Concert Review: Patti Smith and Philip Glass

Review of Patti Smith, Philip Glass concert on 2/14/09 at Campbell Hall, UC Santa Barbara. Originally appeared here.

Patti Smith, Philip Glass Pay Passionate Tribute to Allen Ginsberg

This powerful performance proves there’s more to Valentine’s Day poetry than red roses and blue violets

By Jeff Moehlis, Noozhawk Contributor |

At first, the pairing of Patti Smith and Philip Glass might seem strange. Smith is best known for her fusion of poetry and primitive three-chord rock to create intense, literate proto-punk. Glass, on the other hand, composes repetitive modern classical music, often lumped (contrary to Glass’ wishes) into the minimalist school.

What brought them together for their Valentine’s Day performance in Campbell Hall was a tribute to Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who was friends with and an important influence on the lives of Glass and Smith. For example, Ginsberg encouraged Smith’s return to music after her husband, ex-MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith died in 1994, and Glass keeps the Ginsberg quote, “Well, while I’m here I’ll do the work” in his home office as inspiration.

When they took the stage at Campbell Hall, Smith, wearing a white buttoned-down shirt with a dark, loose tie, a black jacket, jeans and black boots, explained that she and Glass first played together onstage at the Nova Convention in homage to William Burroughs in the late 1970s. They played again in the 1990s, along with Ginsberg, to benefit Tibetan culture. Then, when Ginsberg died in 1997, Smith and Glass played at a memorial in honor of Ginsberg.

In the first of several departures from the printed program, the show began with “a salute” to Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday and “our new president” in which Smith recited the lyrics to her song “People Have The Power” to Glass’ haunting solo piano accompaniment. (If you missed Glass’ performance at Campbell Hall about a year ago, you are probably most likely to have heard the style of his accompaniment in the Oscar-nominated score to the 2002 film The Hours.) After this piece, Smith recounted that Fred “Sonic” Smith had come up to her while she was peeling potatoes in their kitchen and suggested she write a song called “People Have The Power.” Smith drawled amusingly in response, “as soon as I’m done peelin’ the potatoes.”

Smith then read Ginsberg’s poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra” supported by Glass’ hypnotic piano playing. From the liner notes to Glass’ CD Solo Piano, we learn that Ginsberg and Glass performed this same piece together in 1988 after they ran into each other at a New York City bookstore and decided to “do something together.” This piece reached peak intensity when Smith called out “I here now declare the end of all war!” to whoops from the audience.

Next was “The Blue Thangka,” an homage written by Smith to an “old naturalist” (who we later learned to be Walter Koelz), a poem that “almost got lost in the cosmos, but Philip rescued it.” When she introduced this piece, she confessed that she didn’t remember the naturalist’s name. Later in the show after Glass’ solo set, Smith revealed that a “really nice girl” backstage had just tracked down Koelz’s name. She joked that she now knows his name after 20 years of mystery, but now she doesn’t know the name of the girl who found it.

As Smith’s longtime guitarist, Lenny Kaye, and longtime drummer Jay Dee Daugherty (who we learned was born and raised in Santa Barbara, and mostly played mandolin) replaced Glass, someone yelled out, “Patti, will you be my Valentine?” to which she playfully retorted, “I’m up for grabs.” The trio, with Kaye and Smith on acoustic guitar, played Smith’s songs “Grateful” and “Beneath the Southern Cross,” then Neil Young’s “Helpless” dedicated to the memory of “her Valentine,” Fred “Sonic” Smith.

Smith then recounted the last hours of Ginsberg’s life, with monks chanting and Ginsberg’s “famously Hebrew” family concomitantly questioning why the monks were chanting (“it’s in the will”). At that time, Smith randomly chose to look at a book by William Blake from Ginsberg’s vast library, which was copiously annotated by Ginsberg. As she prepared to play the last song of the set, “My Blakean Year” to salute Blake, a fan called out “I love you, Patti,” to which she replied, “Thank you, but I like my fellas to be slightly hard to get” — to uproarious laughter from the crowd.

Glass then took over, introducing three pieces that he had not played together and said he hoped would work. The first was “Night on the Balcony” from The Screens, which he deadpanned “has something to do with the play, but I don’t remember the play anymore.” This led into “Etudes #2” and “#10.” I say let the musicologists debate the quality of Glass’ compositions, but to me they have an enchanting meditative, and, yes, even emotional appeal.

Smith and Glass then performed the piece they had played at Allen’s memorial, “On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara,” a tribute to Ginsberg’s spiritual guide and teacher. (After the show, I heard Smith mention the parallel of this being a tribute to her and Glass’ teacher, Ginsberg.) The alternating major and minor textures by Glass provided contrasting moods to Smith’s spirited reading. This set closed with Smith’s intense reading of Ginsberg’s “Magic Psalm.”

The audience was treated to an encore that began with Smith recounting a touching story of her first Valentine’s Day after her husband’s death. She received a late-night phone call from Barcelona from a slightly drunk Michael Stipe (singer for R.E.M.), who wished her a happy Valentine’s Day. This was the start of their “long, wonderful friendship.” The band then played a slow, soulful “Because the Night,” Smith’s biggest hit. Smith encouraged the audience to sing along with the chorus — I swear I even saw Glass singing while he sat at the piano.

The show closed with a passionate, triumphant, rapturous reading of Ginsberg’s “Footnotes to Howl,” with new lines including “Holy Santa Barbara.” Holy, holy, indeed!

The show was most magical when Smith and Glass shared the stage. They fed off each other’s intensity, bringing the poetry of Ginsberg a vitality that inspired, entertained and celebrated. Smith’s reading of poems written in a male voice fit with her longtime androgynous image and tradition, and although purists might nitpick the liberty she sometimes took with Ginsberg’s written words, this helped the poetry to breathe, and, at times, gasp.

After the show, Smith, Kaye and Daugherty chatted with friends and fans, some of whom got their programs signed. I somewhat awkwardly said “go Rimbaud” to Smith after she signed my program, quoting “Land” from her landmark debut album Horses. She smiled and wished me well.

Set 1 (Smith and Glass):
People Have the Power

Wichita Vortex Sutra
The Blue Thangka

Set 2 (Smith, Kaye, Daugherty):
Beneath the Southern Cross
My Blakean Year

Set 3 (Glass):

Night on the Balcony
Etude #2
Etude #10

Set 4 (Smith, Glass):
On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara
Magic Psalm

Encore (Smith, Glass, Kaye, Daugherty):
Because the Night

Footnotes to Howl

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.


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