Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye: 50 Years of Words and Music

Friday night I watched the streaming broadcast starring Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye along with their band mate Tony Shanahan as they performed and reminisced about their half century of song making and writing.

Watching this half century performance sans live audience brought to me feelings of both joy and melancholy.

In the quiet evening of my small home office, I teared up hearing her sing one of my personal favorites, a song entitled Ghost Dance popularized on the album Easter. But a clear highlight of the evening was her performance of Birdland from the Horses album. That one demonstrated the pure power of her lyrical poetry accompanied by Lenny’s guitar through diminuendo and crescendo blending its story; a sight I imagine paralleled the St. Marks Church show where Patti and Lenny performed poetry together for the first time in ’71.

Skavlan showreel circa 2017

During Friday’s streaming show it seemed that in Patti’s mind at least she was performing before a live audience. While the show was broadcast live and we, her audience watched from our devices, we weren’t there to scream, clap, shout, dance and give her the electric energy feedback on which live performers feed. And after saying “thank you” at the end of the first couple of numbers as any performer might do upon the crowd’s applause, she even commented on it. Aside from mentioning at the outset their proven good health and removal of masks for the show, this other moment acknowledged the strangeness of a pandemic performance.

Other show standouts included the Ballad of a Bad Boy, her tribute to Sam Shepard (who she described as a good man but also a bad boy) and Lenny’s World Book Night an unexpected but welcome diversion.

I’ve been a Patti Smith fan since ’78 when with a $6 dollar ticket in hand, I drove my uncool-body-style ’74 stick shift Mustang to see her band perform at the Science Center on the campus of Montgomery County Community College with my best girlfriend. There I’d fallen in love with punk, kept the souvenir buttons she’d tossed to the fans at the end the show and dreamed of a life for me as a rebel poet, a writer.

I followed her career, read her books and in 2019 snagged a 2×3 foot foam board poster advertising Year of the Monkey. The latest, Patti Smith on Patti Smith edited by Aidan Levy sits atop my current stack of new books to read.

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Tea Room Memories

Like Polaroid snapshots dropped one by one on a table, new memories replace the former. The static, scratchy broadcast of a cheap FM radio which sits high on a shelf behind the ice cream counter adds to the evening din; made worse by the surrounding mountain peaks that bounce the signal. The weak antenna draws intermittent snips, broken pieces of Bennie and the Jets and Love me Like a Rock, but even then, only if the weather is clear and still.

The slam of a screen door and footfalls on the wooden floor in the stagnant summer air evoke visions of a Tea Room where no one drinks tea. A single oscillating fan aided by two ineffective paddle fans force air movement. Vacationers gather to eat sundaes, play checkers or assemble puzzles together.

The adults tap bragging rights, sharing the year’s accomplishments of their children. “Bradley got straight A’s again this year. He won the spelling bee, he’s captain of the championship baseball team, still sings in the choir at church, and since he’s going into sixth grade this year, he’s a shoo-in for the lead in the winter play.  How’s Gregory doing?”

In hushed tones they share gossip. “Did you hear about how that Nick got Susan Wilson—preg.”

“Shush. His mother is coming in just now.”

Occasional titters punctuated with sudden blasts of uncontrolled laughter suggest shared off-color jokes. “Maybe you kids ought to go play shuffleboard for a while.”

The children finish their sundaes and rush outside to the shed beside the courts to turn on the lights and reach through cobwebs for poles and discs, vying for red sticking the opponent with dull black. The buzzing white lights draw swarms of gnats that dip and sway occasionally bombarding eyes of the competitors.

Later, gentle commands float on the humidity from the edges of the yard beside the Tea Room. “Fifteen more minutes. Last game! Remember to put the poles and discs back in the shed.”

Then, “Turn off the lights now. Grab your flashlights. Let’s go.”

Together they plod along the path that leads into the mountain dark back to the cabin.