Patti Smith and Philip Glass – Dedication to Allen Ginsberg, Melbourne International Arts Festival, 13th Oct 2008

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I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this sold-out concert at the Arts Centre Playhouse. It was billed as a tribute to Allen Ginsberg, with Patti Smith reading her own and Ginsberg’s poetry, with musical backing from Philip Glass on piano. However the evening turned out to be more varied than I expected. I was delighted by the opening piece, which consisted of Glass playing ‘Opening’ (from Glassworks) whilst Smith read out ‘Notes to the Future’ (from Land). Just hearing this piece of music (which I’ve loved for over two decades) played live was worth the price of admission for me. The combination of Smith reading, with Glass’ limpid minimalism backing her, worked amazingly well. But that was just the beginning. The other big surprise of the evening was that Smith wasn’t just reading poetry – she sang and played guitar on a few numbers, and she’d brought along Lenny Kaye on acoustic guitar.

Texts were projected onto the back wall, and sometimes alternated with photographs from Ginsberg’s archive and some of Smith’s own photos. [NB At time of writing, you can see an exhibition of Smith’s photography plus The Coral Sea installation at the Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne until October 25th.]

Smith dedicated a touching cover of Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ to her late husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. She also played a beautiful version of ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’, where the two acoustic guitars and Glass’ piano all meshed into one harmonious, hypnotic swirl of sound. Whilst Smith was undoubtedly the star of the night, at one point she & Kaye left the stage, and Glass played two of his piano etudes (nos. 2 & 10) one after the other.

The night reached a climax with Smith reading ‘Footnote to Howl’ (aka ‘Spell’ from Land). When she reached the stanza namechecking various cities, she added ‘Holy Melbourne’ to the list, to much approval and laughter. This was an unforgettable night, and Smith may well have been right when she said that Ginsberg’s spirit was watching the show from somewhere out in the audience.

[As an added synchronicity to the evening, after seeing William Burroughs in one of Ginsberg’s photos, and then hearing his name in ‘Footnote to Howl’ – guess which seat I was sitting in? K23…!]

Ewan Burke

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