The vineyard is just to the right once I exit the freeway. I see a jack rabbit with impossibly long ears milling about, but by the time I park the Mobile Music Laboratory, my fire-breathing mid-life crisis car, to get a photo he hops deep into the rows of grapevines. This is my alma mater, the University Of California at Davis, located about ten miles west of Sacramento.
Before becoming a proper university, UC Davis was UC Berkeley’s agricultural annex, and to this day that history informs the campus. The sports teams are the “Aggies,” for example, and the veterinary school’s fistulated cow is something of a local legend. Even my old department’s claim to fame — Beat poet and faculty member Gary Snyder — is best known for his nature poetry.
But being a Northern Californian university with agricultural roots isn’t so bad. The oenology (wine making) program is world-class, which led the Mondavi family to donate the 1.9 gajillion dollars needed for the campus arts center that bears their name. And without the Mondavi Center, I wouldn’t be seeing Patti Smith tonight.
I abandon the Mobile Music Laboratory in a student parking lot. Ninety minutes to kill, so I take a little walk. Robert Arneson’s “See No Evil/Hear No Evil” Eggheads ignore each other from their little knolls in front of Mrak Hall, the school’s administration building. Seems fitting, as the opposite side of Mrak was where campus police pepper-sprayed non-violent Occupy protesters just six months ago.
One hour to curtain, so I walk to the Mondavi Center. On a whim I stop by the box office.
“Hey there,” I say, my ticket pressed to the glass. “Here is where I’m sitting. Can you improve it?”
“What do you mean, ‘improve it’?”
“Make it better.”
“Like a better seat. Closer.”
She clatters the keys and furrows her brow. “I have a ticket in the front row if you want it.”
“Yes, please. How much?”
“We’ll just exchange your ticket. No charge.”
So yes, I’m writing from the UCD campus, but more specifically from the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall, where soon Patti Smith will take the stage. I’m guessing that she’ll wear black and that she will smile humbly, embarrassed by the applause that greets her.
This is a proper hall. The walls are covered with light-colored wood — birch, maybe? I’m not a lumberjack — and sound baffles. Jackson Hall is purpose-built, and as such is the best place in the Sacramento area to enjoy live music.
The downside of this being a real hall, if one can call it a downside, is that for the most part one only gets serious music here. The chances of Pygmy Love Circus playing Jackson Hall are less than the odds of Rush Limbaugh passing up a doughnut. Or an oxy.
Ms. Patti isn’t here to play, anyway. She’s here to talk about her book, Just Kids. Jackson Hall is great for lectures, too. From my front row seat the space is truly intimate, like a living room chat with a friend who happens to have a mic.
But wait. If Patti isn’t playing tonight, then what is that guitar doing on stage? And why are there two of them? Did she bring her son, Jackson, as an accompanist? Or did she bring…no, couldn’t be. I manage to snap one photo before I’m reminded that no cameras are allowed.
This is very much an older crowd, the median age maybe fifty-five or so. Not surprising for a lecture on a Wednesday night from a sixty-four year old woman, but I’m still a bit disappointed. Everything that the kids on this campus are going through or want to go through Patti lived, wrote about, sang about. We all did in our own way, this room full of old farts in comfortable footwear. I guess the students are out making their own histories tonight, not reflecting on someone else’s. Never mind — I’m not disappointed, after all.
“These are our seats,” the woman behind me says to her friend. “We’ve had them for years. Of course we have other seats for musical performances. We just use these for lectures. What was that man’s name? The last speaker they had. He was an artist, but he was well off like us –”
“Have you read her book?” her friend interrupts, referring to Just Kids.
“No, I bought it but I loaned it to someone and never got it back. Probably one of my housekeepers.”
Cognitive dissonance doesn’t quite capture what I’m feeling. Real or imagined, the Patti Smith I’ve admired for thirty-five years is an artist, bohemian, activist, a rock and roll nigger. She’s one of us. People have the power. Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not hers. I can’t help but wonder how she feels about playing to a crowd of people who identify themselves as well off with thieving housekeepers, and then I realize how foolish that is. Performance is a trade, a gig is a gig.
Some academic with a Ben Bernanke beard and a velvety-looking sport coat approaches the podium. “Good evening, ladies and gentleman, and welcome to the last date in this year’s speaker series. I’m Dr. Kingshit McSmuggerson, and I’m going to drone for the next twenty minutes because I’m in love with the sound of my own voice.”
I quietly tug on my seat to see if it is bolted down. No luck, but I spot Patti’s microphone cord snaking across the stage. You’ve got one minute, McSmuggerson, I tell myself. The usher closest to me is a ninety-six year old woman on a Hoveround. No way she’ll get to me before I’m on stage.
Kingshit nears the minute mark and the crowd begins to laugh. Energized, he’s bringing it now — every laugh egging him on. The look on his face says it all: They love me! I should read Patti Smith’s CV every night!
What he doesn’t know is that Patti is pacing in the wings, acting as bored as the rest of us. McSmuggerson isn’t picking up the hint, so Smith walks behind him and picks at some decorative shrubbery at stage right. The crowd applauds wildly, Dr. Kingshit sulks off stage, and Patti takes the mic.
“I didn’t know I did all that,” she says. “He mentioned the National Book Award three times. Consider this a lesson in brevity,” referring to her interruption. Sure enough, she is in black tie, black sport coat and jeans, and she looks humbled by the crowd’s greeting.
She reads passages from Just Kids, stepping out of the narrative now and then to entertain us with asides that are conversational in tone rather than in the mannered voice of a written memoir. After reading a vivid passage describing Mapplethorpe as an artistic child, she sets down the book and recalls a conversation with his sister about their childhood. “Robert colored weird,” sister Mapplethorpe said.
Patti picks up her guitar, tells us what fans Robert and she were of William Blake, and launches into a solo acoustic performance of “In My Blakean Year.” No video, no cameras, but this is a great substitute for the moment:
“You can see I’m no guitar virtuoso,” she tells us. “I always felt as a performer that anybody could do what I do, so I never got any better so that was true.” The crowd loves it. Her humor and self-deprecation have almost removed the stage from the room.
She tells more stories about young Patti and Robert just getting by in New York City, eating lettuce soup and listening to the few records that they owned. Again she sets the book down and shares how much she hated Mapplethorpe’s Vanilla Fudge album, even more so because he’d leave it on repeat when dropping acid. That’s a lot of “You Keep Me Hanging On.”
She goes for the guitar again, and just off stage left I see him approaching. Lenny Kaye. The man. Patty’s foil since 1971 when the pair took as their mantra “three chords with the power of the word.” Curator of the legendary Nuggets compilations. Thirty-five years immediately drop from my body.
Together they play “Wing,” Lenny’s eyes on Patti the whole time, taking his cues from her smallest stage gestures, rocking lightly with the rhythm. The performance is stunning, beautiful. Goosebump music.
Over the course of the evening she discusses several of the men in her life: Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard, her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith. But with one simple sentence — “Lenny, can you open this?”– she reveals more about their relationship than any monologue ever could. Lenny clowns with the water bottle, pretends to struggle with the top.
“I love men,” Patti says. She talks about the women’s movement and its unintended consequences, how men stopped opening doors and behaving like gentleman. “I like that stuff. I like men to serve me.” She’s so damned funny and charming.
She reads another Just Kids passage, this one about the cover shoot for the Horses album. It’s great stuff, but again it’s the aside that wins the crowd over: “Robert called me before the shoot and said ‘I don’t care what you do or what you wear but don’t have spaghetti stains on your shirt.'” That’s what one of the greatest album covers in rock history comes down to — one friend telling another not to look like a slob.
Next the pair knock out Dylan’s “Boots Of Spanish Leather.” I am so close that I can hear Lenny’s foot quietly tapping out the rhythm.
Lenny exits and Dr. Kingshit McSmuggerson enters. “When I heard Patti Smith was speaking I didn’t know who you were, so I’ve spent the last few months watching videos of you on YouTube,” he tells her. She gives him a baffled sort of “thanks” expression. McSmuggerson then amazes the audience by figuratively but not literally talking out of his ass for a few minutes, and the Q&A portion of the evening begins. Here are some highlights:
- On balancing motherhood and art: “Things that are in the way of each other only seem in the way.”
- On turning sixty-five: “I think now it’s time to get serious about my work.”
- On New York being too expensive for young artists: “Go to Detroit. The art world is full of shit. What isn’t important is the art world, the cult of celebrity. It’s to do good work.”
- On CBGB possibly reopening: “That’s fucking stupid. Just create a new club. CBGB was a shit hole. It would be Las Vegas or something. What are they going to do, hire male models to piss all over the walls?”
Finally a woman asks what motivated Patti to take on the male persona in “Gloria.” I can’t take notes fast enough, but Smith fumbles around with the question, notes that the band only knew three chords, that Joan Baez often switched genders in songs, that she performed both the male and female characters in the song. “If I could interject,” McSmuggerson says, but Patti doesn’t let him. She keeps on rambling, trying to find an answer before finally conceding that “I guess the real answer is I never really thought about it.”
Kingshit says: “But you had a poem, ‘Oath,” and you felt that it needed to be connected to a song. Why ‘Gloria?'”
“I had this poem and I thought it would work with a three chord song so I asked Lenny for a three chord song and he said ‘Gloria,’ so we tried it and it worked.”
“But you must have liked ‘Gloria.'”
“Yeah. Who doesn’t like ‘Gloria’? I don’t know why it worked. We’re not scientists, we’re performers.”
It’s a bad day to be McSmuggerson. He slinks off again and Lenny returns for one more number. What would a night with Patti Smith be without a version of “Because The Night”? Fortunately I’ll never have to find out. They rock it hard, encouraging the crowd to sing along. This is as close as I can find to a similar performance:
After the show I queue up in the book signing line. An autographed copy of Just Friends would be cool, but I’m hoping that I can talk her into signing the Why It Matters notebook in which I’ve been scribbling. She complies quietly, shyly, no more to say than a barely audible thank you. And then I look over to see Lenny Kaye leaning against a high table, just a couple of people milling about.
“Lenny Kaye!” I say and he smiles broadly. “Thirty-five years!” and before I can add “I’ve been a fan since I was a kid,” Lenny is pretending he’s an old man hobbling with a cane. I laugh and babble about how thrilled I am to meet him, manage to weasel a guitar pick for the photo at the top of this piece.
In my shirt pocket I have Why It Matters business cards, but I can’t bring myself to pull the trigger. I’m not sure why. Why the hell would Lenny Kaye want to read my drivel? He’s driving back to the hotel with a National Book Award Winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. Besides, he’s just another guy hanging around the lobby right now. He’s off the clock.
I say my goodbyes, fire up the Mobile Music Laboratory, and point it toward home. It’s been a great night, but now its time to figure out how I’m going to connect a jack rabbit to a guitar pick.