Patti Smith Lays It Bare

October 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last night I was driven to finish Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, before going out to see Annie Clark aka St. Vincent play at the Neptune.  The book’s ending left me sad and stoic, barely able to look forward to the show.  But I was blown away by Annie’s performance.  I never expected she would have the raw emotion of Patti Smith, gritty and truthful, losing herself in a cover of an obscure punk band.  We need more of that energy out there – real poets who internalize the pain of the world and magically transform it into beautiful art.

In the book Patti shares the development of two struggling artists.  She leaves home and moves to New York with nothing, but when she gets there, she finds Robert Mapplethorpe.  All they have is their dreams, but as they become devoted to each other they manage to survive and build a life on their combined skills.  Their dedication survives Mapplethorpe coming to terms with his homosexuality, and their differing lifestyles as Robert climbs up into high society and Patti chooses the raw environs of rock’n’roll.  They remain until his death interchangeable artist and muse.

Patti Smith to me is synonymous with CBGB’s.  New York lost one more inch of its soul when CBGB’s closed and turned into a trendy John Varvatos boutique.  The boutique celebrates the grit and history of the venue without any of the grit left behind.  Now it’s all shiny and new with expensive clothes to give you that ‘rock star look.’  The dressing room is built over the stairway that once led to the most disgusting bathroom, magnificent in its filth.  Before it closed, the entire venue was a mutation, a continuing saga of live music.

I was fortunate enough to perform there just weeks before CB’s closed. It was before I began turning poems into music for the mandolin.  I was belly dancing for a percussion group, though with the addition of a keyboardist, our set was transforming into a jazz aural landscape.  I always danced barefoot, but the guys in the bands we came with thought the stage was too disgusting.  It had layers and layers of shit on the floor, built up over time.  Blood, sweat, broken bottles, sticky boos and who knows what else.  “I hope you got a tetanus shot.”

I loved experiencing the energy of the bands that had been on each stage, and felt that my bare feet brought me closer to those that had passed before. Despite everyone’s fears, CBGB’s ended up being the greatest bare foot stage experience.  As I danced I felt Patti Smith, the Ramones, Lou Reed, Joan Jett, the Talking Heads, Blondie.  It made me feel I could touch their success.  As though after our set I would step off the stage, put on some shoes and walk in their footsteps.  Surviving on hot dogs and lentils didn’t matter so much after that.

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“I can’t believe I just performed on that stage,” I said to a guy at the bar.

“Well, you didn’t play an instrument!”

What an ass.  I turned away from him and gave the bartender my drink ticket.  Playing an instrument is easy in comparison to dancing onstage. Though I did not play music through my hands, my entire body was an instrument.  Like visual sound, I was showing the audience how music moves. From then on our group performed one song where we all joined in a drum circle, building the beat into a crescendo that came tumbling to a halt right after it’s peak.  It was a kick to surprise people as I sat down with the drum – no one could say I was just some fluff dancer.

In a review of our show at CB’s, the writer compared me to the last belly dancer he’d seen at the venue – a woman who stripped back in the seventies.  He claimed my performance was G-rated in comparison, as though I was only there for his titillation. I felt misunderstood and interpreted as an objectified female.  To top it off, after reading the review, the percussionist asked me to wear a skirt with some slits up the side.  I was the lone belly dancer in a universe of men and their opinions.  Despite all of that, every show was a new adventure that I enjoyed immensely.  I bonded with many new people, and as my stage persona changed I went from being called “the belly dancer” to “Joan Baez.”

I no longer perform as a dancer or a musician because I lost the passion for it.  Performing was not the same when I moved back to Seattle.  I never felt a sense of community and support.  Instead of people working together to create something amazing, it is every man for himself.  My skin isn’t thick enough to withstand all the empty venues and people who don’t give a shit about the music.  At my very last gig, I got in a fight with the musician I was sharing a bill with.  He was determined to talk as loud as possible over my set and it was impossible to hear the music.  Through years of being onstage, I never encountered a more offensive musician.  And as I’ve gotten older, I have grown more sensitive and outspoken.

Instead, I like to remember the time I got up to play for a full house, and I saw two girls in the back who were about to leave.  As I began to play, they turned around and were riveted by my song – a poem about the limits of love. They felt what I had written and they knew it for themselves.  It was so intimate, as though there was no one else in the room.  I gave them every word like drops of blood, and by the end there was a tear in my eye.

Being onstage gave me motivation, discipline, confidence.  I learned to take my abilities much more seriously.  Just like Patti, I didn’t know I would ever turn my poetry into music and sing on stage.  But submitting to the flow of creativity, you release yourself to whatever will come.

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