Most college students might assume that “hipster” is a recently coined term, but the late poet Allen Ginsberg wrote about “angelheaded hipsters” in “Howl,” his famous 1955 poem that celebrates the rebellious Beat movement. Ginsberg’s poetry — along with literature by other Beat writers like Jack Kerouac — was an important influence on American songwriters in the ’60s and ’70s, such as Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, who in turn still influence today’s sub-cultures and (wannabe) non-conformists.
It’s been 12 years since Ginsberg’s death, but legendary singer-songwriter and poet Patti Smith continues to tour the world to perform tribute to Ginsberg; her most recent stop brought her to Campbell Hall last Saturday evening. Accompanying Smith was pianist and film composer Philip Glass, who initially seemed like he needed a nap.
In between sets, Smith told intimate, sweet anecdotes about her friendships with Glass, Ginsberg, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and her late husband, Fred Smith. Glass, meanwhile, would lean over the piano and rub his face with exhaustion. I didn’t blame him. Poetry readings, especially if the poetry is by an intense writer like Ginsberg, are an exhausting experience for the performers and for the audience.
Smith took a break from Ginsberg to recite some of her own poetry, which seemed like a waste of her iconic singing voice. Smith, after all, is the so-called godmother of punk rock, and she spent the ’70s belting out sassy, powerful anthems.
But the second part of the show, in which Smith made the most use of her singing voice, was actually the dullest part, thanks to the slow-paced set list and the tedious playing by guitarist Lenny Kaye and mandolin player Jay Dee Daugherty.
Glass made a welcome return to the stage for the third part of the show to perform “Etude No. 2,” “Etude No. 10” and another song that he may have composed for a South African musical, though it was hard to be certain, because he mumbled a lot into the microphone.
It turned out that Glass was apparently not exhausted so much as just shy and endearingly awkward. While Ginsberg’s poetry once shocked audiences with its vulgarity and obscene language, Glass creates controversy with his instruments. Glass’ minimalist composition style, which features endless loops of arpeggiated minor chords marred with intentional mistakes, has many detractors.
These Glass-haters are perhaps brainwashed by the overwrought violin crescendos prevalent in work by cheesier composers. But the live performance explained Glass’ strong, hypnotic appeal. His performance of “Etude No. 2” was soothing and elegant, while “Etude No. 10” would have fit in nicely at a tribal sacrifice or a cult ritual. He ended his solo set abruptly by pounding one last chord, and he was subsequently greeted with enthusiastic applause.
Smith and Glass then reunited to perform Ginsberg’s “On Cremation of Chögyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara.” Glass and Smith first performed the poem together over a decade ago at Ginsberg’s memorial service, which may explain why this spoken-song electrified the theater in a way that none of the previous recitations could.
Just as with her singing, Smith spoke from her gut, and she even managed to speak with a wavering vibrato at times, breathing life into the words. Poetry recitation is an art form in its own right, and unlike lesser readers, Smith never resorts to yelling to get the point across.
Her performance of “Footnote to Howl,” was especially charged due to her reading skills and to the rhythmic intensity of the prose itself (“The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!”).
But none of the Ginsberg readings could be accurately described as entertaining. Each set demanded intense concentration from the listener. But Smith rewarded listeners for all their hard work when she finally sang “Because the Night,” the catchy hit single from 1978 that she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen.
The tribute otherwise felt like a big brain exercise, and I was relieved once the lights finally dimmed on the stage. But I also left Campbell Hall with a newfound interest in Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, which was the main point of the concert anyway.