to my friend’s mother who doesn’t care for modern music. The repeated vocalizations of lyrics and melody sent me on a spiritual journey (from the seventh row, no less) that I really needed to take, leaving me forever indebted to my friend’s mother. Watching the principals sing and walk towards us in unison on the extremely raked stage was extraordinary. But that interest in “Satyagraha” was inspired, in part, by “The Orphée Suite for Piano” which I had heard serendipitously on the radio and hurried to buy before music stores went out of business. This was the very first excerpt Mr. Glass played at Sunday’s show as Ms. Smith recited the first poem, and it sent everyone into a trance with its hypnotic rhythms and triadic repetitions, like the transcendental dance of the whirling dervishes.

My motivation to see Patti Smith, well, I would have to say, see her again because, being more familiar with her, I tracked her return to New York years ago by going to see her as often as possible in Central Park, Bowery Ballroom, wherever I could, so that I had to give it a rest until she came out with “Twelve,” a wonderful song cycle of covers with unusual juxtapositions. I recommend this recording to any lover of rock‘n’roll. She interprets each song as her own, possessing it, thus confirming her place in the firmament of rock star constellations. From here, I believe she could take on anything in the American Songbook and make it new and fresh, her powers of interpretation are so great. It was in a radio interview when I first heard a snippet of this lyrical cycle, and I ran to get it before it sold out. Recorded before the end of the Bush Administration, I’m convinced there’s a subliminal message in the order of the songs for us listeners—the reverse of the MTA subway ad “if you see something, say something.” More like: “since you’re listening to this, do something because there’s something wrong with the government.”

Besides attending the usual demo with others, I got stuck on her version of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” an incredibly sad ballad that breaks me up every time I hear it. It reeks of love and loss, and I recently lost a loved one. But it’s really her voice saying those lyrics that get to me, especially the lines, “blue blue windows behind the stars, yellow moon on the rise, big birds flyin’ across the sky, throwing shadows on my …?”. As a teenager in Ohio, I learned Young’s lyrics by heart from that album (actually wrote them in the snow at dusk alone—so jejune!) because his diction is so clear and the poetry self-evident. But her version brought them crashing home. Not until hers did I understand the beauty of it. And she sings it very simply; no electric guitars or reverb machines. She also conjures up in me the notion of belonging to the region spanning both shores of Lake Erie (Ontario and Ohio) as part of the same region where the Huron tribe lived before Europeans drew lines on maps and another tribe exterminated them, as if the land remembers this sad history, too.

Philip Glass and Patti Smith also represent for me the potential of what a city like New York can offer someone who emigrates from an American city or suburb to become an artist and/or live with a kind of freedom not found elsewhere. Ginsberg was peripatetic in his youth, traversing the country a lot to visit friends and lovers, but eventually laid down his roots here. From my knowledge of Glass and Smith, they came to New York from other places to make a name for themselves here, and for Smith the move sounds like one of necessity or survival. Success was not something handed over to Glass, despite his association with contemporary avant-garde artists and theatre people of his day who are now household names. I appreciated a candid anecdote heard on the radio about when he had to drive a taxi before financial success caught up with his music:  a customer got in the cab and recognized the music as “that famous composer, Philip Glass.” He asked if he should turn it off; the woman said “No, that’s OK.” Then he surprised her by revealing his identity.

Ms. Smith left South Jersey for New York to be a poet first, which later found expression through her music. Her feelings towards her adopted city run deep, and she doesn’t forget who took a chance on her, like the late Hilly Kristal, the founder of CBGB’s. She was the last to play there recently before it closed for good in 2006 and recorded the event in a Polaroid of lilies in front of a graffiti-ed wall—a dreamy elegiac moment of an era gone by. And in touching scenes throughout “Dream for Life,” she actively honors those she loved and who were part of her life here in New York. It was Allen Ginsberg who beckoned her back to New York after her husband passed. It’s safe to say the New York can claim Glass and Smith as native son and daughter.

So Patti Smith remembered Allen Ginsberg with a poem of his in her signature incantatory style. There is something about the way she reads poetry—her cadence, her breath—that transforms a Ginsberg poem into a Lakota chant, incantation, or rain dance. To me, her vocalizing embodies the everywoman and the everyman—the Earth Mother. Her androgynous image complements the voice—more on that later. When she opens her mouth and utters speech, it rivets our attention. Is it the plaintive quality underneath, seeping through, reminding us of the scorched earth we live on and the borrowed time we have left? Is it her deep contralto that convinces us that what she says is the truth? After a moment, this is all I hear. As her pace continues, I stop hearing words. I’m listening to her heartbeat injected into the lines, like a blessing or admonition, in this case, a paean to Allen. But her contralto opens up, deepens, and the cadence sometimes grows to a roar. This is totally appropriate, too, since Ginsberg’s personal breakthrough as a poet was focused on the breath—to write according to the rhythm of his breathing (which was admittedly long) and not to worry about meter and rhyme.  Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered by Smith’s delivery combined with Glass’s trance-inducing repetitions invoked the presence of their Buddhist friend to hang out with us, just a little above our heads, kind of like a holy spirit.

The Program:
Philip Glass pretty much stayed in the background, leading me to think he’s awfully shy in performance. Completely attentive to his music, he hardly said a word. Maybe performing his own work demands a special concentration. Patti Smith was the mistress of ceremonies, providing the banter between songs, cracking jokes. She commented on how organized Philip was and then searched the stage for the next poem to read, though from my seat, her pages were coded with a paperclip. Is this part shtick? Showbiz? It didn’t matter. This crowd of a “certain age” —(refugees from CBGB’s days?)—gave her complete impunity this evening and was glad to be there.

After a couple of poems, Philip Glass disappeared and Patti’s daughter Jesse Smith took his place at the piano. This was a big treat. I remember her son Jackson joining her on stage in Central Park. Jesse Smith was a little shy at first. They played a song by Jerry Garcia —“Feels Like Palm Sunday Again”—and Patti forgot a line. A fan prompted her from the audience, no problem. That was the vibe: We’re all friends here. Patti then spoke about being next to Allen Ginsberg on his deathbed. They must’ve been so close; she described trying to draw his portrait in her copy of “Howl” but he wouldn’t keep still. One of the Buddhist monks, who were chanting there, told her Allen was being naughty because his spirit was restless, that he wasn’t letting go of this world easily. A monk also mentioned her daughter Jesse, also present at the vigil, who had eaten the cookies being offered to the gods. That got a laugh.

Jesse Smith then played an original composition with great confidence to her mother’s incantation of “Manahatta” by Walt Whitman, a poet for whom Ginsberg had high regard. It was amazing how Patti’s reading made the poem sound so contemporary. “…My city, city of spires, my city, Manahatta!” The music resembled Glass as if he wrote it himself. He must be her piano and composition teacher. “Manahatta” must have a lot of meaning to Patti. To hear the city celebrated, after all we’ve been through, was endearing. In a way, she was suddenly transformed into the Pythia, the priestess who gave important prophesies at ancient Delphi, and the City Winery was the new “omphalos” (navel of the world) making the Holland Tunnel, which is very close to the club, a kind of umbilical cord.

Philip Glass reappeared to play 2 piano etudes (nos. 2 and 10) without breaks. From this performance I wanted to hear the whole set. His music is not dissonant, actually sounds like all major chord arpeggios. So where is the song? It struck me the song is in the repetition of the rhythms and harmonies. The drama comes in the upper-register chords after establishing a repetition of droning treble ones. The slightest variation in the repetition then creates an ecstatic moment, like a release, usually in the upper register.  But when the piano starts to ring by all the repetitions, I hear something of Brahms piano accompaniment in the way his densely packed chord modulations in the lower range make the piano a ringing bell sometimes.

“Footnote to Howl” was reserved for last. But something incredible happened before that one. With Philip Glass at the piano, playing excerpts of Koyaanisqatsi and something I couldn’t recognize, Patti read my favorite of the evening: “On Cremation of Chögyam Trungpa, Vidyhara” written in 1987 (“Collected Works; 1947-1997” © 2006). The subject is the cremation of the Guru but the way Ginsberg wrote it, for me he captured the last moments of a person’s life—the extreme sense of awareness at the moment of death. Ginsberg’s mantra-like opening of each line (“I noticed…, I noticed…, I noticed…”) chanted in Patti’s inimitable style and him at the top of our minds, the two narratives—music and words—combined as one and created a magical transcendent moment. Her voice, so effulgent with emotion, was infectious. Her reading was so powerful, “Footnote” gave us the chance to regain our bearings. Quoting a phrase from “Howl”, we were in the company of “the best minds of our generation.”

A Note on the Place: the City Winery
The interior of the City Winery makes you feel as if you’re in California. It’s clean, airy, and the light-colored woods give it an uplifting quality, and the staff is incredibly outgoing and chic. I didn’t see the downstairs casks, but where the show was certainly doesn’t feel like a wine cellar. But barrels of wine fermenting are visible behind glass walls on the VIP level that hovers like a balcony thrust toward the stage. The room is intimate for its size even though it is quite big. Sight-wise, a pillar does get in the way in some cases, but what can you do? It’s a renovated industrial building when all aspects of publishing used to take place in New York; buildings were built to endure the impact of printing presses. At least it’s downtown. To help the acoustics, the wood-grained concrete pillars have luxurious velvet curtains from ceiling to floor (with fancy gold ties), one of which, thanks to the ever-accommodating staff, was cordoned even tighter to improve a patron’s view. But the acoustics were terrific from any table in the room. Everything was miked and amplified, including Mr. Glass’s piano. But I was totally impressed with the acoustics and wager they are as good as Frank Gehry’s Sosnoff Theater at The Fisher Center of Bard College. As far as the wine goes, I can say that I enjoyed my two glasses so much that I was fortified enough to thank Ms. Smith personally after everyone had scrammed. (What a groupie I am!)

Michael Dorf, proprietor and mastermind behind the combination of fermenting wine and downtown NY shows like this, appears to be picking up the mantle of places gone by the wayside, like the Bottom Line and most recently CBGB’s, judging by the list of famous musicians in upcoming programs. One section of the place near the stage will immediately remind downtown music scene-makers of the erstwhile Bottom Line: long lines of tables radiate from the gentle curve of the stage like rays of sun. I fondly remember how enjoyable it was to see a show at the Bottom Line sitting right the under the performers on stage even though I didn’t know who was sharing the table. A simple concept, yet it engenders a real camaraderie of shared musical experience. I loved it and am glad to see the setup repeated at the City Winery.

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