Rock icon who wrote 'Qana' opens Byblos Festival with a bang
By Elie Attie
Special to The Daily Star
Thursday, July 10, 2008
JBEIL: It's July 8, 2008, the year that she graces us with her
presence. "She" is the legendary, multitalented multi-instrumentalist
Patti Smith. The venue is the Byblos International Festival.
The shops and restaurants of the old souq in Jbeil (aka "Byblos") are
full. The quarter's paved streets are overflowing with children
running everywhere. The flower garden and the interlocking trees
above your head give the place a surreal, magical feel as you walk
down the road that leads to the Fisherman's Port with its old stone
buildings and wooden boats.
Near the venue, people are stalled, waiting to be searched. It's now
8:30 p.m. The stars are shining and the people are whining because
the security process is slow, with only two x-ray machines available
and four irritated guards on the job.
Further along, there are tents serving drinks and another with a few
tables serving saj sandwiches. Surprisingly, the drinks aren't that
much more expensive than any normal night club or pub.
The stage is set up near the seashore, with water all around. Behind
is the open sea. In front is the seashore, reflecting a pink glow
from the stage lights.
Some audience members, including your correspondent, sit casually on
the ground, the easygoing staff allowing it as long as you don't
bother the be-chaired audience members by standing up.
The lights come up. It's 9:30 p.m. The show is about to begin.
She walks on stage. The people cheer.
The Chicago-born Smith graduated from high school in 1964 and started
working in a factory before heading to New York. There she met iconic
photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. He went on to shoot all the LP
covers for the Patti Smith Group and the two remained friends until
his death in 1989.
She began her performance career with busking and performance art in
Paris with her sister. She returned to New York, where she moved in
with Mapplethorpe and pursued her work as a poet, writer and painter.
She formed The Patti Smith Group in 1970 with guitarist Lenny Kaye,
bassist Ivan Kral, percussionist Jay Dee Daugherty and pianist
Richard Sohl. They recorded their first single, a re-make of Jimi
Hendrix's classic "Hey Joe," with additional lyrics about
then-fugitive heiress Patty Hearst.
"Patty Hearst," Smith sings, "you're standing there in front of the
Symbionese Liberation Army flag with your legs spread. I was
wondering were you gettin' it every night from a black revolutionary
man and his women ..."
In 1997, Smith recorded her first and perhaps best-known album
"Horses," produced by John Cale. A mix of punk rock and spoken
poetry, the album opened with Van Morrison's "Gloria." Her second
album "Radio Ethiopia" received poor reviews. While touring in 1970,
Smith fell and broke her neck, later recording "Easter," the album
that includes her most-famous song "Because the Night," which she
co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen.
She released a few albums in the 1980s and in 1994 lost her husband -
the MC5's Fred "Sonic" Smith. Her brother died shortly thereafter, as
did her original keyboard player Richard Sohl. A brief 1995 tour with
Bob Dylan was followed by a clutch of album releases, among them
"Twelve," a CD of cover tunes ranging from Hendrix to Neil Young.
In 2007 Smith was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She
dedicated the honor to her late husband.
The Patti Smith Group has taken the stage. Her players are original
guitarist Lenny Kaye, original drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, bassist
Tony Shanahan, and the bandleader's son Jackson Smith on rhythm
guitar. After a false start, and a few chuckles from the audience,
the concert is up and running.
Audience members are gently tapping their feet and swaying to the
music. Smith dedicates a few songs to Lebanon and the crowd roars its
approval. Some songs stick more than the rest, like the upbeat
"Dancing Barefoot," an ode to heroin. People are listening to her
every word, grooving to the song as she sings.
She sings the Jimmy Hendrix classic "Are you Experienced?" and plays
the flute in some parts. The crowd rushes the front of the stage.
People are dancing, jumping, singing and grabbing at her outreached
hands. After this song, the security detail forces people back to
their places, but not for long. As the band strikes up "Because the
Night," the entire audience again rushes to the front for some
dancing and singing.
Smith's band plays beautifully and smoothly, knowing how to
complement the songs and when to put in a lick, knowing how to send
shivers up the audience members' spines. You feel they are
professionals, that they have done this a thousand times but you
sense they aren't bored. The music sounds fresh. If people came to
this show seeking a nostalgia act, they sure weren't thinking that now.
Smith speaks a few words about Lebanon and Qana before singing her
song "Qana," which she composed in response to the Israeli Air
Force's return to the southern village during the 34-day war of the
summer of 2006.
As she sings, an eerie silence falls over the crowd. They are seated,
pensive. For many in the audience, she sings the truth, she sings of
peace. For others, its an unnecessary addition. After the show, some
talk about "fun" and how rock music shouldn't be about politics.
The band walk off the stage at about 10:40 p.m., only to come back
for two encores. First came Van Morrison's much-covered "Gloria." The
fast-paced, energetic version of the tune has the crowd singing just
as much as Smith herself. She and the audience belt out Gloria
("Gee-El-Oh-Are-Eye-Ay!") so many times, the song ends in laughter.
She then speaks a few words and leads the band into the Neil Young
cover "Helpless" - requested repeatedly by yours truly during the
concert. It's a beautiful rendition of the song, the audience
listens, singing along softly. It's a calm, perfect ending to a
beautiful experience felt by all.