BECAUSE THE NIGHT BELONGS TO US
June 24, 2013
By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
Half-way through Friday evening at the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, Patti Smith interrupted her flow of song, memoir extract, song, poem, song, with: “Any questions?” The audience didn’t respond. Patti Smith commented that when it was silent after she asked the same question at an Italian press conference a few years ago – possibly also because her vocabulary was limited to “ciao” and “super marcato” – she walked out.
Someone suddenly shouted, “Is there anything in your life that you still want to do?” “No, I’m done”, she replied, with deadpan humour. And then continued, “Come on, have you been to a library? Look how many books there are you or I haven’t read. There are a million things I want to do. I love being alive. The thing I most dread is being run over by a Volkswagen before I’ve done my masterpiece. So I just avoid Volkswagens.”
For Patti Smith to suggest she has not yet made her masterpiece is humble – the show, which was part of the Southbank’s annual Meltdown Festival (guest curated by Yoko Ono this year), sold out immediately. Like me, the rest of Friday’s audience was not prepared for a genuine dialogue with the punk musician and writer (her memoir,Just Kids, about her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2010). But then this was no usual gig. The Purcell Room, modest and comfortable, complemented the mixture of reading and singing with her acoustic band, which consisted of her son, Jackson Smith, on guitar, and her daughter, Jesse Paris, on keys (both played well). “Don’t try to show me up”, Patti Smith joked to them at the beginning, “remember, I’ve got the upper hand, I changed both their diapers.” Affectionate exchanges like this happened on stage throughout the night.
Her first few songs were mellow with a blues feel, and chosen from later albums such as Gone Again (1996), Gung Ho (2000) andTrampin’ (2004). In “My Blakean Year”, Smith’s crescendo foot-tapping revelled in the song’s incantatory reference to William Blake’s poem “The Divine Image”. Her infectious energy moved the song from melodious ballad to characteristic grittiness; and from then on, she chose songs with bite. Defiant fists punching the air, she sang the refrain from “Ghost Dance” (1978): “we shall live again / we shall live again / shake out the ghost dance”.
We heard a selection of poems, mostly taken from Smith’s poetic memoir Woolgathering (1992), with the same punctuated rhythm and intonation as her songs (and, often, her speech) – this cross-over meant Smith’s formal reading neatly drifted into ad lib “little memories” and additions. The poem “Art in Heaven” included lyrical refrains, “all you need is a helping hand to be lifted, lifted” and “I dreamed of being a missionary / I dreamed of being a mercenary”. “Cowboy Truth”, dedicated to her long-standing friend and former lover Sam Shepard, ends with enigmatic, spiritual imagery blended with a song-writer’s ear: “You are not forgotten, that is his word, / his one great truth as he re-enacts the rituals of youth. / Putting things right, just a dusty piece of humanity, / heaven’s hired hand.” Smith introduced this with an anecdote about her second encounter with Shepard in 1970, which cemented their friendship. She had stolen two beef steaks from a New York shop (she was suffering from anaemia at the time but couldn’t afford to buy red meat) and bumped into Shepard on her way home. After some time talking, Smith told him she had to leave because she had two steaks in her pocket that were melting. He didn’t believe her, stuck his hands into her pockets and encountered the thawing meat. “For the next three months, he bought me a steak each day.”
When it came to “Because the Night” (co-written with Bruce Springsteen), Smith mucked up her first verse entry with a burst of laughter. “Well it’s my only hit song so I’ve got to draw it out.” Beginning again, she delivered her second attempt magnificently.
The encore included a reworked version of “Banga”, the title track from her most recent album, named after the dog in The Master and Margarita. We were encouraged to join in with our own howls and barks, and Smith inserted new spoken material between the verses, “this talking cat caused a riot, a sweet riot . . . ” – a show of support, continuing her notorious political activism, for the Russian group Pussy Riot, following their "Punk Prayer" protest against Putin in February last year.
Because Smith (and her family) created a unique atmosphere, it felt like the night did belong to us.