A little somethin' different
Friday, December 8, Boston and Worcester.
I climb on the bus at four, half an hour late. Tour manager Mark Edwards gives me a dirty look. I bow to him, my hands in prayer. He looks at my empty wrists and growls, "Buy a watch!"
Lenny Kaye glances up from his guitar, "Oooooooooh, Al," as if my space-monkey self has, at least, provided him some entertainment. Tony Shanahan has his guitar, too. He's teaching Lenny the song "Up There, Down There," off Patti's Dream of Life album, her 1988 communiqué from the suburban underground -- the only album she recorded without Lenny.
The bus rolls down the Mass Pike toward Worcester. Patti walks out from the back of the tour bus. She's now wearing a Dylanesque sweat hood over her head. She comes up behind Verlaine and puts her arms around him. She's stroking his hair, massaging his shoulders. "Tom," she whispers, "they want us to do an extra show Monday night in New York. Will you do it?"
All eyes turn toward her. "With Dylan?" the band members ask in unison, all grinning.
"Yes," she says. "Michael Jacksonhad the Beacon Theater booked that night, but he just fell on his face and can't do it.Springsteenis doing the venue Tuesday and Wednesday, we're there on Thursday, but now the Dylan people want to do Monday, too."
"Is this a true story, Patti?" asks Verlaine, as Patti keeps massaging him. It's good news, and she knows it, but she offers Verlaine -- arguably the planet's pre-eminent lead guitarist -- the deference of this kind of request. "Well, ahhhhhhh," he says, pretending to hesitate. "Sure."
We arrive at the Worcester Auditorium. It's the second night of the tour, and Dylan still has not shaken hands with Patti, much less conversed with her. We're in her backstage area, a huge, vacant space, with a bathroom and a side room. No windows. The side room is a little 12-by-15 foot box, grimy yellow paint chipping off the walls to reveal ghosts of white plaster, a lone light bulb hanging in the middle. Stipe's eyes light up: "A rock video room!"
Patti walks into the big room, wearing her Dylan hood, and the boys jump to their feet and place the biggest chair in the corner for her. Jessie Zoldak, the Boston rocker from the band Yuk who, with Jamaica Plain's Patti Hudson, takes care of much of Patti Smith's personal business, strolls in with her camera. Stipe grabs his. Oliver loads his old squeezebox Polaroid. An orgy of photographing ensues.
Mark Edwards, always with a clipboard, bursts into the room and, glancing at me, asks, "Do you want to be alone, Patti?"
"I never want to be alone," she replies, dispatching him.
Raymond Foye comes in and sits down. Oliver picks up his guitar and says to Patti, "Raymond says we can't play `Loser.' That we still have to learn the song."
"Okay," says Patti, jumping to her feet, "let's do it."
Oliver has given the song -- one of Jerry Garcia's more complex cowboy chord progressions -- a more folky edge. While Patti sings the entire song (Oliver strums it without error), she waltzes around Raymond, gazing into the publisher's eyes.
Raymond shuts his lids -- the little Buddha on the chair -- embarrassed by the attention, but with a cherubic happiness in his smile. She sings the last line over and over again: "And I got no chance of losin' this time. . . ." She ends by laying her head atop his. "No chance of losin' this time."
"The sphinx awakens, but what can she say? You'd be amazed." On stage in Worcester, Patti Smith sings these words from "Up There, Down There," which she wrote with the late Fred Sonic Smith. The band just learned the song in the past two hours. But when the tour began, Patti said she wanted to do "a little somethin' different" each show.
And the sphinx does indeed awaken, in the middle of "Not Fade Away," when Patti grabs her harmonica and plays as though she's scratching fingernails on a blackboard. She used to do the same thing with a clarinet in the '70s. Once the senses of the audience are sufficiently scrambled by Verlaine's lightning lead, Patti, for the first time since 1979, starts speaking in tongues, improvising a poem to a rock-and-roll backbeat. She tells of walking out into the world, but getting her feet caught in vines, then shaking off the vines, and "walking . . . out . . . into . . . the . . . world."
The crowd claps in rhythm: one, two, three -- one, two! Frenzy is in the air. She's back. She is channeling again, modern glossolalia. She has shaken the vines off her feet, and regained her angel's wings.
12:01 a.m., and Michael Stipe wants vegetarian fare. The hotel is right across the river, so, despite the fact that we'll probably be gawked at by the rockers of Boston, I've made the reservation here at theMiddle East, in Cambridge. Besides, Patti looks to be in a social mood tonight. It might do her some good to get out and see how the people love her.
I'm chatting with Tom when I notice Joan Wasser, the electric violinist from the Dambuilders, at a nearby table, pretending not to stare at Verlaine. She waits for the right moment and comes over, quietly kneeling at Verlaine's feet, nervously introducing herself. Verlaine has no context for this introduction, so I say, "She's a great electric violinist in a band. You might even say you were her influence."
Lenny Kaye and I talk about New York. Here in Boston, he's off his island turf. But he fits right in, a rocker's rocker, projecting kindness and support to all the yet-to-be-discovered musicians in the crowd.
Michael Stipe motions to me across the table, his mouth full of veggie couscous, so he can't talk. He points to his food and gives me a thumbs-up. Boston's red carpet seems quite agreeable to our guests.