Patti Smith (and Lenny Kaye) 75, February 2022

Unos, dos, tres, catorce

Patti Smith (and Lenny Kaye) 75, February 2022

“I’d ask you to all stand for the national anthem,” said Lenny Kaye onstage at Bowery Ballroom last Sunday night at his rescheduled 75th birthday celebration, “but you’re already standing.” With that, he hit those three sacred chords – “only the most glorious,” he told Patti Lee Smith over 50 years ago – and whoever was left in that very best of NYC venues gleefully sang along to “Gloria.” I was sorry in that moment that Herself had already left the venue after her four-song appearance with her friend and collaborator because it would have been a real “will the circle be unbroken” kind of moment. Not that it wasn’t already.

My long weekend in NYC taking advantage of the rescheduled 75th birthday shows for Patti and Lenny started at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, where the band entered the stage and I heard the intro guitar riff that heralds “25th Floor.” “25th Floor” is about Detroit; it’s about Fred, it’s about the time the pair took up residence at the then-fading Book Cadillac hotel in downtown Detroit, at the corner of Michigan Avenue, just up the block from Lafayette Coney Island where they met, not far from the Arcade Bar, home of the clock with no hands from M Train. All of this context, all of this information matters because it matters. It matters even more at a concert which is commemorating 75 years of residence on this planet, 50 years of work in this medium.

The diehards at a concert are always about 1% of the total attendance. So I am not surprised when there’s just a scattering of people who leap to their feet once they realize what the song is. It takes a lot of emotion and energy to sell “25th Floor” and its presence this high up in the set catches me by surprise. What also grabs my attention is how visceral it all feels; it’s not that I don’t expect Patti Smith to deliver an energetic performance, but I can be enchanted by the quality of the emotion she tunes to.

Three songs in, though, she pauses. She apologizes if she seems off; she’d had an early morning phone call from a friend in Ukraine. She notes how it’s impossible to not be impacted by the war, because it is in the air and the energy and the molecules all around us. “We need to do our work,” she reminds us, but she also sadly reminds us that peace as we know it is finished in Europe. But true to her word, she is still here to work. She opens a book of poetry to read and a small card slips out. “Oh, that’s what happened to my metrocard,” she exclaims. She sings a few lines of “A Very Merry Unbirthday” before explaining that 1) she wasn’t going to continue because that’s all she knows 2) it’s from the movie, not the book. “There’s no dancing fucking teapots in the book.” A drunk man yells “HOW DO YOU SPELL NEW YORK” and she responds, “P-a-t-t-i.” It really was your average night with Patti Smith and her Band, but “average” doesn’t ever imply “low quality.”

I am tiresome about “Beneath the Southern Cross” because it is such a deeply underrated song. it does not get the attention it deserves. I feel bad for the people who haven’t listened to her post-95 records and don’t know what’s about to happen, or act like it’s a placeholder between “Because the Night” and “People Have The Power.” “Southern Cross” is a composition; it is a text; it is such a singularly powerful piece of music and it is never the same. Patti was learning guitar from Fred before he died; she only knew a few chords, and when he passed, her reaction was to sit with those chords and play the guitar and write songs. There’s a quote from Lenny about how profound it was to him to discover that. It’s the simplicity that allows it to become a vehicle for improvisation and I am always so happy and grateful that I get to be in its presence. It is the song I listened to on repeat the night my father died, when I sat up late working on his obituaries. I am old enough now to ask that it be played when my ashes are scattered.

We are old; we just got through a global pandemic; there is a war going on. I am going to think about death

I did not plan to come to these shows in December; it was expensive, I had just been in London, I have seen her often. But then they got bumped and I bought a plane ticket. I didn’t have any expectations about what I was coming to see or what the shows would be like. It isn’t church but it is an observance, a thing I do because I am of this persuasion, because this is a thing that matters to me, and it is expressed through live performance, through electric guitars, through experiencing live music with other humans gathered in the same place. You go, you find your friends, you see people you recognize but don’t know, you hear songs you have heard before, you watch the performance, you sing along, you know where to look, when Lenny will step to the mic, when Jay Dee will take out the small cotton mallets, when Tony will sit at the keyboard and play some organ chords before slipping into a bass line and then getting up and kicking the stool away. It’s not choreographed and it’s not that it’s predictable, it’s just how the thing happens, and there is a comfort in its familiarity, in the knowing and the remembering.

This feeling of knowing and remembering was even stronger Sunday night at Bowery Ballroom. I have stood leaning on that stage so many times; I have listened to the cars heading for the Holland Tunnel approach honk their horns while waiting on line, sprinted up the staircase, careened against the edge of the stage. i have been there so often it feels like home. And it is a night about music that also feels like home. Patti sings Bob’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” accompanied by Lenny on guitar. Tom Clark comes out and they sing the Louvin Brothers and John Prine and then Lenny reads from the 1959 chapter in his book, talking about doo-wop and his particular love, a chapter that ends with the unbelievable kicker, “All you need is a song and a voice, and a streetlamp.” The two friends work their way through a medley of doo-wop and let us get to sing “Teenager in Love” with them.

Towards the end of the set, Lenny invokes Johnny Thunders and covers "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory." I appreciate that he continues to tell good stories about JT and that he insists on keeping his memory alive and present in many ways, including singing his best song, which is also just a plain old gorgeous and deeply New York City song. The title comes from a line from an old Honeymooners episode, which will mean something to you if you are a certain age and grew up in the Tri-state area and watched those black-and-white reruns that came on after the nightly news at 11:30. Johnny Thunders was a talented motherfucker and I'll never stop being angry we didn't get the full benefit of that.

What I think I loved most on Sunday is that as generous as Lenny is with the vast scope of his knowledge is that he expects you to keep up. He did not explain why what he sang and talked about were important, he is just singing and talking about the things, knowing that everyone in the room knows why. Or should know why. I think about how that kind of knowledge is leaving; the people who care, the people who think it’s important, the people who understand why it’s important and why you should care. There are people who do and it’s not limited to age -- there was a millennial pair of friends next to me and I eavesdropped on their pre-show conversation and they were deeply knowledgeable and had the newer bands they loved but also had a studied, comprehensive approach to their fandom. (I did not interrupt, but I did step aside so one of them could get the setlist at the end of the night. I do not need any more pieces of ephemera in my house.)

I miss New York but I am no longer of it. What I love about it is fading at various speeds. I walk down the street and without conscious effort name the places that used to be there, the litany in my head. That was a diner, that was a bookstore, that was the good bodega on the way home from the Ritz. I can still navigate by sight when I climb out of the subway, ascertaining which direction I need to walk in without taking out a phone. I am from this place and it made me who I am but it is no longer for me. I have had my time.


donde esta

I do want to talk about Patti singing U2’s “Vertigo,” though. It’s not like she hasn’t sung U2 songs before, or that she hasn’t sung U2 songs with U2, but she has never done this before and it came out of a clear blue sky. She didn’t even announce it, but you do not need to ANNOUNCE “Vertigo.” Just count in Spanish badly. She didn’t even say anything if I recall correctly – like, I have sussed out that she’s about to do Something and had my phone ready before, like when she pulled out “Mothers of the Disappeared” at Summerstage a couple of years ago. And then I was laughing entirely too hard once I figured out what it was and it took me a few seconds to get the damn phone up.

So I don’t have any context about this except that I think she liked the “I can feel” choruses and decided to try to do it, and then at the end I think she wanted to segue into That Song On Easter because she has recently not been playing it but I think she misses the energy it generates EVEN THOUGH there are many other songs in her repertoire that could generate that kind of energy. But I also do not know and am only guessing, and it was still fucking hilarious yelling HOLA and DONDE ESTA because no one else in that band was going to sing the Edge’s parts and I am not at all sure based on the expression on his face that Tony Shanahan was convinced but he is also the world’s most affable sideman so it also didn’t matter. It was fun! Every diehard U2 fan I know responded with some version of "wow amazing how much better her version of the song is."