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Review: Patti Smith and Philip Glass call up Allen Ginsberg's spirit

February 15, 2009 |  2:06 pm

Philip_glass_and_patti_smith_in_san

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. 

Patti_smith_in_santa_barbara 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 something more. 

-- Mark Swed

Photos:  Christina House / For The Times

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