Patti Smith and Philip Glass Honor the Late Beat Poet at Campbell
By Amy Silverstein / Staff Writer
Published Thursday, February 19, 2009
Most college students might assume that "hipster" is a recently
coined term, but the late poet Allen Ginsberg wrote about
"angelheaded hipsters" in "Howl," his famous 1955 poem that
celebrates the rebellious Beat movement. Ginsberg's poetry along
with literature by other Beat writers like Jack Kerouac was an
important influence on American songwriters in the '60s and '70s,
such as Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, who in turn still influence
today's sub-cultures and (wannabe) non-conformists.
It's been 12 years since Ginsberg's death, but legendary
singer-songwriter and poet Patti Smith continues to tour the world to
perform tribute to Ginsberg; her most recent stop brought her to
Campbell Hall last Saturday evening. Accompanying Smith was pianist
and film composer Philip Glass, who initially seemed like he needed a nap.
In between sets, Smith told intimate, sweet anecdotes about her
friendships with Glass, Ginsberg, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe and her late
husband, Fred Smith. Glass, meanwhile, would lean over the piano and
rub his face with exhaustion. I didn't blame him. Poetry readings,
especially if the poetry is by an intense writer like Ginsberg, are
an exhausting experience for the performers and for the audience.
Smith took a break from Ginsberg to recite some of her own poetry,
which seemed like a waste of her iconic singing voice. Smith, after
all, is the so-called godmother of punk rock, and she spent the '70s
belting out sassy, powerful anthems.
But the second part of the show, in which Smith made the most use of
her singing voice, was actually the dullest part, thanks to the
slow-paced set list and the tedious playing by guitarist Lenny Kaye
and mandolin player Jay Dee Daugherty.
Glass made a welcome return to the stage for the third part of the
show to perform "Etude No. 2," "Etude No. 10" and another song that
he may have composed for a South African musical, though it was hard
to be certain, because he mumbled a lot into the microphone.
It turned out that Glass was apparently not exhausted so much as just
shy and endearingly awkward. While Ginsberg's poetry once shocked
audiences with its vulgarity and obscene language, Glass creates
controversy with his instruments. Glass' minimalist composition
style, which features endless loops of arpeggiated minor chords
marred with intentional mistakes, has many detractors.
These Glass-haters are perhaps brainwashed by the overwrought violin
crescendos prevalent in work by cheesier composers. But the live
performance explained Glass' strong, hypnotic appeal. His performance
of "Etude No. 2" was soothing and elegant, while "Etude No. 10" would
have fit in nicely at a tribal sacrifice or a cult ritual. He ended
his solo set abruptly by pounding one last chord, and he was
subsequently greeted with enthusiastic applause.
Smith and Glass then reunited to perform Ginsberg's "On Cremation of
Chögyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara." Glass and Smith first performed the
poem together over a decade ago at Ginsberg's memorial service, which
may explain why this spoken-song electrified the theater in a way
that none of the previous recitations could.
Just as with her singing, Smith spoke from her gut, and she even
managed to speak with a wavering vibrato at times, breathing life
into the words. Poetry recitation is an art form in its own right,
and unlike lesser readers, Smith never resorts to yelling to get the
Her performance of "Footnote to Howl," was especially charged due to
her reading skills and to the rhythmic intensity of the prose itself
("The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is
holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!").
But none of the Ginsberg readings could be accurately described as
entertaining. Each set demanded intense concentration from the
listener. But Smith rewarded listeners for all their hard work when
she finally sang "Because the Night," the catchy hit single from 1978
that she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen.
The tribute otherwise felt like a big brain exercise, and I was
relieved once the lights finally dimmed on the stage. But I also left
Campbell Hall with a newfound interest in Allen Ginsberg's poetry,
which was the main point of the concert anyway.