YEAR OF THE WOOD DRA­GON: Patti Smith and Friends, Bow­ery Ball­room, Feb­ruary 10, 2024

"It was only supposed to happen once."

YEAR OF THE WOOD DRA­GON: Patti Smith and Friends, Bow­ery Ball­room, Feb­ruary 10, 2024

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedYEAR OF THE WOOD DRA­GON: Words and Mu­sic by Pat­ti Smith and Lenny Kaye w/ Jesse Paris Smith, Jack­son Smith, Jay Dee Daugh­er­ty, Tony Shana­han and Friends Bowery Ballroom, NYC, February 10, 2024

53 years ago, Pat­ti Smith and Lenny Kaye stood to­geth­er on the dais at St. Mark’s On The Bow­ery. She announced that it was Bertolt Brecht’s birthday and stated, “This reading is dedicated to crime!” She read po­ems. He played some gui­tar that sound­ed like a car crash­ing. It is once again February 10th, and Patti has decided that it is once again time to gather to commemorate this moment. To quote a friend, none of this is guaranteed, not any more. So we show up.

Fri­day night I had din­ner with a friend in the East Vil­lage, and as we walked west after­wards in route to our in­di­vid­ual trains home, we paused to say goodbye at the cor­ner of Second Av­enue and 10th Street, that ir­reg­u­lar in­ter­sec­tion with Stuyvesant Street that’s a ves­tige of the time when this part of Man­hat­tan Is­land was still farm­land. I was walk­ing to the BMT at the cor­ner of 8th and Broad­way and I could have cut over just about anywhere, but I didn’t even con­scious­ly think about it, be­cause if I am walking west from this vicinity I will always walk past St. Mark’s Church.

It is a cor­ner of gran­ite and ivy and grave­stones and wrought-iron fence in the mid­dle of bars and cof­fee shops and iza­kayas and tea rooms. There are def­i­nite­ly ghosts hang­ing around the church­yard be­cause it is the sec­ond old­est church still stand­ing and peo­ple have been pray­ing there for a very long time. When I worked in an of­fice at the cor­ner of 8th Street and Broad­way I would come sit on the bench­es out front on the days when cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca was do­ing its best to pul­ver­ize me be­tween its grind­stones.

It is a weird week in NYC, Fash­ion Week is on, and the weath­er has been weird - there was a snow­storm in the forecast as I sat in the airport and wrote this - and it was a par­tic­u­lar­ly bonkers day to be stand­ing out in front of Bow­ery Ball­room for a cou­ple of hours as peo­ple made their way from the Low­er East Side to­wards Soho or Chi­na­town. There are still shuttered and graf­fi­ti cov­ered store­fronts from busi­ness­es that did not sur­vive the pandem­ic. There was con­fet­ti in ran­dom places on the side­walk from ear­li­er Lu­nar New Year cel­e­bra­tions. There were tourists, plen­ty of tourists, who stopped and in­evitably asked us why we were stand­ing on a side­walk in front of a row of shut­tered build­ings. There was a lot of honk­ing, as the cars came off the Brook­lyn Queens Ex­press­way via the Williams­burg Bridge, across De­lancey Street, and con­tin­u­ing west to­wards the Hol­land Tun­nel. Honk. Honk honk honk.1

This was not a par­tic­u­lar­ly well-ad­ver­tised show be­cause it came to­geth­er in what pass­es for last-minute in to­day’s mu­sic busi­ness. The up­stairs was re­served for friends so the rabble were on the floor as they al­ways are, and based on overheard line-waiting and pre-show chatter, there were a lot of ran­dom attendees who had nev­er seen Pat­ti Smith be­fore and found them­selves in town and rocked up to the venue. But play­ing the small room in front of the usu­al mot­ley sus­pects, friends and com­rade mu­si­cians, ac­tors, cre­ators, and oth­er gen­er­al weirdos gave them the license to just get out there and put on a show. It was the kind of thing you used to be able to do, back when you could realistically expect to find parking right in front of Bowery Ballroom, or barring that, across the street in front of the laundromat which is somehow still there.2

Pat­ti set the tone of the evening when she walked out with her daugh­ter Jesse and proceed­ed to read a poem they had writ­ten 45 min­utes ear­li­er in hon­or of Lu­nar New Year. They re­mind­ed us that it was also Losar, the Ti­betan New Year, and in its hon­or Jesse read an el­e­men­tal Ti­betan prayer that was also be­ing read by one of her mu­sical col­lab­o­ra­tors, the mu­si­cian Ten­zin Cho­e­gyal, who she worked with (along with Laurie An­der­son) on last year’s Songs from the Bar­do. Ten­zin was on the oth­er side of the world but the con­cept was that it was the same poem be­ing read with the same in­tention. There was some kind of loud fra­cas in­volv­ing se­cu­ri­ty as Jesse was in­tro­duc­ing the piece and she com­ment­ed that it was throw­ing off her con­cen­tra­tion, and her mother stepped in to say that she could see that it was the head of Bow­ery Se­cu­ri­ty so she un­der­stood it had to be something important, but “you can piss on my songs but give my daugh­ter five min­utes, please.”

I was go­ing to write “af­ter that spir­i­tu­al mo­ment, Lenny Kaye came out and they did ‘Fire of Unknown Ori­gin’, in­tro­duced as a song she’d writ­ten in the Chelsea Ho­tel,” but hon­est­ly, Pat­ti and Lenny duet­ting acousti­cal­ly on “Fire of Un­known Ori­gin” is also a spiritual moment. She left the stage to Lenny, who read from his won­der­ful Light­ning Strik­ing about his first en­counters with Pat­ti and her sis­ter, and Pat­ti ask­ing him if he’d play gui­tar be­hind her at an up­com­ing per­for­mance. Part of the read­ing in­clud­ed those lines from “Bal­lad of a Bad Boy” — his mama killed him, his papa grieved for him, his little sister Annalea wept under the almond tree — and it was the mo­ment where the sig­nif­i­cance of the day and the evening settled into your bones, like taking a deep breath where you can feel the ground under your feet for the first time all day. Lenny finished reading the section: “it was only sup­posed to hap­pen once.” and the enor­mi­ty of the the con­nec­tion - none of us would be here in this place right now with­out any of this hav­ing hap­pened - would almost be too much except the show keeps on moving.

Pat­ti re­turns to the stage along with the rest of the band, which tonight in­clud­ed lo­cal mu­si­cal man-about-town, for­mer Bon­go Jim­my Mas­tro, and they give us “Ghost Dance.” Jack­son Smith is also on­stage, so there are three gui­tarists, but I re­al­ize af­ter the first cho­rus that what Jack is play­ing is the flute line that’s on the orig­i­nal, and I am sure some­one will read this and think “bull­shit” and all I can tell you that it is what he was do­ing, go find the tape and prove me wrong. I usu­al­ly hear that counter-melody in my head be­cause it isn’t any­thing that’s ever part of the live ver­sion ex­cept tonight I re­al­ized that it was and it was because the band de­cid­ed to in­clude the electric util­i­ty knife that is James Mas­tro and the man of pro­found gui­tar tal­ent that is Jack­son Smith. There is al­most too much guitar tal­ent in the room and they are just, you know, up there do­ing their thing, and it is no­table that their thing is not show­ing off but in­stead the ex­act op­po­site, mak­ing the small­est possi­ble con­tri­bu­tion be­cause that is what the sit­u­a­tion calls for.

Pat­ti Lee once again va­cates the stage for the band mo­ment, which Tony Shanahan pref­aces by telling us that we def­i­nite­ly don’t ex­pect it and that we’ll be sur­prised that they even lis­ten to this kind of mu­sic. There’s pa­per with the lyrics and chords on a mu­sic stand lit­er­al­ly right in front of me and I’m read­ing it back­wards as the spotlights shine through, and I have no idea what this song is, but be­cause it is right un­der my head I am also not tak­ing my phone out to google the lyrics.

Af­ter one or two vers­es, Tony stepped to the mic and sang the first verse of “Dead Flow­ers” which is where we all thought this was go­ing un­til he stopped and said, “It’s the same song! It’s ba­si­cal­ly the same song.” Once I re­al­ized I was def­i­nite­ly not go­ing to fig­ure this out just by us­ing my think­ing brain I did a fucking google and dis­cov­ered that we were be­ing treat­ed to “I Love This Bar” by Toby Kei­th. Which makes sense if you have been to these kinds of things be­fore. I mean, Patti used to cover Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” back in the day. She covered “Stay” by Rihanna in 2013. At Lenny’s birthday celebration in 2016 years ago the entire band walked out and stormed into the Doo­bie Broth­ers’ “Je­sus Is Just Al­right.” (IT WAS FUCK­ING GRE­AT.) So this was just another one of those moments, which for this band, especially in this room, is, you know, reasonable and customary. I did, how­ev­er, feel bad for any­one in the au­di­ence for whom this was their first expe­ri­ence see­ing Pat­ti Smith. Be­cause this is def­i­nite­ly not what they were ex­pect­ing.

Pat­ti re­turned and read from a chap­ter in Year of the Mon­key, and brought out a nervous-looking fellow wearing an acoustic guitar, introduced as Michael Pitt. I gave up trying to be subtle with my phone usage and determined that he was an actor and possibly also a musician. His contribution to “Nine” was occasional bar chords, hitting Jay Dee Daugherty’s cymbals with his headstock, and clomping around sideways. I de­cid­ed that someone in the band had be­come friend­ly with him and in­vit­ed him along to the show and he was both thrilled and ner­vous as fuck to be on that stage with Pat­ti fuck­ing Smith and I found the whole thing charm­ing in the ex­treme. He did not return un­til the bows at the end of the night.

It is start­ing to feel very Rolling Thun­der-esqe but let’s be hon­est, if you’ve read me long enough you know that I will try to fit any­thing re­mote­ly like it into that box be­cause it is my favorite Dy­lan era, so take that state­ment with a grain of salt.

On the subject of Robert Dylan, 60 years ago Bob re­leased The Times They Are A-Changin, Pat­ti re­minds us, and “One Too Many Morn­ings” is one of her fa­vorite songs that has been a lovely moment over the past couple of years. This side­steps briefly into a re­minder that just like it was 53 years ago it is still Bertolt Brecht’s birth­day. She briefly sings some lines from “Lullaby” from Moth­er Courage, and then despite the jok­ing and the asides and the self-dep­recat­ing com­ments and the snap­py re­torts to the id­iots in the au­di­ence bel­low­ing WE LOVE YOU at any mo­ment the band are try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate with each oth­er about what’s hap­pen­ing on­stage3,  the chords inform us that it is time for “Mas­ters of War.” This is not the first time she has sung “Mas­ters of War” and not the first time I have seen her sing “Mas­ters of War.” 

Ear­li­er to­day I was tex­ting with a friend and they asked, “How was Pat­ti?” And al­though I will tell you that I nor­mal­ly hate that ques­tion, mostly because it’s impossible to give a short answer and I’m not writing a review in text message, this was asking it dif­fer­ent­ly. And my re­sponse was, “I al­ways learn some­thing from her.”

I was specifically thinking of this per­for­mance of “Mas­ters of War” be­cause that song is al­ready a text, it al­ready ar­rives with its own weight and sub­stance. That means that when you de­cide to step into its weight and put it on your shoul­ders you are steely-eyed con­fi­dent that you have some­thing to add to its al­ready very con­sid­er­able pres­ence. Patti’s shirt tonight read “Hop­ing for Pa­lestine” and that was not just some­thing she pulled off of the laun­dry pile be­cause Pat­ti Smith is always pre­cise with the words that she choos­es. In the de­liv­ery of this ren­di­tion of “Mas­ters of War” there was sev­en fla­vors of fury and anger and so much deep sadness and despair. I was overwhelmingly sad and grateful, grateful that she’d cleared this space for herself and for us.

Two more songs from the band, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” for Tony in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival; Jesse sings backup and does hand claps and tries to coax her mom from her spot on the stairs leading offstage. The “it’s a nugget if you dug it!” entry of the evening is “Dirty Water,” which Lenny tries to fashion into a song about the Lower East Side, which it is not and he is the first person on the planet to know that which is why he gets a mulligan. I am not arguing about historical accuracy with the actual Dean of Nuggets. Lenny Kaye is our ver­sion of the me­dieval monk who keeps the sa­cred scrolls, he got his own belated and well-deserved vic­to­ry lap this past year when it was the 50th an­niver­sary of the compi­la­tion that is now so ir­rev­o­ca­bly part of the cul­ture that it seems im­pos­si­ble to imagine a time where we didn’t ven­er­ate “Psy­chot­ic Re­ac­tion” or try to sound like the 13th Floor El­e­va­tors or ac­cept that “Glo­ria” via the Shad­ows of Knight is the Garage Rock Na­tion­al An­them be­cause so much was built off of those three chords, there are songs that could lit­er­al­ly not ex­ist with­out that bedrock and there are songs that do not even know that they are stand­ing on those shoul­ders. It is like air, or wa­ter at this point.

“And yet another unrehearsed gem,” is how Patti introduces the next number, which turns out to be “Puff the Magic Dragon” in honor of the Year of the Dragon. I learned this song at Girl Scout camp and was one of those people who loved to sing at Girl Scout camp, and I could not have told you what the second and third verses were (or that there were even second and third verses). Every chorus she gestured at us to sing, which apparently we were not doing sufficiently well, and that’s when we got “If I can sing the fucking song, you can sing it.” 4

At some point5 there’s a decision to sing Berthold Brecht’s “Alabama Song.” As we’ve already established, it is his birthday today. Patti brings Jesse to the front and holding hands, the two launch into the first verse. Even if not everyone in this room has heard of Brecht, they’ve definitely heard the Doors’ first album at some point in their lifetime, and everybody drunk people loves singing the song about the whiskey bar. The challenge is that this seems to have been an audible — it’s not on the setlist — and no one knows the words after that first verse… except for Tony Shanahan. And while one of the many, many ways Tony Shanahan is an invaluable asset to Patti Smith as a musical collaborator and member of her performing ensemble is that he either has negative ego or is way more evolved than your average bear and manages to just keep it hidden, this entire evening was going to go off the deep end if someone did not take immediate and decisive action. Tony Shanahan (unsurprisingly) knows all of the words to “Alabama Song” and he takes the lead and pulls this rendition back off of the edge of the cliff that it was teetering on. Like, it’s been almost 30 years that he’s been part of Patti’s band and even if he hadn’t earned the right at this point (in my opinion anyway) to solve this problem, he was the one thing standing between slight embarrassment and complete humiliation.6

“This song doesn’t have an anniversary, it just perpetuates,” announces “Dancing Barefoot.” This is a song that has been played hundreds of times; it is Patti’s most-covered song (yes, even over “Because the Night,” that is a very difficult song to sing) and it was this soft, beautiful, pillowy moment, grey heads gently nodding, people with eyes halfway closed, bodies swaying. It was probably not the moment most people went home and told their friends about but it was a few minutes of simple communion with the music and the artist and the lyrics and the vocals. Patti lifts her arms and there’s a brief glimpse of a 77-year-old midriff and I wonder why I cannot be that brave myself.

Fred Sonic Smith wrote this song for us, she reminds us, and also informs us that we are to imagine that the band has climbed up three flights of stairs to the dressing room while applauding loudly for an encore of “People Have The Power.” Before the last chorus, Patti reminds us -- as she always, always, always reminds us -- that the Dragon rewards hard work, so we should work hard. It is exhortation, it is blessing, it is benediction. I have stood in this room and heard those words in different forms so many times and every time she is right and every time I am thankful for it, even if sometimes it’s more like a kick in the gut than a cheer from the sidelines.

I always learn something from her.

Tony Shanahan, Herself, Jesse Paris Smith, Lenny Kaye

  1. There used to be a hand­made sign on a light pole as you fun­neled clos­er to the Hol­land Tun­nel that read, “DON’T HONK, IT WON’T HELP.” I al­ways salut­ed the lo­cal res­i­dent whose ini­tia­tive drove them to that one small ges­ture to try to bring their neigh­bor­hood some peace.

  2. The amount of internal they must own the building statements I made while walking around the past few days was off the charts.

  3. “It’s not go­ing to help you,” she replies af­ter half a mo­ment of with­er­ing si­lence that would have made me col­lapse into a pile of hu­mil­i­at­ed dust, but the dude tried it again later on.

  4. SIDE ANECDOTE: I went to see the Conspiracy of Hope tour at Giants Stadium and was down in the crowd towards the stage at the beginning of the day. A very early act was Peter, Paul and Mary , and no one in my immediate vicinity knew who they were. So I helpfully explained that they were the people who sang “Puff, the Magic Dragon” which everyone knew, causing a large group to chant “Puff, Puff” during every song. Someone near me made a tiny cardboard sign reading PUFF. It was hilarious. I did not feel bad because prior to this knowledge the crowd did not GAF and now they were at least interested.

  5. I don’t have notes so I don’t know exactly where, because it was literally like watching a car crash in slow motion

  6. The dude is fascinating. One of the many regrets of things that stood no chance of making it into a book that wasn’t supposed to be more than 40k words was the fact that I got to do a deep dive into Tony Shanahan’s history. His first real gig in the music business was as a part of John Cale’s band in the 90s. Can you imagine??