Saturday, July 17, 2004

Watching Patti

I first met Lenny Kaye in 1969, when Rolling Stone bit on my idea for a piece on acappella music, something I'd heard a lot about but never heard. But someone there knew this guy in New Jersey who was into it, and he was interested in co-writing the piece, so I called him on the phone. "Where are you? Ohio? Okay, I'll see you in a couple of days." And sure enough, he borrowed his family's station wagon and appeared at my apartment, a tall, skinny guy with glasses and long, stringy hair -- and a pile of albums. We spent the next couple of days hovering around my tiny Royal portable typewriter, banging out the story, and figuring a way to shoehorn its focus -- the new Persuasions album Frank Zappa was releasing on Bizarre -- into it while making sure that the forgotten, mostly Italian-American masters of the form got their due, too.

We stayed in some sort of sporadic touch, and at one point he was in California visiting his childhood friend Chuck, who'd been a regular dancer on American Bandstand ("I was a disciplinary problem so my parents sent me to military school, and that uniform got me onto the show. You got lots of pussy in the cloakroom, too: those girls were hot.") and had been in the Peace Corps in Jamaica and was the only person except myself who seemed to know anything about reggae. But I didn't really know what Lenny was really up to until 1974, when Patti Smith, a poet I knew by reputation and the fact that, like me, she wrote for Creem magazine, booked a "reading" upstairs at Rather Ripped Records in Berkeley. Lenny was playing loud, free-form guitar next to her, and she had this amazing version of "Gloria" (the Van Morrison one, not the Cadillacs one, as Lenny was always careful to point out) where it seemed like the two of them were going to catch fire before it was over. Apparently they'd been doing this act around the St. Mark's Poetry Center in New York, and she was going to put out a 45 at some point.

Even back then, Patti was solicitous of her fans, and I certainly became one that evening at Rather Ripped. The next time they appeared there, they had a pianist she called "DNV" (Richard Sohl), and it was just as intense. The act soon graduated to the clubs, and there were even more additions to the band. I remember taking a copy of her book Witt to the Longbranch for an autograph. Curiously, she inscribed it "To Ed Ward, in whom the soul of Hank Williams lives." I have to admit, I found that pretty unperceptive for a poet.

I'd stayed in touch with Chuck, who was a photographer, and a pretty good one, although one with personality quirks that made a shoot potentially fraught with peril, and every time the Patti Smith Band, now Arista recording artists, came through to play Winterland, we were there -- Lenny put us on the guest list. The band just got bigger and bigger, and it was great to see someone you'd known, someone who was a decent human being with a real love for rock and roll and the ability to express it, doing so well. (Lenny had already made a name for himself before Patti, of course, by convincing Elektra Records to put out the now-legendary and hugely influential double-album compliation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts of the First Psychedelic Era, a collection of garage band singles which was a touchstone for kids who weren't convinced by "progressive" rock, and whose title was even prophetic, since there seems to have been a second psychedelic era by now. Still, Lenny hadn't made much money off of it, having just been paid a fee to compile and annotate the thing).

Somewhere around the time of the Radio Ethiopia album, though, something happened. Chuck chased down the road manager easily enough on the day of the Winterland gig, but he told Chuck "Lenny says that if Ed and Chuck want to see the show, they can buy tickets like any other fan." I was shocked, but Chuck was shocked and enraged. Not seeing a show was no big thing, really, although the rock star attitude was something new. Chuck, who was subject to immense fits of anger, was apoplectic for weeks.

After that, I moved to Texas and Lenny and I lost touch. Patti married and retired and lost her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, and, well, things just moved in a different direction for everyone. But that wasn't the end of the story.

The summer after I moved here, the Patti Smith Band was booked at the Tempodrom, a circus tent in the Tiergarten on the banks of the Spree River. Patti had come out of retirement, and although I hadn't heard the album, people were saying it was great. And Lenny, possibly the only person on earth who can mediate between what Patti Smith wants and what a musician can do about it, was still in the band, of course. I tried desperately to get ahold of him, to no avail. I even gave a business card to a DJ I knew who was going backstage to interview them before the show, and asked him to give it to Lenny. I'd been here almost a year, and was pretty lonely for contact with Americans.

What was really strange about that show was that I stayed for the whole thing, rooted to the spot, mesmerized. Working at a daily paper in Austin, I'd had to go out four or five nights a week, and it got to be like work. I still routinely walk out of concerts or club gigs after an hour or so, especially if I'm there alone, as I was that evening. Describing the show, it doesn't sound like it should have been all that good: Patti's teenaged son played "Smoke on the Water," her long-ago ex-boyfriend Tom Verlaine was there, looking perplexed, sitting on a chair and trying to play lead lines from time to time, but it was a magical evening. I regretted not being able to tell Lenny so.

And that's what I was thinking the next day as I walked from my apartment near the Tiergarten into East Berlin to go to work at Checkpoint, the English-language magazine. As I got near the office, on Linienstr., I noticed a white car. Just at that moment, the door opened and a tall, skinny guy got out. "Hi, Lenny." And it was just like the most natural thing in the world, that he happened to be there with a guy he'd grown up with who lives here now, and had driven with this guy and his teenage kids to this obscure street a couple of miles from his house. We had a nice long talk, and the whole thing sealed that concert as one of the best I've ever seen, for reasons that, as I said, I can't even articulate.

I've seen them twice since then. Last year, at an outdoor show on Museum Island, which was pretty shambolic: Patti gave a stern lecture on nutrition that went on and on, and there were a bunch of mid-30s lesbians who hung around after the show mewling "Patti, Patti" as if they'd lost their mother. She had to come out and talk them down briefly. But Lenny was there, in a good mood, and it was nice seeing him again.

Last night, they played the Columbiahalle, down by Tempelhof Airport, the Nazi-built behemoth the city is intent on closing as an airport (although the structure, which was until recently the world's largest single building, bigger even than the Pentagon, is a protected landmark). I've only seen jazz in the Columbiahalle, and was surprised at how good the sound was for electric music, because for acoustic music it sucks. The band was great, although some of Patti's newer material is pretty rote-sounding, and I felt the overly-literal images projected by the light show were almost hectoring. But towards the end, they dug into some of the older material like "Dancing Barefoot," Lenny leaned back in fine rock-star mode, and the show ended like any good rock show should: with the fans yelling deleriously even after the encore.

I went to the side of the stage to say hi to Lenny, but he came out very distracted, searching the crowd for someone, and only briefly saying hello. The guards chased us out, anyway, and as I walked out of the hall I reflected that it was good that I don't have to do this for a living much any more, and that the value for me was, in the end, seeing someone I admired and respected still earning a living doing something he does very well and still enjoys.

Thanks for the guest list, Lenny!

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