Patti Smith and Philip Glass call up Allen Ginsberg's spirit
February 15, 2009
by Mark Swed
The bard requires a bard. Who will now sing for Allen Ginsberg?
Intoning "Howl" in San Francisco in 1955, the Beat poet awoke a
ticky-tacky society from complacency. And for four more decades, his
verse, though unquestionably powerful on the page, found its ultimate
transcendence on the stage, through his physical voice.
But he was wrong about one thing. The best minds of his generation
were not destroyed my madness, as Ginsberg famously wrote at the
beginning of "Howl." Or, if they were, the wave of destruction was
weak. Along came Philip Glass (born in 1936, 11 years after
Ginsberg) and Patti Smith (20 years Ginsberg's junior).
Both the composer and rock star were close to Ginsberg and at his
bedside when he died. Glass and Ginsberg often performed
together. The poet read; the composer accompanied him at the
piano. One was white hot; the other was straight man, playing serene
arpeggios and minor chords softly in the background. They were a
perfectly complementary pair.
In a significant coup for UCSB Arts & Lectures -- the performance
series at the UC Santa Barbara -- Glass and Smith gave their the U.S.
premiere Saturday night in Campbell Hall of "Footnote to Howl," their
tribute to Ginsberg. This time, she read.
The auditorium and stage remained dark throughout the 90-minute show,
with narrowly focused spotlights on the performers. Smith's presence
is nothing like Ginsberg's. She is cooler, more guarded, somewhat
angrier, considerably less orgasmic than the sexually liberated
bard. She flattens vowels and clips ends off words. For Ginsberg,
words were holy, and his vowels flowed like lava.
But Smith's incantations have their own brand of incandescence. She
casts Ginsberg's spell by casting her own.
Glass, at the piano, is what finally connects Smith to Ginsberg. In
the '80s, Glass and Ginsberg performed a section from the long poem
"Wichita Vortex Sutra" at a curious benefit for veterans. In it, the
poet, careening through Kansas, begs for sex. He calls on the
highest powers of psychedelic imagination, blessed by Blake and
higher beings, to claim an end to the Vietnam War. Glass'
accompaniment, subtly underscoring emotion, was the ground from which
Ginsberg could spiritually elevate.
Smith here focused more on politics, a transported preacher calling
for change. She was moving and vulnerable in "On Cremation of
Chögyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara," in which Ginsberg noticed the small
details of the funeral of his Tibetan Buddhist teacher, as if she
were singing of Ginsberg's passing.
Smith's own poems worked equally well with Glass' accompaniment as
she called, Ginsberg-true, the power to the people in "Notes to the
Future." She introduced "The Blue Thangka" as a tribute to a
zoologist whose obituary she had read in 1989 but lost the newspaper
and forgot his name.
But something strange happened. As the evening progressed. she
suddenly remembered that his first name was Walter. Then, the last
name came to her as something like "Kunst." A stagehand Googled and
found Walter Norman Koelz, she later gleefully announced. A
visitation from Allen, who believed in getting things right? Who's to say?
This tribute was inspired from a few appearances together by Glass
and Smith, beginning at a Ginsberg memorial in New York a year after
he died. The performers put it together in London two years ago, and
repeated a version of it in Australia last year. There are no
further plans for performances from two busy artists.
And, if truth be told, the actual collaboration is brief, and the
evening felt slapped together and mainly filled out by individual
sets. Smith was joined by her longtime collaborators, Lenny Kaye and
Jay Dee Daugherty –- all three played acoustic guitars -– for
"Beneath the Southern Cross," "My Blaken Year," "Wing" and Neil
Young's "Helpless." She was in a devotional mood, restrained,
expressive, highly communicative.
She showed a little attitude when she finally shut up a pest in the
audience who repeatedly shouted, "I love you, Patti." "Thank you,"
she said, "but I like my fellows to be slightly hard to
get." Ginsberg (who, in the late '60s, once tried to pick up Smith,
mistaking her gender) surely howled in laughter from wherever his
current perch is.
Glass played three solo pieces -– a number from his incidental music
to Genet's "The Screens" and two etudes. If he sounded unpracticed,
he has had other things to rehearse. Monday, he presents with his
ensemble the four-hour "Music in 12 Parts" in San Francisco. Next
week, he mounts his staged collaboration with Leonard Cohen, "Book of
Longing," at Scripps College. (UPDATE: An earlier version of this
post said that concert would be at Pomona College.)
Glass also once made a fully staged Ginsberg show, "Hydrogen
Jukebox," with singers and ensemble. "Footnote to Howl" is, at this
point in its development, a footnote to that. May it grow into