Patti Smith in Manchester: spirit in the night

Patti Smith in Manchester: spirit in the night

The rock’n’roll spirit soared and raged last Friday night in Manchester, as if thirty years had not passed and reduced the flame to a flickering ember.  The reason?   One of the few artists left with any credibility from the time when rock and poetry fused was in town, a battered survivor still raising a fist to power, corruption and greed who stirred up a powerful, spiritual, shamanic experience: Patti Smith.

Sauntering on stage in a sweltering O2 Academy, Patti launched straight into every fan’s favourite ‘Dancing Barefoot’, taken at a stately pace. It was soon clear that this was going to be a great night: Patti in top form, as was the band (longtime collaborator Lenny Kaye on guitar, Jay Dee Daugherty Trilby-hatted on drums, Tony Shanahan on bass and keyboards and Jackson Smith on guitar), and the sound balance perfect.

Patti dedicated ‘Redondo Beach’ to Morrissey, ‘who made it his own’.  The song has an incongruously jaunty reggae rhythm for something so sad.  ‘I went looking for you, are you gone, gone ?’ she sang, the words actually a sort of morbid fantasy, written in remorse when she and her sister Linda were living at the Chelsea Hotel.  They had quarrelled, and Linda had disappeared: the song was written as an anguished response.

‘April Fool’ was the first song taken from her new album. It’s one of the prettiest songs on Banga, full of a sense of freedom and a joy in being alive:

We’ll tramp through the mire
When our souls feel dead
With laughter we’ll inspire
Then back to life again

She sang it beautifully, at the close repeating and emphasising the refrain: ‘We’ll break all the rules’.

Three more new songs followed – ‘Fuji San’, ‘Mosaic’ and ‘This Is The Girl’, the sixties-style pop ballad based on a poem she wrote about Amy Winehouse after her death at the age of 27 in July 2011. Smith told Uncut magazine:

The little song for Amy just blossomed in the studio. We were at [New York studio] Electric Lady doing a whole other song and I wrote Amy a little poem when she died and my bass player, Tony Shanahan, wrote a piece of music and the two matched perfectly.”

In Manchester, there was nothing mawkish about Patti’s introduction to the song.  She pointed out that September 14 would be Amy’s birthday – and also that of her husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, who died in 1994, aged 45. ‘It will be a happy day, a day of celebration’, said Patti.

In an interview for Spinner, Patti explained that the purpose of the song was not to glamourise self-destructive behaviour.  She didn’t actually know Winehouse:

I wrote it out of respect for her artistry and her youth.  A lot of people think that because I admire a lot of musicians or artists who did have a self-destructive bent that I romanticize self-destruction. Well, I don’t at all. In Amy Winehouse’s instance, I really admired her as a singer. That girl was amazing. She sang songs from my generation – R&B songs and jazz and doo-wop – with no sixth degree of separation. She really comprehended this music and delivered something extra.

But for myself … I always wanted to be an artist. I was always just enthralled with the possibilities in life: Books and art and music and architecture and travel and love. There’s so much out there. Also, I was a very sickly child. I was sick quite a bit and my mother had to nurse me through everything from tuberculosis to scarlet fever to measles and mumps and influenza. By the time I was a teenager, I was just happy to be alive. I certainly wasn’t going to destroy what my mother spent almost two decades preserving. [So] I never really developed any vices – except coffee! I guess the simplest answer would be, I love life. I’m very grateful to have the imagination that I have, and the children that I have. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.

After this, Patti moved straight into one of her most shamanic songs – ‘Ghost Dance’, with its incantatory refrain, ‘We shall live again’.  This was a powerful performance, with Lenny Kaye contributing vocals on one verse. Patti had also sung ‘Ghost Dance’ in Glasgow two nights earlier: this is a video of her performance there:

Announcing that ‘reality is over – after this show you will return only to semi-reality’, Patti withdrew to leave Lenny Kaye to lead the band through a fiery medley of garage classics that included the Strangeloves’ ‘Night Time’, the Seeds’ ‘Pushin’ Too Hard’,  and the Blue Magoos’  We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet – all of them featured on the classic 1972 double LP Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 that Lenny Kaye helped to compile.

Returning to the stage, Patti spoke a little about her family history – she had recently been delving into it a little, and had discovered that her antecedents included Irish and Liverpudlian, some of them lacemakers.  Then she gave a stunning performance of ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’, urged on by ay Dee Daugherty’s muscular drumming.  It’s one of the songs that represent the ecstatic strand in Patti Smith’s work  – songs that express a yearning for freedom, spiritual epiphany, and true communion.

Oh to be not anyone – gone
Oh to owe not anyone – nothing
Words that echo that most beautiful of her poem-songs, ‘Wing’, where she writes:
I was a wing in heaven blue
Soared over the ocean
Soared over Spain
And I was free
I needed nobody
It was beautiful.

By the time we reached ‘Pissing in a River’, the musicians on stage and everyone in the audience was drenched in sweat.  The song featured a blistering guitar solo by Lenny Kaye, and there was no let up as ‘Because the Night’ followed.  Is there something about New Jersey?  Born in Chicago on the last day of 1946, Smith spent the bulk of her childhood in southern  New Jersey; in the same years, not so far away, a young Bruce Springsteen was growing up.  They would write this song together.  This is Patti’s performance in Glasgow two nights earlier:

As the notes died away, Patti leaned into the microphone: ‘In this world there is so much strife, stupidity, sorrow, corruption’, she said. ‘We sing of these things – but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time, too.’  And then she began to sing one of my personal favourites, ‘Peaceable Kingdom’, inspired by and dedicated to Rachel Corrie and first performed ten days after her death in 2003:

Yesterday I saw you standing there
With your hand against the pane
Looking out the window
At the rain

And I wanted to tell you
That your tears were not in vain
But I guess we both knew
We’d never be the same

Why must we hide all these feelings inside?
Lions and lambs shall abide

Maybe one day we’ll be strong enough
To build it back again
Build the peaceable kingdom
Back again

This was a powerful and moving performance, enhanced by the segue into a spoken verse from ‘People Have the Power’ that Patti has taken to including (the song would return in blistering electric form during the encore). Then Patti and the band tore into her iconic take on Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ that opens with its ringing assertion that ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine’. On this night Patti changed the last verse, spelling out not GLORIA, but PUSSY RIOT, and yelling  ‘Ask Jesus Christ – he would fucking forgive them! Youth and truth should not be imprisoned!’ This is how she did it a few days earlier in Stockholm:

At the close, Patti speaks with anger about the coroner’s ruling the previous day in the so-called ‘friendly fire’ incident in 2009 when two US Apache helicopters attacked a British base in Afghanistan, killing a British soldier.  ‘What the fuck is friendly fire?’ she rages. ‘ This is friendly fire, this is our weapon’, she yells, raising high her guitar.  What a way to end the show!

Patti returned for a three-number encore. ‘Banga’ was up first, preceded by Patti’s explanation of the story behind the song – a story of ‘the true loyalty of  the canine’.  Banga was Pontius Pilate’s dog in Mikhail Bulgakov’s satirical novel The Master And Margarita (a novel I bought when I was at university when it appeared in paperback; I still haven’t read it, but that same paperback is still on my bookshelf). ‘That dog was loyal for 2000 years, sitting at the edge of heaven while Pilate was waiting for Jesus Christ to speak to him,’ Smith explained. ‘It’ll take me 2000 years to finish telling this story’.  It’s a song that is especially suited to live performance with its repeated shout, ‘Banga – Say Banga’.  Towards the end Patti has us all barking like dogs.

Then we got the full electric version of  ‘People Have the Power’, with Patti raging, ‘look what they are doing to our earth – the corporations and the banks’.  ‘Use your voice!’ Patti shouts;  ‘You are the future, and the future is now!’  She screams the opening lines of ‘Babelogue’  – ‘I haven’t fucked much with the past but I’ve fucked plenty with the future’  over the opening chords of ‘Rock and Roll Nigger’. The three imprisoned girls in Russia come to mind again as Patti sings the refrain:

Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me.
Outside of society, that’s where I want to be.

She ends by kneeling, Hendrix-like, guitar aimed at the audience to fire an arrow of love: straining on the string of the guitar, it wails, then snaps with an explosive sound.

‘I’m done, man, she gasps. ‘Manchester, you fuckin’ wore me out!’  And with that she’s gone.

This was a night of rock’n’roll that raised a banner and asserted that its music and words could really mean something – and matter. It was emotion, ecstasy: Jim Morrison’s ‘scream of the butterfly’.  It was a rallying cry, that proclaimed change will come not from the barrel of a gun, but from the pen and from an electric guitar.

See also

Patti Smith’s Banga: new lands to be explored

Patti Smith’s Banga: new lands to be explored

PattiSmith Banga

Reviewing Patti Smith’s new album, Banga, for Pitchfork, Lindsay Zoladz writes:

Remember those words that shot out of her lips like hot lightning on her brilliant 1978 record Easter: “I don’t fuck much with the past, but I fuck plenty with the future.” Well, more than three decades later, Banga is the work of someone interested in fucking with everything. […]

Smith is still the eternal college freshman at heart, constantly stumbling upon new artistic heroes and then drawing from them fathomless and unabashedly ebullient inspiration. […]  Ultimately, it’s Banga‘s earnestness about the thrill of discovery that makes it feel so out-of-time and refreshing. It runs counter to that sense of maxed-out ennui that governs the way so many people talk about art and artists in the age of Wikipedia– when posturing that you know it all is more attractive than confessing blind spots, if only so you can bemoan the fact that it’s all been done before. Though more in spirit than in sound, Banga pulses with the notion that there are still good books we haven’t read, old ideas waiting to be fucked with, and new lands we haven’t yet explored.

This, for me, states exactly, precisely, why a new album from Patti Smith is always so exhilarating – she isn’t afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve, and to joyfully stir into the mix imagery and thoughts provoked by art, poetry, film or literature which has recently inspired her.  On Banga, set to some of the best musical arrangements to have graced her albums, played impeccably by familiar collaborators –  guitarist Lenny Kaye, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, bassist Tony Shanahan, guitarist Tom Verlaine, guitarist Jack Petruzzelli, and her children Jackson and Jessi on guitar and piano – her lyrics encompass a dog in Bulgakov’s  Master and Margarita, Nikolai Gogol, film director Andrei Tarkovsky, actress Maria Schneider and ill-starred Amy Winehouse.  About the dog, Patti explained in an interview:

The album title came from the dog in The Master and Margarita. It was Pontius Pilate’s dog and his dog’s name was Banga. The reason I wrote a song for Banga, for those who have not read the book, Pontius Pilate waited on the edge of Heaven for 2000 years to talk to Jesus Christ and his dog, Banga, stayed faithfully by his side and I thought that any dog that would wait 2000 years for his master deserves a song. Its really a song for my band and for the people. It’s a high-spirited song, dedicated to love and loyalty.

Patti Smith seeks out – and yearns to espress – the ecstatic: as she cries in the chorus of ‘Banga’: ‘believe or explode!’  Her imaginative cosmos is inhabited by Blake, Dylan, Jim Morrison, Rimbaud, Gahndi, Baudelaire and Burroughs – all part of a flowing conceptual continuity.

Banga evolved over four years, the songs emerging as Patti wrote her first memoir, Just Kids, the chronicle of her deep friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, which won critical acclaim.  This perhaps explains the variety of subjects and musical moods on the album.  There are catchy, sixties-style pop songs like ‘April Fool’, ‘This Is the Girl’ (for Amy Winehouse), ‘Amerigo’, and the elegaic waltz  ‘Maria’ (written for her friend, the actress Maria Schneider, and evoking, Smith writes in the sleevenotes, ‘the wanderings of the nameless girl in the desert that Maria portrayed in Antonioni’s The Passenger‘).  ‘Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter)’ is a jam inspired by the free jazz of Sun-Ra and Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film, Ivan’s Childhood, in Patti’s estimation ‘the most beautiful movie about war’.  Its repeated phrase, ‘The boy, the beast and the butterfly’ recalling a key scene in the film.

Ivan’s Childhood

The band really rocks out on the title track and ‘Fuji-san’, a remembrance for the victims of Japan’s Tohoku earthquake.  Patti writes  in the notes to Banga:

On March 11, 2011, Japan experienced the Tohoku earthquake. The concern for our friends and all of the Japanese people led Lenny [Kaye] and I to write ‘Fuji-san.’ It is for them — a call of prayer to the great mountain — for a protective cloak of love.

Hokusai : from Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji

But it is the songs that bookend the album on which I’ll focus in this post. ‘Amerigo’ and the epic ‘Constantine’s Dream’ are romantic critiques of conquest and environmental degradation that spiral out into meditations on art and spirituality. ‘Amerigo’, with a lilting and infectious chorus, extrapolates from letters written by Amerigo Vespucci after discovering the New World. Smith imagines his Catholicism and colonial ideology being turned inside-out following his encounters with its indigenous people.

In this land we placed baptismal fonts
And an infinite number were baptized […]

Ah the salvation of souls
But wisdom we had not
for these people had neither king nor lord
And bowed to no one
For they lived in their own liberty

Vespucci arrives in the New World

Amerigo Vespucci was a Florentine merchant and explorer who led four expeditions in search of a western route to the East Indies in the late 15th century, and whose name was given to the American continents by the mapmaker Waldseemüller.  Patti Smith has drawn on letters Vespucci wrote to those who had sponsored his voyages back in Florence.  This is an extract from a letter to Pier Soderini, Gonfalonier of the Republic of Florence that gives an account of Vespucci’s first voyage in 1497 (known as the Soderini letter).  If his claims are in this missive accurate he reached the mainland of the Americas at least 14 months before Columbus:

They are not accustomed to have any Captain, nor do they go in any ordered array, for every one is lord of himself: and the cause of their wars is not for lust of dominion, nor of extending their frontiers, no for inordinate covetousness, but for some ancient enmity which in by-gone times arose amongst them: and when asked why they made war, they knew not any other reason to give than that they did so to avenge the death of their ancestors, or of their parents: these people have neither King, nor Lord, nor do they yield obedience to any one, for they live in their own liberty: and how they be stirred up to go to war is (this) that when the enemies have slain or captured any of them, his oldest kinsman rises up and goes about the highways haranguing them to go with him and avenge the death of such his kinsman: and so are they stirred up by fellow-feeling: they have no judicial system, nor do they punish the ill-doer: nor does the father, nor the mother chastise the children and marvelously (seldom) or never did we see any dispute among them. […]

They sleep in certain very large nettings made of cotton, suspended in the air: and although this their (fashion of) sleeping may seem uncomfortable, I say that it is sweet to sleep in those (nettings): and we slept better in them than in the counterpanes. […]

They use no trade, they neither buy nor sell. In fine, they live and are contended with that which nature gives them. The wealth that we enjoy in this our Europe and elsewhere, such as gold, jewels, pearls, and other riches, they hold as nothing; and although they have them in their own lands, they do not labour to obtain them, nor do they value them. They are liberal in giving, for it is rarely they deny you anything

In the Mundus Novus or Medici letter sent from Lisbon to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, Vespucci describes a later voyage to South America in 1501-1502. In it, Vespucci gives a description of the Carib people of the southern Caribbean and the northern coast of South America:

Albericus Vespucius offers his best compliments to Lorenzo Pietro di Medici. On a former occasion I wrote to you at some length concerning my return from those new regions which we found and explored with the fleet, at the cost, and by the command of this Most Serene King of Portugal. And these we may rightly call a new world. Because our ancestors had no knowledge of them, and it will be a matter wholly new to all those who hear about them. […]

We found in those parts such a multitude of people as nobody could enumerate (as we read in the Apocalypse), a race I say gentle and amenable. Ali of both sexes go about naked, covering no part of their bodies; and just as they spring from their mothers’ wombs so they go until death. They have indeed large square-built bodies, well formed and proportioned, and in color verging upon reddish. This I think has come to them, because, going about naked, they are colored by the sun. They have, too, hair plentiful and black. In their gait and when playing their games they are agile and dignified. […]

They have no cloth either of wool, linen or cotton, since they need it not; neither do they have goods of their own, but ali things are held in common. They live together without king, without government, and each is his own master.[…]

Beyond the fact that they have no church, no religion and are not idolaters, what more can I say ? They live according to nature, and may be called Epicureans rather than Stoics. There are no merchants among their number, nor is there barter.

And the sky opened
And we laid down our armour
And we danced naked as they
Baptized in the rain
Of the New World

Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map grew out of an ambitious project during the first decade of the 16th century to document the  new geographic knowledge gained from the discoveries of the late 15th and the first years of the 16th centuries. Waldseemüller’s large world map included data gathered during Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages of 1501–1502 to the New World. Waldseemüller christened the new lands ‘America’ in recognition of Vespucci ’s understanding that a continent new to Europeans had been discovered as a result of the voyages of Vespucci  and Columbus. There is only one known surviving copy of the first printed edition of the map which probably consisted of 1000 copies.

Waldseemüller’s map supported Vespucci’s revolutionary concept by portraying the New World as a separate continent, until then  unknown to the Europeans. It was the first map to depict clearly a separate Western Hemisphere, with the Pacific as a separate ocean. The map represented a huge leap forward in knowledge, recognizing the newly found American landmass and forever changing the prior European understanding of a world divided into only three parts: Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Martin Waldseemüller’s world map, 1507

Patti explains in the sleeve notes for Banga:

I misplaced the postcard, and confused by the soldiers’ armour, I was unable to locate it in the realm of Spanish art, yet the image haunted me.  Years later, on a plane to Rome, about to embark on an Italian tour, I mentioned the coveted image to Lenny, pledging I would one day find it. Our tour ended in Arezzo. That night, I had a troubled sleep and dreamed of an environmental apocalypse and a weeping Saint Francis. I awoke and went down to a courtyard and entered a church to say a prayer. I noticed a painting on the back wall. Piero della Francesca had created the frescoes of The Legend of the True Cross. There, in all its glory, was the full image that the postcard had detailed – The Dream of Constantine!

Piero della Francesca Dream of Constantine

The Dream of Constantine by Piero della Francesca in the Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo

As fate would have it, it was in the Basilica of St. Francis. I decided to learn more of his life and contribution and also of the painter of The Dream of Constantine. This opened a period of intense study and pilgrimage.

Our friend, Stefano Righi, guided Lenny and I through the stations of Saint Francis’ life: the mountain where birds covered him, singing, the forest in Gubbia where he tamed a wolf, the frescoes of Giotto and finallyhis magnetic tomb, beneath the lower Basilica ofthe Papal Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. We left the memorial card for our beloved friend, the poet Jim Carroll, who revered Saint Francis.

There are many stories I could tell in the creation of ‘Constantine’s Dream’, but let it suffice that Lenny and I prayed before the painting for the strength to achieve our mission. Lenny conceived of the musical themes and guitar figures, and our band recorded a strong basic track. We then took the track back to Arezzo and recruited the band Casa del Vento, whom I met during a benefit concert for EMERGENCY. The band from Arezzo improvised on the track of ‘Constantine’s Dream’, only steps away from the Basilica of Saint Francis, where the piece was born.

‘Constantine’s Dream’ is an improvised, half-sung, half-spoken meditation, recorded live in the studio, that weaves together Columbus’s voyage to the New World, the life and work of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, the pastoral ideals of St. Francis of Assisi, and environmental cataclysm. It is a major piece of work, exploring the relationship between art, knowledge, spirituality and humanity: rich and compelling, as deep and fully realised as anything she’s ever recorded.

The narrative consists, not of one dream, but a telescopic series of dreams, each one merging into the next like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes. Smith makes connections between seemingly unconnected events; in her hands, time flows like liquid.

In Arezzo, Patti has a dream in which Saint Francis

who kneeled and prayed
For the birds and beasts and all humankind

In the early light, she leaves her room, ‘stepping down the ancient stones, washed with dawn’ and enters the Basilica of San Francesco where she finds peace in a vision of the world of Saint Francis:

I saw before me the world of his world
The bright fields, the birds in abundance
All of nature of which he sang
Singing of him
All the beauty that surrounded him as he walked
His nature that was nature itself

But Patti is senses another call, ‘the call of art, the call of man’ and is drawn to the beauty of Piero della Francesca‘s ‘Legend of the True Cross’, a series of tableaux that includes ‘The Dream of Constantine’, Francesca’s representation of the moment when the crusading Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity after seeing the vision of the True Cross.  Patti here draws on the account of Eusebius, who wrote, ‘he saw with his own eyes in the heavens a trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces or ‘In this sign, you will conquer’.  In her extemporisation this becomes:

And the angel came and showed to him
The sign of the true cross in heaven
And upon it was written
in this sign shall thou conquer’.

From Constantine’s dream, the poem shifts into the dream of the artist:

From the geometry of his heart he mapped it out
He saw the King rise, fitted with armour
Set upon a white horse
An immaculate cross in his right hand.
He advanced toward the enemy
And the symmetry, the perfection of his mathematics
Caused the scattering of the enemy
Agitated, broken, they fled.

Patti sees Francesca wake and cry out:

All is art – all is future!
Oh lord let me die on the back of adventure
With a brush and an eye full of light.

The blind and aged Francesca dies in October 1492, just as ‘a world away, on three great ships, adventure itself’ Columbus arrives on the shore of the ‘New World’. Now, Patti imagines the ecstatic vision of Columbus as he sees the New World for the first time:

And as far as his eyes could see
No longer blind
All of nature unspoiled, beautiful

Columbus set foot on the New World
And witnessed beauty unspoiled
All the delights given by God
As if Eden had opened up her heart to him
And opened her dress
And all of her fruit gave to him

Columbus falls into a sleep and in a dream of his own, sees all of this beauty ‘entwined with the future’ in an apocalyptic vision of nature destroyed – the ‘terrible end of man’, the ‘cross to bear’:

The 21st century advancing like the angel that had come
To Constantine
Constantine in his dream

Oh this is your cross to bear …

All shall crumble into dust
Oh thou navigator
The terrible end of man
This is your gift to mankind
This is your cross to bear
Then Columbus saw all of nature aflame

The apocalyptic night
And the dream of the troubled king
Dissolved into light.

Here, Patti echoes Rousseau’s reversal of the Christian theme of the human fall from grace.  The direction of the fall is reversed: no longer into nature, but into culture.

‘Constantine’s Dream’ is not the final track, though.  The album concludes with Patti’s own haunting take on Neil Young’s visionary account of planetary collapse from the 1970s, ‘After the Gold Rush’, which has ‘Mother nature’s silver seed’ setting off in spaceships to a new home. Patti, accompanied by young children, sings:

Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 21st century…

In the album notes, Patti describes how the last two tracks came into being:

Back in New York at Electric Lady Studios, I summoned all I had experienced in the last year. I considered the night of my apocalyptic dream and finding the postcard image. I thought of the painter who went blind and died October 12, 1492, the same day Columbus set foot in the New World. I thought of Saint Francis and his bond with nature and the threat of environmental devastation in our own century. Surrounded by my supportive camp, I stepped before the microphone. All the research I had done fell away, as I improvised the words, driven by the deep personal struggle of the artist, who by the nature of his calling is obliged to manifest the spiritual as physical matter in the material world.

My daughter Jesse and son Jackson open the Neil Young song. I chose it to follow the dark apocalyptic vision of ‘Constantine’s Dream’, as it offers a new beginning. Tony Shanahan recorded his young nephew Tadhg and friends singing the last refrain. Thus Banga closes with my son and daughter, and the sons and daughter of others – all our children, the hope of the world, embarking on adventures of their own.

At a performance in San Francisco in October 2010, Patti prefaced a performance of her beautiful song ‘Wing’ with a reading of Saint Francis’ prayer.  For the first time I was able to sense the true meaning of his words, free from the defilement that Margaret Thatcher imposed when she intoned them on her election victory in 1979:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Patti Smith’s Banga is, both lyrically and musically, a superb album, bursting with inspiring and challenging ideas.  It comes in a beautiful special edition a 65-page book of original images, complete lyrics, and liner notes by Patti Smith that is a gorgeous artefact in its own right.

See also

Capitalism: an infantile disorder

Capitalism: an infantile disorder

The other night I watched Surviving Progress, a documentary shown on BBC4 that questions the standard view of progress, suggesting that civilizations are repeatedly destroyed by ‘progress traps’ – technologies that serve immediate needs, but ransom the future. In the past, civilizations could use up a region’s resources and move on. But if today the global economic system collapses from over-consumption and laying waste the planet’s resources, that’s it. There is nowhere else to go.

The message of the film seemed to reinforce a growing feeling I’ve had in recent weeks that the global capitalist system we live under (‘civilization’ seems to noble a term), far from being, as presented by the practitioners of that dubious discipline economics, one of rationally operating markets that deliver sensible and sustainable outcomes, is no more than an infantile disorder: stupid, irrational, and self-destructive.

Surviving Progress argues that the world has financed an unsustainable growth rate by essentially encouraging whole nations to take out unpayable mortgages on their own futures. In the film, Brazil is taken as an example: huge loans are advanced to the nation, which is unable to keep up the repayments, and is then encouraged to liquefy its own natural assets – the rainforests. When the assets are gone and the wealth extracted, the corporations leave behind a drained nation and the bankers move on to another loan customer.

Dumb? Absolutely.  The same sense of stupidity emerged from a piece in The Guardian recently, written by Ha-Joon Chang of Cambridge University and author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. Commenting on the eurozone crisis and the unwillingness of the eurozone leaders to alter their austerity policies, even as Greece and Spain fall apart, he noted that it is increasingly accepted that these policies are not working in the current environment. But what’s worse is that there is abundant historical evidence showing that austerity has never worked. What kind of person fails to learn the lessons of previous experience?  Ha-Joon Chang has the answer:

Perhaps they are insane – if we follow Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. But the more likely explanation is that, by pushing these policies against all evidence, our leaders are really telling us that they want to preserve – or even intensify, in areas like welfare policy – the economic system that has served them so well in the past three decades.

He concludes that the time has come for us to decide:

Do we want a society where 50% of young people are kept out of work in order to bring the deficit down from 9% of GDP to 3% in three years? A society in which the rich have to be made richer to work harder (at their supposed jobs of investing and creating wealth) while the poor have to be made poorer in order to work harder? Where a tiny minority (often called the 1% but more like the 0.1% or even 0.01%) control a disproportionate, and increasing, share of everything – not just income and wealth but also political power and influence (through control of the media, thinktanks, and even academia)?

If you want a tiny example of how a rich elite are increasing their share of wealth and running the country in their selfish interests, meanwhile threatening the environment, read George Monbiot’s brilliant piece of investigative journalism, published this week in the Guardian.  He writes that ‘the pheasant, rather than the Gini coefficient should now be the unit for measuring inequality.

As Britain heads towards Edwardian levels of inequality, the countryside reverts to a playground for the rich, in which anything that cannot be shot and eaten is shot and hung from a gibbet. The aristocracy is back in charge. … In the countryside, as in the towns, policy is becoming the preserve of the 1%. The rest of us pay the landowners to expand their estates and destroy the wildlife. That’s what they mean when they say we’re all in this together.

Worth reading, too, is Larry Elliott’s chilling despatch from Greece last week.  Elliott, along with Paul Mason of Newsnight, is always a reliable guide to the world of financial capitalism.  Just days after IMF Chief Christine Lagarde provoked fury with her outrageous comments about ‘tax-dodging’ Greeks, Elliott wrote:

Greece is broke and close to being broken. It is a country where children are fainting in school because they are hungry, where 20,000 Athenians are scavenging through waste tips for food, and where the lifeblood of a modern economy – credit – is fast drying up.  It is a country where the fascists and the anarchists battle for control of the streets, where immigrants fear to go out at night and where a woman whispers “it’s like the Weimar republic” as a motorcycle cavalcade from the Golden Dawn party, devotees of Adolf Hitler, cruises past the parliament building. Graffiti says: “Foreigners get out of Greece. Greece is for the Greeks. I will vote for Golden Dawn to remove the filth from the country.”

It has been interesting, too, to read the reviews of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy.  It’s a study of ‘the moral limits of markets’ in the context of the increasing ubiquity of market ideas.

Michael Sandel

‘Over the past three decades,’ Sandel writes, ‘markets – and market values – have come to govern out lives as never before.’ Sandel is not arguing from a socialist position, and argues that markets can work in the right situation. He asserts: ‘No other mechanism for organising the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful for generating affluence and prosperity’. But Sandel is interested in what he sees as a critical loss of our collective moral compass in recent times as market thinking has swept the board in economics, and then spread to almost every area of public policy:

The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.

His central thesis is that markets have a moral impact on the goods that are traded in them. When something which is supposed to be a common good is marketised it invariably leads not only to unfairness, but, just as importantly, it corrupts and degrades the thing being marketised.

He quotes a vivid example that sums up the entire argument of What Money Can’t Buy; an Israeli daycare centre, which had a problem of parents turning up late to collect their children, introduced fines. The result? Late pick-ups increased. Parents turned up late, paid the fine, and thought no more of it; the fine had turned into a fee.  Morality had been marketised.  The fear of disapproval and of doing the wrong thing (turning up late) was based on non-monetary values, on morality. Even though the daycare centre went back to the old system, parents kept turning up late, because the introduction of market values had killed the old ideas of collective responsibility. Sandel concludes:

The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?

The economic and social progress that has resulted in climate change raises questions of morality in an intractable form.  In a recent article in the London Review of Books, Malcolm Bull wrote:

Adam Smith once noted that we are less troubled by the prospect of a hundred million people dying as a result of an earthquake in some distant location than of losing our little finger, but would nevertheless be horrified by the idea we might allow them to die in order to save it. Climate change effectively transforms the former scenario into the latter, and so places unprecedented demands on our moral imagination. Almost every little thing we do contributes to our carbon footprint, which increases greenhouse gases, which could in turn ultimately threaten hundreds of millions of lives in some remote time and place – the uncertainty only adding to the sublime awfulness of our responsibilities.

Bull’s conclusion was hopeful, though:

Climate change does not tempt us to be less moral than we might otherwise be; it invites us to be more moral than we could ever have imagined. … Climate ethics is … a new chapter in the moral education of mankind. It may tell us things we do not wish to know … but the future development of humanity may depend on what, if anything, it can teach us.

Returning to Surviving Progress.  The film illustrates the argument of the book, A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. He was previously known to me as an authority on the pre-Colombian civilizations of the Americas.  Some time ago I read a couple of his books on this subject, Stolen Continents: The ‘New World’ through Indian Eyes and Cut Stones and Crossroads: Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru.  This film continues and develops Wright’s interest in how civilizations rise – and are destroyed. He coins the term ‘progress trap’ to define human behaviours that seem to amount to progress and to provide benefits in the short-term, but which ultimately lead to disaster because they’re unsustainable.

The film argues his case that the exponential growth in human numbers, the development of technologies, and the rapacious exploitation of the world’s natural resources threaten the planet, and the very existence of humanity.  ‘Progress’ – defined in terms of never-ending economic growth – could destroy us.  On population growth, he states controversially:

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and Columbus sailing, it took 13 centuries to add 200 million people to the world’s population. Now it takes only three years. A simple thing like pasteurization, the warming of milk so that the bacteria are killed and the control of smallpox. Things like that have led to a great boom in human numbers.  So, overpopulation, which nobody really wants to talk about because it cuts at things like religious beliefs and the freedom of the individual and the autonomy of the family and so forth, is something that we’re going to have to deal with. We probably have to work towards a much smaller worldwide population than 6 or 7 billion. We probably need to go down to a half that or possibly even a third of that, if everybody is going to live comfortably and decently.

But the film also tackles the more significant aspect of this problem: the footprint of the individuals at the top of the social pyramid who are consuming the most. Somebody in the United States or Europe is consuming about 50 times more resources than a poor person in a place like Bangladesh.  And to sustain the lifestyles of the planet’s rich, the banks and big corporations plunder the natural capital of our home, planet earth.  In the film Wright sums up the problem as he sees it:

Some people have written about natural capital, the capital that nature provides, which is the clean air, the clean water, the, the uncut forests, the, the rich farmland, and the minerals, the oil, the metals. All of these things are the capital that nature has provided. And until about 1980, human civilization was able to live on, what we might term, the interest of that capital, the surplus that nature is able to produce, the food that farmland can grow without actually degrading the farmland or the number of fish you can pull out of the sea without causing the fish stocks to crash. But since 1980, we’ve been using more than the interest, and so we are in effect like somebody who thinks he’s rich because he’s spending the money that has been left in his inheritance, not spending the interest but eating into the capital.

Margaret Atwood appears in the film, and underlines its message with these words:

Instead of thinking that nature is this huge bank that we can just, this endless credit card that we can just keep drawing on, we have to think about the finite nature of that planet and how to keep it alive so that we too may remain alive. Unless we conserve the planet, there isn’t going to be any ‘the economy’.

Surviving Progress argues that faith in progress has become a kind of religious faith, a sort of fundamentalism, rather like the market fundamentalism that has just recently crashed and burned. Wright says:

The idea that you can let markets rip is a delusion, just as the idea that you can let technology rip, and it will solve the problems created by itself in a slightly earlier phase. That, that has become a belief very similar to the religious delusions that caused some societies to crash and burn in the past.

The anthropologist Jane Goodall puts it this way:

Unlimited economic progress in a world of finite natural resources doesn’t make sense. It’s a pattern that is bound to collapse. And we keep seeing it collapsing, but then we build it up because there are these strong vested interests, we must have business as usual. And you know, you get the arms manufacturers, you get the petroleum industry, the pharmaceutical industry and all of this feeding into helping to create corrupt governments who are putting the future of their own people at risk.

Towards the end of the film, Ronald Wright sums up his case in these words:

All the civilizations of the past, and I think our own, only seem to be doing well when they’re expanding, when the population is growing, when the industrial output is growing, and when the cities are spreading outwards. Eventually you reach the point at which the population has overrun everything, the cities have expanded over the farmland, the people at the bottom begin to starve, and the people at the top lose their legitimacy. And so, you get, you get hunger, you get revolution.Now, one kind of scary thing about the moment we’re in is that for the first time there’s kind of only one system. So, if the whole thing goes down, you won’t have what you’ve had in previous eras of epic collapse, which is that even a one civilization goes down, and it may take a while to recover, there are other robust civilizations that are kind of the guardians of progress.

As I listened to Margaret Atwood say, ‘all we’ve got is planet Earth, and we are destroying, we are polluting, we are damaging the future of our own species’, I thought of Banga, the new album from Patti Smith that I’ve been listening to this week.  In part, her theme is  environmental crisis and the destruction of the beauty and mystery of the natural world.  The album concludes with her own haunting take on Neil Young’s visionary account of planetary collapse from the 1970s, ‘After the Gold Rush’, which has ‘Mother nature’s silver seed’ setting off in spaceships to a new home.  Only – there is nowhere else to go.

On the previous track Patti Smith explores ideas that touch on the discussion here. ‘Constantine’s Dream’ is a ten minute improvised, half-sung, half-spoken meditation that weaves together Columbus’s voyage to the New World, the life and work of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, the pastoral ideals of St. Francis of Assisi, and environmental cataclysm.

In Arezzo, Patti has a dream in which Saint Francis weeps at the current state of the environment,then, in the dawn, she leaves her room, ‘stepping down the ancient stones, washed with dawn’ and enters the Basilica of San Francesco:

I saw before me the world of his world
The bright fields, the birds in abundance
All of nature of which he sang
Singing to him
All the beauty of nature surrounded him as he walked

But Patti is senses ‘the call of art, the call of man’ and is drawn to the beauty of Piero della Francesca‘s ‘Legend of the True Cross’, a series of tableaux that includes ‘The Dream of Constantine’, Francesca’s representation of the moment when the crusading Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity after seeing the vision of the True Cross: ‘with this sign shall thou conquer’. In her poem, Patti has Francesca cry out on finishing his painting:

Oh lord let me die on the back of adventure
With a brush and an eye full of light.

The Dream of Constantine by Piero della Francesca in the Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo

Francesca dies in October 1492, just as ‘a world away, on three great ships, adventure itself’ Columbus arrives on the shore of the ‘New World’. Patti imagines the ecstatic vision of Columbus as he sees the New World for the first time:

And as far as his eyes could see
No longer blind
All of nature unspoiled, beautiful

Columbus set foot on the New World
And witnessed beauty unspoiled
All the delights given by God
As if Eden had opened up her heart to him
And opened her dress
And all of her fruit gave to him

Columbus falls into a swoon and a vision of his own:

The 21st century advancing like the angel
That had come to Constantine
Constantine in his dream

Oh this is your cross to bear …

All shall crumble into dust
Oh thou navigator
The terrible end of man
This is your gift to mankind
This is your cross to bear
Then Columbus saw all of nature aflame

The apocalyptic night
And the dream of the troubled king
Dissolved into light.

The album closes with Patti, accompanied by small children, singing:

Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 21st century…

Sebald: After Nature

What is this being called human?’

Recently I blogged about the event at Aldeburgh that celebrated the work of WG Sebald, Patience and Re-Enchantment, which culminated in a performance by Patti Smith at which she read from Sebald’s first literary work, published only posthumously, the prose-poem After Nature. I hadn’t been aware of this before, so I decided to read it.

After Nature was written in 1988 – that is, before his first book of fiction, Vertigo. Sebald himself described it as a ‘prose poem’, and the work is presented on the page as blank verse.  For me – and many commentators have felt the same way – I think this is a mistake. The work consists of three parts, and though the final section might possibly stand as poetry, it is hard to accept the first two parts as anything other than randomly chopped-up prose.  Prose of a high order, though, that should have been left as just that.

After Nature is certainly a fine piece of writing that anticipates themes which Sebald explored in later works: memory (and forgetting), art, the interpretation of history, migration.  Each of the three parts concerns a figure from a different century – the 16th century artist Mathias Grünewald, the eighteenth-century botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller, and, in the final part, Sebald himself.  What unites these stories?  All concern men troubled by the violence and injustice of their century and who, in their different ways (artist, scientist, literary scholar), interpret and meditate on their time.  All are migrants, geographically or socially, while Grunewald and Sebald seem to share the melancholic view of the human condition that is the hallmark of Sebald’s writing.

The first of the narratives, ‘As the Snow on the Alps’, concerns the artist Mathias Grünewald – ‘unknown’ as Sebald states, since Grünewald was probably not his name at all. We may know his face, though, since he incorporated his own self-portrait into many of his works, such as his John the Evangelist (below), ‘sketched out in heightened white crayon, later destroyed by an alien hand’s pen and wash, as that of a painter aged forty to fifty’.

Sebald suggests that he is the bearded man laying a gentle hand on another’s shoulder in commiseration in The Mocking of Christ (below): ‘always the same gentleness, the same burden of grief, the same irregularity of the eyes, veiled and sliding sideways down into loneliness’.

Sebald portrays Grunewald as an artist disturbed by the suffering and conflict of his time, especially the Peasants’ War – the Anabaptist insurrection against political and spiritual oppression led by Thomas Muntzer  which was utterly defeated at the battle of Frankenhausen in1525, In the Battle of Frankenhausen, Müntzer and his farmers were defeated. Muntzer was captured, tortured and decapitated, while

the bodies of peasants piled up
into a hetacomb, because, as though they were mad,
they neither put up any resistance
nor took to their heels.
When Grunewald got news of this
on the 18th of May
he ceased to leave his house.
Yet he could hear the gouging out
of eyes that long continued
between Lake Constance and
the Thuringian Forest. For weeks at that time he wore
a dark bandage over his face.

Thereafter, Grunewald ‘led a reclusive, melancholy life’, painting the altar panels for which he is now famous – most notably the extraordinary Isenheim Altarpiece, regarded as his masterpiece.

In one section an innermost panel, Grunewald depicts the Temptation of St. Anthony in mystical, visionary and grotesque form:

Sebald writes:

Now life as such, as it unfolds, dreadfully,
everywhere and at all times,
is not to be seen on the altar panels
whose figures have passed beyond
the miseries of existence, unless it be
in that unreal and demented thronging
which Grünewald has developed around
St. Anthony of the temptation:
dragged by his hair over the ground
by a gruesome monster.

To him, the painter, this is creation,
image of our insane presence
on the surface of the earth […]

In this fashion Grünewald,
silently wielding his paintbrush,
rendered the scream, the wailing, the gurgling
and the shrieking of a pathological spectacle
to which he and his art, as he must have known,
themselves belong.

Sebald later elaborated his thoughts on Grunewald’s vision in The Emigrants:

The extreme vision of that strange man, which was lodged in every detail, distorted every limb, and infected the colours like an illness, was one I had always felt in tune with, and now I found my feeling confirmed by the direct encounter. The monstrosity of that suffering, which, emanating from the figures depicted, spread to cover the whole of Nature, only to flood back from the lifeless landscape to the humans marked by death, rose and ebbed within me like a tide. Looking at those gashed bodies, and at the witnesses of the execution, doubled up by grief like snapped reeds, I gradually understood that, beyond a certain point, pain blots out the one thing that is essential to its being experienced – consciousness – and so perhaps extinguishes itself; we know very little about this. What is certain, though, is that mental suffering is effectively without end. One may think one has reached the very limit, but there are always more torments to come. One plunges from one abyss into the next.

The central narrative of After Nature, ‘And if I Remained by the Outermost Sea’, is based on the 18th century naturalist and botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller and his part in Vitus Bering‘s Alaskan expedition. Sebald is interested in what drove Steller to leave the safety of an academic career in Germany for the severity and the unknown dangers of the arctic wilderness. One answer:

Visions of this voyage of discovery,
Steller later recorded, had so seized
his imagination that he […] could
think of nothing other than
the shapes of the fauna and
flora of that distant region
where East and West and North
converge, and of the art and skill
required for their description.

Steller sought the unexplored arctic to catalogue and classify. But by the end of his life, Steller becomes aware of the ill-treatment of the indigenous people and writes papers defending their rights against the incursions and exploitation of Russian imperial interests: arrests and interrogations follow and Steller ‘now wholly grasps the difference between nature and society’. He flees, pursued by Imperial forces, and eventually dies of fever and stroke:

This is infirmitas, the breaking
of time from day to day
and from hour to hour,
it is rust and fire
and the salt of the planets,
darkness even at noon and
luminaries absent from heaven.

Sebald describes Steller’s death and burial:

…the dead man
was dreaming still of the grazing
Mammoth across the river
until in the night someone came
And took his cloak
and left him to lie in the snow
like a fox beaten to death.

The powerful last section, ‘Dark Night Sallies Forth’, brings together the themes of migration, departure, and ‘revisitings’ of histories, as Sebald explores his own family’s history and memory and tells of his journey out of Germany to study in Manchester:

…after leaving my remote home,
I arrived there and took lodgings
among the previous century’s

Sebald confronts the ease with which things are forgotten, or are displaced from memory because they are associated with a shadow that knows no limits.  He stares at a photo of his mother and father, taken on 26 August 1943.  The following day his father left for Dresden ‘of whose beauty his memory, as he remarks when I question him, retains no trace’. The very next day, Nurnberg is bombed; his mother

saw Nürnberg in flames,
but cannot recall now
what the burning town looked like
or what her feelings were
at this sight.

In all three narratives, the forces and phenomena of the natural world are powerfully present. Steller joins Vitus Bering on the ill-fated Alaska expedition in 1741, and watches captain and crew sicken and rot in wind and weather. Grünewald paints his altarpieces in revulsion at the physical world and at man’s plague-ridden, war-torn, sinful existence in it.  Sebald recounts the journey of his mother, fleeing the bombing of Nürnberg and becoming aware that she is pregnant, and his own migration to Manchester. Then the narrative moves from memory to a melancholic vision of the future, in poignant lines addressed in the East Anglian present to his daughter:

Come, my daughter, come on,
give me your hand, we’re leaving
the town, I’ll show you …

…the end
of the world, the five
cold houses of Shingle Street.
Inconsolable a woman
stands at the window,
a children’s swing Rusts in the wind,
a lonely/spy sits in his Dormobile
in the dunes, his headphones
pulled over his ears.
No, here we can write no postcards,
can’t even
get out of the car
Tell me, child,
is your heart as heavy as
mine is, year after year
a pebble bank raised
by the waves of the sea
aAll the way to the North,
every stone a dead soul
and this sky so grey?
So unremittingly grey
and so low as no sky
I have seen before.
Along the horizon
freighters cross over
into another age
measured by the ticking
of Geigers in the power station
at Sizewell, where slowly
the core of the metal
is destroyed. Whispering
madness on the heathland
of Suffolk.
Is this
the promis’d end?
Oh, you are men of stones.
What’s dead is gone
forever.What did’st
thou say?  What,
how, where, when?
Is this love
nothing now
or all?
Water? Fire? Good?
Evil? Life? Death?

The spellbinding conclusion of the poem – which might have been visualised by Werner Herzog, and is, in fact, inspired by Albrecht Altdorfer’s visionary 16th century painting, The Battle of Alexander at Issus – describes a dream in which Sebald sees far below him his own house and ‘the shadows falling on the East Anglian landscape’.  He flies over the North Sea and the Rhine’s alluvial plain, ‘cities phosphorescent on the river bank, industry’s glowing piles waiting beneath the smoke trails…’ .

Now I know, as with a crane’s eye
one surveys his far-flung realm,
a truly Asiatic spectacle …

tents lying in the evening glow
and a city on the shore …

The Nile Delta can be made out,
the Sinai Peninsula, the Red Sea
and, still farther in the distance,
towering up in dwindling light,
the mountain ranges,
snow-covered and ice-bound,
of the strange, unexplored,
African continent.

Image (top) of Shingle Street by Sarah Spencer.


Just Kids: a true rapture

I have just finished reading Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, her beautifully written song of love and elegy for Robert Mapplethorpe .  ‘This book is so honest and pure as to count as a true rapture’,  Joan Didion says on the back cover, and that comment captures absolutely the tenderness and the beauty of this exquisite book.

Although her narrative closes with Robert Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989, Patti Smith focusses on the years between 1967, when she first arrived, penniless in New York and first met Mapplethorpe, and the late 1970s when their lives diverged, as she broke through to rock stardom.

Though Patti came from a poor family, both her parents encouraged and stimulated her interest in art and literature, and the determination to make art is central to her  account.  And so it was that, twenty years old with a head full of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, she arrived in New York in July 1967 to start a new life. Robert Mapplethorpe was one of the first people she met, briefly, that day:

At 20 years old, I boarded the bus from Philadelphia to New York. I wore my dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old grey raincoat I had bought in Camden. My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me.

I immediately took the subway from Port Authority to DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn. It was a sunny afternoon. I was hoping my friends might put me up until I could find a place of my own. I went to the brownstone at the address I had, but they had moved. The new tenant motioned toward a room at the rear of the flat and suggested that his roommate might know the new address.

I walked into the room. On a simple iron bed, a boy was sleeping. He was pale and slim with masses of dark curls, lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck. I stood there. He opened his eyes and smiled.

When I told him of my plight, he rose in one motion, put on his huaraches and a white T-shirt, and beckoned me to follow him. I watched him as he walked ahead, leading the way with a light-footed gait, slightly bowlegged. I noticed his hands as he tapped his fingers against his thigh. I had never seen anyone like him. He delivered me to another brownstone on Clinton Avenue, gave a little farewell salute, smiled, and was on his way.

Patti gets a job in a bookstore, and one day the boy with dark curls comes in.  Later that week, another chance encounter with the boy saves her from a desperate situation.

As if it was the most natural thing in the world we stayed together, not leaving each other’s side save to go to work. Nothing was spoken; it was just mutually understood.

Soon the couple were living together, part of a generation of struggling young bohemians who would make New York in the late 60s and early 70s a vibrant hub of creativity.  They struggle to pay for food and shelter, take care of each other and dedicate themselves to making art. ‘To me, Robert and I were irrevocably entwined’, Smith writes.

Patti Smith’s intensely personal account is revealing in that it contradicts the taken-for-granted image of the couple as wild and druggy. Rather, as the title suggests, their lasting friendship was defined more than anything by its innocence and purity – two qualities that suffuse Patti Smith’s lyrical prose.

We played similar games, declared the most obscure objects treasure, and often puzzled friends and acquaintances by our indefinable devotion.

Smith gave Mapplethorpe love without reservation. Her devotion to him was undimmed by Robert’s discovery of his homosexuality and his entry into a world of  gay hustlers and S&M.  What, to her, was more dismaying was his social ascent. She could understand his love for men, but in order for her to spend time with his new, rich friends she would have had to change her ways:

I was a bad girl trying to be good and he was a good boy trying to be bad.

She speaks frankly about being shocked and frightened by the direction that Mapplethorpe began to take in his photography: the pictures were frightening, she says, the work shocking.It was meant that way:

Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art… I admired him for it, but I could not comprehend the brutality.

Smith left New York for Detroit in 1979 to live with the man she would eventually marry, the guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, just as Mapplethorpe’s career was taking off. By then Smith had already produced Horses and had risen to international fame with her hit single, ‘Because The Night’.  It’s at this point that the main section of the book draws to a close.

‘Separate ways but together’ is how Smith describes her continuing connection to Mapplethorpe from the time she left New York to his death in 1989 from complications due to AIDS: ‘Robert was ever in my conciousness, the blue star in the constellation of my personal cosmology’.

When she discovers that Mapplethorpe is dying of Aids in 1989, Smith writes with brutal poignancy that ‘every fear I had once harboured seemed to materialise with the suddenness of a bright sail bursting into flames’. Her description of a moment towards the end of Robert’s life – at the recording of  ‘Jackson Song’, when she herelf is pregnant with her second child – is beautifully composed and simply heartbreaking. Smith is always acutely sensitive to pattern and coincidence; she writes:

Later that evening, Robert attended the recording of the lullaby that Fred and I had written for our son, Jackson. It was the song I had sung to Sam Wagstaff.  There was a nod to Robert in the second verse:  Little blue star that offers light.  He sat on the couch in the control room.  I would always remember the date.  It was the nineteenth of March, the birthday of my mother.

Richard Sohl was at the piano.  I was facing him.  We were recording it live.  The baby moved within me.  Richard asked Fred if he had any special orders.  ‘Make them cry, Richard, ‘ was all he said.  We had one false start, then put everything we had into the second take.  As I finished, Richard repeated the final chords.  I looked through the glass window into the control room.  Robert had fallen asleep on the couch and Fred was standing alone, weeping.

What is unstated, is that everyone named in this passage is now dead. Robert died on 9 March 1989.  Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe’s partner, for whom Patti wrote ‘Paths That Cross’, died in 1987.  Richard Sohl, her pianist died in 1990.  Her husband, Fred, died in 1994, and her mother in 2002.

Robert and I were always ourselves—’til the day he died, we were just exactly as we were when we met. And we loved each other. Everybody wants to define everything. Is it necessary to define love?

It is this genuine devotion  – to her private artistic saints and to her friends –  that permeates this wonderful book. It has been universally acclaimed as a poetic masterpiece, and was winner of the National Book Award in 2010. At the award ceremony, Patti Smith said:

I dreamed of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf.  Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.

Patti Smith discusses Just Kids at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, December 2010

Paths That Cross

The Jackson Song


Cairo: Notes to the Future

The brave, dignified, resolute, peaceful and determined people of Egypt have made history today.  The Egyptian revolution – the most hopeful event of this century so far, likely to be as defining a moment as the Russian Revolution was for the last.  Lenin once coined the phrase, ‘Revolution is the festival of the oppressed’.  It was nonsense – there were no festive feelings in him, and 20th century revolutions were made with guns, led by vanguard parties with their own precise agendas and had deadly consequences.  Tonight the scenes from Cairo really do look like a festival of the people.

The movement symbolised by the occupants of  Tahrir Square this past 18 days has no leaders and only home-made banners.  They organised using the new communication technologies of Twitter and Facebook.  But, as Timothy Garton-Ash wrote in yesterday’s Guardian, new forms of protest are combined with something as old as the hills:

New in Cairo 2011 is that it is now Arabs and Muslims standing up in large numbers, with courage and (for the most part) peaceful discipline, for basic human dignity, against corrupt, oppressive rulers. New in 2011 is the degree of decentered, networked animation of the demonstrations, so that even the best-informed observers there struggle to answer the question “who is organising this?”. New in 2011 is the extraordinary underlying pressure of demography, with half the population in most of these countries being under 25. Old in Cairo 2011 – as old as the pyramids, as old as human civilisation – is the cry of oppressed men and women, overcoming the barrier of fear and feeling, however fleetingly, the sense of freedom and dignity.

Tariq Ali has just written on Comment Is Free at

A joyous night in Cairo. What bliss to be alive, to be an Egyptian and an Arab. In Tahrir Square they’re chanting, “Egypt is free” and “We won!”….The age of political reason is returning to the Arab world. The people are fed up of being colonised and bullied.

And he has quoted this extract from a poem written in 1967 by ‘one of the great Arab poets’, Nizar Qabbani:

Arab children,
Corn ears of the future,
You will break our chains.
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions.
Arab children,
Don’t read about our suffocated generation,
We are a hopeless case,
As worthless as a water-melon rind.
Don’t read about us,
Don’t ape us,
Don’t accept us,
Don’t accept our ideas,
We are a nation of crooks and jugglers.
Arab children,
Spring rain,
Corn ears of the future,
You are the generation that will overcome defeat.

Here’s another poem, For Tahrir, For Egypt, posted by Egyptian blogger Diptychal (‘I live in Cairo, where by day, I work at a publishing house. I’m 1/2 poet, 1/2 geek with a heavy dose of techno-joy….I post photos taken mostly in the streets of Cairo’).

that public square
named for fate and history
as though it knew what was to come
we stood our ground
saying, we will not be moved
painted poems on the hard asphalt
that had softened, soaking in our blood

and the world watched.

The world watched as we were called
and on television screens
in homes, doors locked refusing to let in
the truth,
men spit scorn into cameras
and women screamed into their phones
eyes and hearts full of rage
unable to understand
that Tahrir was theirs, for them,
while government eyes showed only what they wanted
us to see
the sun setting over the Nile

but all it would take, was the smallest turn of the head to the left
a glance from the corner of the eye
to show the haze of Cairo’s sun through tear gas,
to show men charging the street with only their bodies
met with police trucks running them down.

Newspapers wrote of unrest across the Mediterranean
pretending that this day that had begun in Cairo
was like any other.

But something had begun.

Men and women shook the earth
with their voices.

From north to south
bodies fell to the ground, hearts stopped beating
but in Tahrir, we held our heads high for them
moving away from the walls that, our whole lives
we had walked close to, hiding in the shadow
of conformity and fear

opened our chests to murder
opened our faces to rocks, our eyes to bullets
our minds to molotov fires thrown down onto our heads

and said

we are not afraid

because the fear of living with your face buried
in the soil of a land that can no longer feel
was nothing, nothing compared to
the fear of dying
without once having said

I am free.

Let us pray that the promise of Tahrir Square is fulfilled.  As I watched the joyous scenes there this evening, I thought of Patti Smith’s poem, ‘Notes to the Future’. Here are extracts that seem to speak of this moment and its hope for the future (apologies to Patti for butchering it):

Listen my children and you shall hear
The sound of your own steps
The sound of your hereafter
Memory awaits and turns to greet you
Draping its banner across your wrists
Wake up arms
Delicate feet
For as one to march the streets

Each alone, each part of another
Your steps shall ring
Shall raise the cloud
And they that will hear will hear
Will hear voice of the one
And the one and the one
As it has never been uttered before
For something greater yet to come

And all their hearts were as one heart.
And all their voices were as one voice.


This is our birthright.
This is our charge.
And we have given over to others.
And they have

Now my children
You must overturn the tables
Deliver the future from material rule
For only one rule should be considered

The eleventh commandment
To love one another
And this is our covenant across your wrist
It is merely a cloth,
Merely our colors,
Invested with the blood of the people
All their hopes and dreams.

Our flag
It has its excellence
Yet it is nothing
It shall not be a tyranny above us


And the children shall march
And bring the colors forward
Investing within them
The redeeming blood
Of their revolutionary hearts.

The full text can be heard on YouTube:

After Sebald: Patience and Re-Enchantment

If there is one place I would have liked to be this weekend it is Aldeburgh, where a rather unique event has been taking place, which we found out about too late.

Organised by Artevents as part of The Re-Enchantment, their national arts project exploring and questioning the various meanings of  ‘place’ in the twenty-first century, the inspiration for the event has been the work of the writer WG Sebald, who lived and worked in East Anglia for four decades. The Rings of Saturn, his most famous book, mixed history, travelogue, memoir, meditation, fiction and images to explore the personal, public and often overlooked histories of Suffolk.  Across three days, and in varied media, his writing and its impact was celebrated by a bunch of artists who are among my favourites – including writers Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane, poet Alice Oswald, and musician Patti Smith.

The central event of the weekend was the world premiere of  the Artevents-backed documentary, Patience (After Sebald), an award-winning film by Grant Gee about the landscapes and legacy of  The Rings of SaturnPatience (After Sebald) is described as a multi-layered film essay on landscape, art, history, life and loss told via a long walk through coastal East Anglia tracking Sebald’s walk The Rings of Saturn.

The Artevents weekend also included a writer’s day, when writers including Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane  explored the meanings of place from different perspectives, and an evening with Patti Smith featuring a new work inspired by Sebald, Max: a Tribute.

Sebald has profoundly influenced many contemporary writers, thinkers and artists, some of whom speak in the film. He was born in Bavaria in 1944. His father served in the Wehrmacht under the Nazis, and the Holocaust and its meaning for post-war Germany came to constitute a central strand in Sebald’s work.  He studied German literature at the University of Freiburg, before being appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester in 1966 and settling in England permanently, later teaching at the University of East Anglia.  Sebald died in a car crash near Norwich in December 2001.

Sebald’s works are largely concerned with the theme of memory, both personal and collective. They are, in particular, attempts to reconcile himself with, and deal in literary terms with, the trauma of the Second World War and its effect on the German people.  But they are also noted for their overwhelming, hypnotic character, marked by repeated digressions. Roger Deakin wrote of Sebald:

I relish Max Sebald, as I love Thomas de Quincey, for his fearless digressions, for the sheer scope of his curious, cosmopolitan imagination and for his powers of  free association. As a Suffolk man I have a special appreciation for The Rings of Saturn, although the Suffolk coast Sebald evokes is nothing like the Suffolk I know. It is a landscape transformed by a particular state of mind, gloomy but compelling. The place he describes is outlandish, like the writer, who is an exile from his language as well as from his land. Max’s ornate, stately sentences appear to wander as widely as his narrators on their travels, following winding paths of digression, disappearing into side-streets, and pausing to examine objects or images of particular interest. When asked by an interviewer from the New Yorker how he came to write The Rings of Saturn, he replied: ‘I had this idea of writing a few short pieces for the German papers in order to pay for the extravagance of a fortnight’s rambling tour. So that was the plan. But then, as you walk along, you find things. I think that’s the advantage of walking. It’s just one of the reasons I do that a lot. You find things by the wayside or you buy a brochure written by a local historian which is in a tiny little museum somewhere . . . and in that you find odd details that lead you somewhere else.’ Digression is at the heart of Max’s work. As Dave Eggers puts it: ‘The digressiveness follows the path of memory, which is rarely orderly. The uncovering of the story through the thicket of the mind – that’s the plot in a way.’

Sebald opens The Rings of Saturn by telling how, in August 1992, he ‘set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a stint of work’.  He collapses ‘a year to the day after I began my tour’. He tells of being rushed to hospital in Norwich, and from this point the narrative drifts from one topic to the next, weaving an elaborate skein of associations drawn from his walk, his reading, thoughts and memories to produce a work that is a pilgrimage, a memoir, a prose poem, rambling and constantly digressing.

For example: as Sebald passes through Walsingham, he recalls that here, in 1658, in a field in the village, nearly fifty urn burials were unearthed. This inspired Sir Thomas Browne of Norwich to write his HydriotaphiaUrne-Burial or, A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk. Sebald meditates, in turn, upon Thomas Browne and Hydriotaphia:

The inquiry of oblivion blindly scatters her poppyseed and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten. These are the circles Browne’s thoughts describe, most unremittingly perhaps in Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial of 1658, a discourse on sepulchral urns found in a field near Walsingham in Norfolk. Drawing upon the most varied of historical and natural historical sources, he expatiates upon the rites we enact when one from our midst sets out on his last journey.

Sebald’s landscapes are usually empty of human inhabitants:

The train ground into motion again and disappeared round a gradual bend, leaving a trail of black smoke behind it. There was no station at the stop, only an open shelter. I walked down the deserted platform, to my left the seemingly endless expanses of the marshes and to my right, beyond a low brick wall, the shrubs and trees of the park. There was not a soul about….

But, at the same time, they are haunted by the residue of human endeavour:

Too many buildings have fallen down, too much rubble has been heaped up, the moraines and deposits are insuperable.

There is a great deal of characteristic laconic humour.  Just read his account of  entering Lowestoft on a grey evening and then eating armour-plated fish and chips in his deserted hotel : ‘the fish . . . had doubtless lain entombed in the
deep freeze for years’.

Robert McCrum in the Observer noted that Rings of Saturn is

Ostensibly a record of a journey on foot through coastal East Anglia… [but it] is also a brilliantly allusive study of England’s imperial past and the nature of decline and fall, of loss and decay.

The Rings of Saturn is a strange, compelling work, with its curious archive of photographs and its chronicling of Sebald’s tour across epochs as well as the East Anglian countryside. On his way his thoughts meander via Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson’, the natural history of the herring, a matchstick model of the Temple of Jerusalem, the travels of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull, and the massive bombings of World War 2. He connects sugar fortunes, Joseph Conrad, the horrors of colonial Belgian Congo, an abandoned bridge over the River Blyth, the Empress Tzu Hsi and the silk industry in Norwich.

He recalls visiting the Waterloo Panorama, a 360-degree representation of the battle wrapped around an ‘immense domed rotunda’, and muses:

This then . . . is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.

For the Re-enchantment project, Artevents has commissioned four artists to explore the significance of our various relationships to place – personal, collective, cultural, ecological or spiritual. One of these, England Revisited, is a monumental land artwork by Simon English that builds upon his earlier work All England Sculpture (1971). Then, he journeyed to, and marked with a St. George’s flag, 75 points from Cumbria to the South of England over three months.  For England Revisited, he has revisited all 75 points creating an entirely new work about change. From July to September 2010, Simon traveled across the country, photographing the locations, collecting samples of the local flora, talking to the locals, as he had done in 1971. This material from both journeys, along with Simon’s observations on England then and now, will eventually result in a downloadable touring exhibition to be produced by Artevents in 2011.

In December, Artevents published a book, Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings, with contributions by various writers and poets reflecting on the meaning of ‘re-enchantment’, with reference to an actual, particular place or region. The book has essays by, amongst others,  Jay Griffiths, Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, Iain Sinclair and Ken Worpole, with poems from Elisabeth Bletsoe, Lavinia Greenlaw and Alice Oswald.