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.

Not Your Mother’s Vinyl

Having neglected album cover art for a while, it’s high time we revisit the topic. Those lamenting the decline of vinyl, or perhaps more aptly, album cover art itself need not fear. While vinyl and CD’s went the way of the bargain bin in exchange for compact hand-held devices that could hold our ever-growing appetite for convenience and quantity, a community of art lovers clung steadfastly to their collections.

Turntable
Turntable

Some allowed theirs to collect dust, but could not or did not part with their favorites. Still others, sent them the way of the garage sale or flea market, and for a while it seemed they might disappear altogether as record store chains Sam Goody and Tower Records clung to the capitalistic vines.

Enter new artists.

For at least the last several years, musicians have experimented with releasing their music in a variety of formats. By creating limited editions, pre-orders, early single releases, and mastering the art of releasing a studio version, a deluxe pack with extra tracks, live versions, digital first, and yes, even vinyl, the new artists have the opportunity for mass appeal.

Vinyl, Insert, and Cover
Vinyl, Insert, and Cover

One such limited vinyl pressing Imaginary Numbers came in the form of a November 2013 acoustic album (accompanied by a YouTube release of a single and a quick bi-coastal tour in the U.S and Toronto) from alternative/punk rock band The Maine. The music on it , while melancholy, is “therapy,” according to lead singer, John O’Callaghan, and kudos are in order for an excellent recording. What makes the plastic unique is what can best be termed as Magic Spin Art vinyl; it is as though someone blew out the candles on the cake that graces the cover, scattering hot wax over all of the icing and placed the whole deal in a centrifuge.

Cool.

Lyrics
Lyrics

The added insert featuring a black and white photo of the band on one side and lyrics on the other is reminiscent of the expectation of those of us who still consider 50 a figment of our imagination.

An American in Moscow 1962

Some album covers are not especially artistic. Others are nothing more than a photograph on a 12” x 12” cardboard sleeve. Some are astonishing works of art. But every once in a while, you find one that is a historical document: by accident, design or both.

Benny Goodman in Moscow ©1962 by Park Recording Company, Inc. for RCA, is one such album cover. It documents the first jazz band tour by an American of the then U.S.S.R. from May 30 through July 8, 1962. The written history is now (in my humble opinion) laudable, odd, amusing, sexist, racist, and politically charged.

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A detailed two page background, invitation and tour synopsis.

Center
Center

Photos accompany the written documentation:

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To read the history is mind-blowing on several levels. One passage is of political interest. “The Union of Soviet Composers—which is the official musical Establishment in the U.S.S.R.—held a reception for Benny. (Here I renewed my acquaintance with composer Aram Khachaturian, without an interpreter—we spoke Armenian.) The mere fact that Mr. Khrushchev attended the opening concert with a panoply of top Soviet officials, and later engaged in an informal discussion with Benny at a Fourth of July party at the American Embassy, served to put the highest stamp of approval on the tour.”
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“The tour had played to sold out houses in every city, mostly in large sports arenas, and brought a genuine slice of America to thousands of people who obviously reacted strongly and favorably not just to the music, but to the musicians. And not just because they were musicians, but because they were people. Everyone came back from the trip with the feeling that he had given some pleasure and done some good in relations between the people of our country and of the Soviet Union. And that’s what really counted.”

Back
Back

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Historical photos credit: James Reina, NBC
Front Cover Photo: Natalie R. Jones
Album Produced by: George Avakian