Not knowing the whys - Patti Smith in New York
- By Hazel Sheffield -
- Jun 22, 2012
“It’s not that I don’t like to analyse, it’s just that I don’t know how,” an exasperated Patti Smith told journalist Katherine Lanpher on the fourth floor of the Barnes and Noble bookshop on Union Square, New York.
Before the Q&A the veteran musician and author wandered the length of the bookshop in a denim shirt and jeans, instantly recognizable to those gathering for the event by her wild grey hair, parted into two long plaits.
Smith was there to celebrate the release of her new album ‘Banga’, the first since ‘Twelve’, an album of covers that came out five years ago. Those who showed up to the bookshop early and presented a receipt to prove they’d bought a deluxe edition of ‘Banga’ or a copy of ‘Woolgathering’ were allowed to sit on the chairs in the makeshift auditorium that the fourth floor became. A large standing crowd gathered around the edges.
Between questions, Smith read from ‘Woolgathering’, her autobiographical account of her rural childhood, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Asked to read either the introduction or ‘Cowboy Truths’, the chapter she wrote for her ex-lover Sam Shepard, Smith flicked straight to the latter. In a low, measured drawl, with a rhythm reminiscent of her beatnik friend Alan Ginsberg, she read a poetic passage about the young boy’s dreams.
It was the questions Smith liked less, side-stepping the whys, much happier when given the chance to recount an anecdote. She told of being given a huge oriental rug from which a small paperback book fell. The book, a copy of Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Marguerita’, had a post-it on the cover marked “Read Me”. Smith was so enchanted that she decided to name her album ‘Banga’ after the little black dog in that book.
She talked about her work ethic, which provided solace after the deaths of her friend Robert Mapplethorpe and keyboardist Richard Sohl. “I don’t know why I work,” she said. “I just do.”
Then, with questions still hanging in the air, Smith invited her band to come up on stage and play three new tracks from ‘Banga’, the first time any of the album had been performed live. The turgid ‘This Is The Girl’, with its bad lyrics about wine and houses, formed a tribute to Amy Winehouse. ‘April Fool’ was a little brighter, and afforded Lenny Kaye on guitar a bit more room to play out. But it was the title track, ‘Banga’, that earned her a standing ovation at the end – with its howling and growling and a long spoken monologue about the dog.
“I admit that I can’t remember the words so I’m going to have to read them,” Smith said before she started, pushing thick-framed spectacles up her nose and holding her book at the end of a straight arm. The audience laughed. With stories like these, she can be forgiven for not knowing the whys.
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