The hooded man
Thursday, December 7, New York City and Danbury, Connecticut.
At the Chelsea Hotel, on 23rd Street, I meet Raymond Foye, a long-haired, bearded Deadhead and the publisher of Hanuman Books, which issued Patti's 1992 prose-poetry work Woolgathering, along with works by writers from Burroughs to Dylan toRobert Hunter. He has become, it seems, Patti's most trusted confidant. He wields that authority only rarely, but commands the respect of Patti and her people.
I'm helping Raymond and his young assistant, Hewitt Pratt, load books and posters into the hallway, and Raymond's griping about how the Chelsea's dolly is being used by someone moving in. "That's the great thing about living at the Chelsea," he says of the antiquated, historic hotel (Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and countless others penned songs at the Chelsea, and artists from Mark Twain to Sid Vicious -- including Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe -- hung here). "It keeps your expectations down out in the rest of the world."
We load up the car and rendezvous with the tour bus on the West Side. Mark Edwards, the tour manager, is pacing around with his clipboard. Michael Stipe is carrying an orange knapsack onto the bus -- he's joining the tour. Tony and Jay Dee sit at a table on the bus, a long luxury traveler. Patti bases herself in the back room. There's a middle section with four bunk beds, and a large front section where the rest of the band tends to hang. The couches are quite comfortable.
Hewitt Pratt is 25 and knows little about Verlaine. Raymond has arranged to have him ride to Danbury in my car, and on the drive I play him a 1976 recording of a Television show at CBGBs: the song "Little Johnny Jewel." During a particularly splendid point in Verlaine's improvised composition, I say, "He's the only one, since the death of Garcia, that can do this." Hewitt, a Deadhead, is speechless throughout the 25-minute song. Then I point out Verlaine's lead in "Friction," when he snakes up the guitar, both hands vibrating, producing a sonic alarm. "He was the first one to do this," I say. "Well, Hendrix kinda did it, but Verlaine was the first to perfect it."
"You mean, he's the source of everything that is alternative music today," Hewitt offers. By Jove, there is hope for the younger generation. We'll soon find out if Hewitt's peers are as sharp. Tonight's gig is in a gymnasium atWestern Connecticut State University.
READ: "Maestro: An interview with guitarist Tom Verlaine," by Al Giordano
When we get there, I help Raymond again with posters and books, and we lug this stuff across the gymnasium floor. Dylan's band is rehearsing "Tangled Up in Blue" on the stage, and the reclusive man himself is there, a hooded sweatshirt pulled up over his face. The joke on the Smith tour bus is, "If you see Dylan, DON'T look at him!" The Smith entourage has separate dressing rooms from Dylan and his band. And I've been told by Edwards that the Dylan people, never happy to have a reporter around, will kick me off the tour for the slightest infraction. I'm trying to be invisible.
Michael Stipe is wandering around incognito, wearing a black ski cap, a one-week growth on his face. He invited Patti to sing with R.E.M. last fall, sent a limo to meet her. During the '80s, when Patti was married to Fred and not performing, Stipe turned up in the media regularly singing the praises of Patti Smith to his fans, penning back-cover notes for her poetry book Early Work, keeping the faith.
R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore backstage at the Beacon Theater. (Photo by Patti Hudson)
I ask him if he's going to sing "Dancing Barefoot" with Patti on this tour, a song they recently performed together. "No," he says. "I'm just here to be supportive." Here as a friend, in other words. Not as a star, or a fan. And his support obviously makes a difference to Patti, who has to be nervous at the prospect of going on stage with a band for the first time in almost two decades. She definitely brightens up around him and his seductive weirdness.
Patti opens her set, and her fans throng the front of the stage, while the old Dylan hippies lay back to see what she's all about. Dylan himself, still hooded, appears at the side of the stage and watches. The set, unfortunately, has a "greatest hits" feel to it -- a sense of trying too hard -- with "Dancing Barefoot," "Because the Night," "Rock N Roll Nigger," and her 1988 single "People Have the Power" as four of the nine tunes. It's as if the band is trying to compensate for their lack of preparedness while they work out the newer material.
But when Tom Verlaine plays his improvisational lead guitar, every song is new. The crowd begins clapping along with "Not Fade Away"; even the mellow Dylan fans are into it.
Mark Edwards is pushing the band to hop on the bus and drive to Boston, where we'll be sleeping, before it gets too late. He's muttering something about union bus-driver wages. Patti keeps the bus there for about eight Dylan songs, then leaves with the entourage. Raymond hitches a ride with me, wanting to hear Dylan's entire set.
Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, another artist greatly influenced by Patti, tells me that he's never seen Dylan before. "Kim and Coco wanted to be here tonight," he says of his bass-playing wife and their child, "but they have the flu." Five songs into Dylan's set, he walks by me, leans over, and rolls his eyes, unimpressed. "I'm outta here."
I, meanwhile, am completely blown away by Dylan's performance. He's playing lead guitar at least as well asNeil Young. He does "All Along the Watchtower" into "Just Like a Woman," and he's rockin'. In recent years, he hasn't seemed this enthusiastic about his own shows. He smiles as he looks out over the crowd, plowing from one song into the next, and on into three encores.