Ain't too old to rock 'n' roll
After following Patti Smith up and down the east coast of Australia the time has come for her final show at Melbourne's Festival Hall. Tonight there are lots of young people in the audience, at the Bluesfest concerts the crowd was made up mainly of baby boomers.
When Patti kicks off her set with Dancing Barefoot it is clear that although she's old enough to be most of the audience's grandmother, she transcends age. Her passion is palpable, it flows through her body which remains loose-limbed and unbowed. Social media is preoccupied with the ideal of youth and we are all constantly bombarded with images of unattainable physical beauty. Watching Patti as she owns the stage, I find myself thinking that getting old is really cool! I hope that I'll still be alive to see Patti sticking it to the man at the age of 110, as she promises us she will.
It's apparent from early on that tonight's concert is going to be special. Patti delivers a perfect cover of Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, the song that she notoriously had to interrupt and restart, when nerves got the better of her at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. After Break It Up and Ain't it Strange, she launches into Pissing in a River, the crowd is swooning, even Patti is enjoying the fact that she has conquered the cavernous Festival Hall, which she tells us she was warned about "It's just a fucking club!", she exclaims. How could anyone think that the Festival hall could impede this woman who cut her teeth reciting poetry in far more hostile venues in New York during the 1970s?
Australia's Courtney Barnett joins Patti and her band on stage for a rendition of People have the Power. Courtney cannot wipe the grin off her face as Lenny Kaye patiently leads her through the chord changes.
Lenny and Patti have a special bond, this is apparent when the band later performs Beneath the Southern Cross, a song inspired by the death of the poet Rimbaud. Kaye stares gently at Smith as they strum their acoustic guitars in an area of the stage that is shrouded in darkness. There is a lifetime of knowing and intimacy in that gaze.
When she is handed an electric guitar during the final song, which tonight is Rock 'n' Roll Nigger, she adopts a Keith Richards swagger and the poet morphs into a guitar hero. Smith, known for her androgynous looks, handles her guitar like a man. There is none of the cutesy 'look at me playing power chords' that the other cultural icon, Madonna, adopted during her 2016 tour. This is the real thing.
Smith strangles feedback out of the guitar as she stalks around the amplifiers. Soon she has broken every string and the machine heads are sporting long, floppy slinkys, which sway crazily as she moves around the stage. When the instrument has succumbed to her power she hoists it aloft and bellows, "Here's my fucking weapon. This is the greatest weapon of my generation!" and of course she is right. During the 1970s there was a belief that rock 'n' roll could change the world and perhaps for a moment, it did.
Tonight in the era of downloads and Spotify I feel nostalgic for a time when it felt like youth culture could cause a revolution. Somehow I can't imagine Taylor Swift or Beyoncé so passionately exhorting their fans to reject Trump, the bankers and the neo liberals whose greed Patti informs us is poisoning our atmosphere and killing the Great Barrier Reef. "Fuck Greed" she says.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Patti remains steadfast in her beliefs and in her ability to move people. At 70 years of age, her body is lithe and her moves are liquid. There is no potbelly, there are no aching joints, This is not a nostalgic trotting out of greatest hits.
Squinting out at her audience she challenges us because she still embodies the idealism and fearlessness of that young, androgynous girl in Mapplethorpe's photos. She is cooler and more in touch with global issues than even the youngest, most hip member of the Melbourne audience.
During the set which is made up of many songs that clock in at over 5 minutes, we are transfixed by the lyrics and the music. Far from being anachronistic, I feel a hankering in her audience for a time when popular music was not measured by its ability to hook the listener within 30 seconds thereby registering a 'play' on Spotify. The songs, many of them now over 40 years old still captivate and resonate with the audience.
At the end of the show, I glance over at my companion and notice that he is crying. Here's a bloke who moshed to Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer, Poly Styrene and Iggy Pop in their prime. Yet he has been reduced to tears by a 70-year-old New York punk poet. He isn't alone, as we slowly make our way out of the Festival Hall I spot many quickly-averted, moist eyes.
All of us, including those who were not yet born at that time, mourn the loss of that golden era, when poets roamed the streets of New York and music moved us, I realise as I trudge out into the Melbourne night.
The giants, like Lou Reed, the Ramones, Allen Ginsberg are all gone, Patti Smith is our last, tenuous link to that inordinately creative period. I realise that I too, am crying.