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a backstage diary by Al Giordano
photographs by Patti Hudson
The hooded man
At the Chelsea Hotel, on 23rd Street, I meet Raymond Foye, a long-haired, bearded Deadhead and the publisher of Hanuman Books, which issued Patti's 1992 prose-poetry work Woolgathering, along with works by writers from Burroughs to Dylan to Robert Hunter. He has become, it seems, Patti's most trusted confidant. He wields that authority only rarely, but commands the respect of Patti and her people.
I'm helping Raymond and his young assistant, Hewitt Pratt, load books and posters into the hallway, and Raymond's griping about how the Chelsea's dolly is being used by someone moving in. "That's the great thing about living at the Chelsea," he says of the antiquated, historic hotel (Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and countless others penned songs at the Chelsea, and artists from Mark Twain to Sid Vicious -- including Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe -- hung here). "It keeps your expectations down out in the rest of the world."
We load up the car and rendezvous with the tour bus on the West Side. Mark Edwards, the tour manager, is pacing around with his clipboard. Michael Stipe is carrying an orange knapsack onto the bus -- he's joining the tour. Tony and Jay Dee sit at a table on the bus, a long luxury traveler. Patti bases herself in the back room. There's a middle section with four bunk beds, and a large front section where the rest of the band tends to hang. The couches are quite comfortable.
Hewitt Pratt is 25 and knows little about Verlaine. Raymond has arranged to have him ride to Danbury in my car, and on the drive I play him a 1976 recording of a Television show at CBGBs: the song "Little Johnny Jewel." During a particularly splendid point in Verlaine's improvised composition, I say, "He's the only one, since the death of Garcia, that can do this." Hewitt, a Deadhead, is speechless throughout the 25-minute song. Then I point out Verlaine's lead in "Friction," when he snakes up the guitar, both hands vibrating, producing a sonic alarm. "He was the first one to do this," I say. "Well, Hendrix kinda did it, but Verlaine was the first to perfect it."
"You mean, he's the source of everything that is alternative music today," Hewitt offers. By Jove, there is hope for the younger generation. We'll soon find out if Hewitt's peers are as sharp. Tonight's gig is in a gymnasium at Western Connecticut State University.
When we get there, I help Raymond again with posters and books, and we lug this stuff across the gymnasium floor. Dylan's band is rehearsing "Tangled Up in Blue" on the stage, and the reclusive man himself is there, a hooded sweatshirt pulled up over his face. The joke on the Smith tour bus is, "If you see Dylan, DON'T look at him!" The Smith entourage has separate dressing rooms from Dylan and his band. And I've been told by Edwards that the Dylan people, never happy to have a reporter around, will kick me off the tour for the slightest infraction. I'm trying to be invisible.
Michael Stipe is wandering around incognito, wearing a black ski cap, a one-week growth on his face. He invited Patti to sing with R.E.M. last fall, sent a limo to meet her. During the '80s, when Patti was married to Fred and not performing, Stipe turned up in the media regularly singing the praises of Patti Smith to his fans, penning back-cover notes for her poetry book Early Work, keeping the faith.
<--- R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore backstage at the Beacon Theater
I ask him if he's going to sing "Dancing Barefoot" with Patti on this tour, a song they recently performed together. "No," he says. "I'm just here to be supportive." Here as a friend, in other words. Not as a star, or a fan. And his support obviously makes a difference to Patti, who has to be nervous at the prospect of going on stage with a band for the first time in almost two decades. She definitely brightens up around him and his seductive weirdness.
Patti opens her set, and her fans throng the front of the stage, while the old Dylan hippies lay back to see what she's all about. Dylan himself, still hooded, appears at the side of the stage and watches. The set, unfortunately, has a "greatest hits" feel to it -- a sense of trying too hard -- with "Dancing Barefoot," "Because the Night," "Rock N Roll Nigger," and her 1988 single "People Have the Power" as four of the nine tunes. It's as if the band is trying to compensate for their lack of preparedness while they work out the newer material.
But when Tom Verlaine plays his improvisational lead guitar, every song is new. The crowd begins clapping along with "Not Fade Away"; even the mellow Dylan fans are into it.
Mark Edwards is pushing the band to hop on the bus and drive to Boston, where we'll be sleeping, before it gets too late. He's muttering something about union bus-driver wages. Patti keeps the bus there for about eight Dylan songs, then leaves with the entourage. Raymond hitches a ride with me, wanting to hear Dylan's entire set.
Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, another artist greatly influenced by Patti, tells me that he's never seen Dylan before. "Kim and Coco wanted to be here tonight," he says of his bass-playing wife and their child, "but they have the flu." Five songs into Dylan's set, he walks by me, leans over, and rolls his eyes, unimpressed. "I'm outta here."
I, meanwhile, am completely blown away by Dylan's performance. He's playing lead guitar at least as well as Neil Young. He does "All Along the Watchtower" into "Just Like a Woman," and he's rockin'. In recent years, he hasn't seemed this enthusiastic about his own shows. He smiles as he looks out over the crowd, plowing from one song into the next, and on into three encores.
A little somethin' different
Friday, December 8, Boston and Worcester.
I climb on the bus at four, half an hour late. Tour manager Mark Edwards gives me a dirty look. I bow to him, my hands in prayer. He looks at my empty wrists and growls, "Buy a watch!"
Lenny Kaye glances up from his guitar, "Oooooooooh, Al," as if my space-monkey self has, at least, provided him some entertainment. Tony Shanahan has his guitar, too. He's teaching Lenny the song "Up There, Down There," off Patti's Dream of Life album, her 1988 communiqué from the suburban underground -- the only album she recorded without Lenny.
The bus rolls down the Mass Pike toward Worcester. Patti walks out from the back of the tour bus. She's now wearing a Dylanesque sweat hood over her head. She comes up behind Verlaine and puts her arms around him. She's stroking his hair, massaging his shoulders. "Tom," she whispers, "they want us to do an extra show Monday night in New York. Will you do it?"
All eyes turn toward her. "With Dylan?" the band members ask in unison, all grinning.
"Yes," she says. "Michael Jackson had the Beacon Theater booked that night, but he just fell on his face and can't do it. Springsteen is doing the venue Tuesday and Wednesday, we're there on Thursday, but now the Dylan people want to do Monday, too."
"Is this a true story, Patti?" asks Verlaine, as Patti keeps massaging him. It's good news, and she knows it, but she offers Verlaine -- arguably the planet's pre-eminent lead guitarist -- the deference of this kind of request. "Well, ahhhhhhh," he says, pretending to hesitate. "Sure."
We arrive at the Worcester Auditorium. It's the second night of the tour, and Dylan still has not shaken hands with Patti, much less conversed with her. We're in her backstage area, a huge, vacant space, with a bathroom and a side room. No windows. The side room is a little 12-by-15 foot box, grimy yellow paint chipping off the walls to reveal ghosts of white plaster, a lone light bulb hanging in the middle. Stipe's eyes light up: "A rock video room!"
Patti walks into the big room, wearing her Dylan hood, and the boys jump to their feet and place the biggest chair in the corner for her. Jessie Zoldak, the Boston rocker from the band Yuk who, with Jamaica Plain's Patti Hudson, takes care of much of Patti Smith's personal business, strolls in with her camera. Stipe grabs his. Oliver loads his old squeezebox Polaroid. An orgy of photographing ensues.
Mark Edwards, always with a clipboard, bursts into the room and, glancing at me, asks, "Do you want to be alone, Patti?"
"I never want to be alone," she replies, dispatching him.
Raymond Foye comes in and sits down. Oliver picks up his guitar and says to Patti, "Raymond says we can't play `Loser.' That we still have to learn the song."
"Okay," says Patti, jumping to her feet, "let's do it."
Oliver has given the song -- one of Jerry Garcia's more complex cowboy chord progressions -- a more folky edge. While Patti sings the entire song (Oliver strums it without error), she waltzes around Raymond, gazing into the publisher's eyes.
Raymond shuts his lids -- the little Buddha on the chair -- embarrassed by the attention, but with a cherubic happiness in his smile. She sings the last line over and over again: "And I got no chance of losin' this time. . . ." She ends by laying her head atop his. "No chance of losin' this time."
"The sphinx awakens, but what can she say? You'd be amazed." On stage in Worcester, Patti Smith sings these words from "Up There, Down There," which she wrote with the late Fred Sonic Smith. The band just learned the song in the past two hours. But when the tour began, Patti said she wanted to do "a little somethin' different" each show.
And the sphinx does indeed awaken, in the middle of "Not Fade Away," when Patti grabs her harmonica and plays as though she's scratching fingernails on a blackboard. She used to do the same thing with a clarinet in the '70s. Once the senses of the audience are sufficiently scrambled by Verlaine's lightning lead, Patti, for the first time since 1979, starts speaking in tongues, improvising a poem to a rock-and-roll backbeat. She tells of walking out into the world, but getting her feet caught in vines, then shaking off the vines, and "walking . . . out . . . into . . . the . . . world."
The crowd claps in rhythm: one, two, three -- one, two! Frenzy is in the air. She's back. She is channeling again, modern glossolalia. She has shaken the vines off her feet, and regained her angel's wings.
12:01 a.m., and Michael Stipe wants vegetarian fare. The hotel is right across the river, so, despite the fact that we'll probably be gawked at by the rockers of Boston, I've made the reservation here at the Middle East, in Cambridge. Besides, Patti looks to be in a social mood tonight. It might do her some good to get out and see how the people love her.
I'm chatting with Tom when I notice Joan Wasser, the electric violinist from the Dambuilders, at a nearby table, pretending not to stare at Verlaine. She waits for the right moment and comes over, quietly kneeling at Verlaine's feet, nervously introducing herself. Verlaine has no context for this introduction, so I say, "She's a great electric violinist in a band. You might even say you were her influence."
Lenny Kaye and I talk about New York. Here in Boston, he's off his island turf. But he fits right in, a rocker's rocker, projecting kindness and support to all the yet-to-be-discovered musicians in the crowd.
Michael Stipe motions to me across the table, his mouth full of veggie
couscous, so he can't talk. He points to his food and gives me a thumbs-up.
Boston's red carpet seems quite agreeable to our guests.
Al Giordano's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Photographer Patti Hudson can be contacted c/o email@example.com
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