First published in the Guardian on 14 August, 2013
Patti Smith/Philip Glass
Patti Smith met Allen Ginsberg when she was 22 and he, then in his 40s, bought her lunch thinking she was a pretty boy. Philip Glass composed music for Ginsberg’s poems and they performed together often: Ginsberg reading, Glass noodling at the piano. Smith and Glass kept vigil by Ginsberg’s bedside when he was dying from cancer. These three important American artists go back a long way, and the well-travelled tribute that Smith and Glass brought to the Edinburgh International Festival made a poignant snapshot of intertwining lives, shared inspirations and the spirit of a heady generation. Photos of Ginsberg filled the back of the stage: there he was with Peter Orlovsky, with William Burroughs, with Paul Bowles.
The show is called The Poet Speaks, which applies to Ginsberg and Smith both. There’s no question of mimicry here: Smith is a magnetic performer and spoke Ginsberg’s words in her own vivid voice. Through the fiery verses of Wichita Vortex Sutra and Footnote to Howl, her flat vowels rose from conspiratorial whisper to urgent drone to rich, earthy drawl. At times she lapsed into half-song and followed the contours of Glass’s shifting chords; elsewhere her voice cracked with emotion that still felt fresh. For all her punk-priestess moniker, Smith is as warm as Ginsberg was provocative.
She sang some of her own folksy songs with guitarist Tony Shanahan, and gave John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy the surprise closing line ‘beautiful George, good night little prince’. Smith never struck me as a royalist. She read poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, more than just a nice touch in his home city: Stevenson is one of her childhood favourites and his awe for the natural world made another link between her, Ginsberg and his hero, William Blake. Glass played a fairly dismal solo piano set with his unique combination of messy and mechanical delivery. The evening closed with Smith’s anthemic The People Have the Power (was she poking fun at the genteel Edinburgh audience when she specified, â€œyes, I’m talking about youâ€?) and her parting words were â€œdon’t forget to use your voiceâ€. Ginsberg once persuaded her to start performing again after a long period away from the stage. The message was heartfelt.