“Red and gold shot through the waves, in rapid running arrows, feathered with darkness… The waves, as they neared the shore, were robbed of light, and fell in one long concussion, like a wall falling, a wall of grey stone, unpierced by any chink of light.”
As Patti Smith read the above passage from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, her daughter Jesse played the piano. This homage of sorts was true to form for Patti, an artist in love with art – the writer-musician will famously make a snap decision to go on a pilgrimage to see a writer’s grave and her referential writing is an A to Z of people whose work you should know. These few minutes were to celebrate Woolf’s birthday, another pioneer of a literary and artistic movement, a woman, now dead and aged 136.
On Friday night Camden hosted two sold out shows. This “Evening Of Words And Music With Patti Smith” was held at the Roundhouse, and down the road Azealia Banks, a rapper unfortunately now known more for her controversies than work, had fans shrieking along to her pussy-eating anthem at KOKO. It’s not surprising that a genuine icon can quickly fill a 1,700-capacity venue in London, selling out the pricey tickets and rendering any extras impossible to get hold of. But Patti’s ability to draw a big, committed crowd may be surprising when you consider hers was a short performance (only an hour and a half with no support), consisting of a 72-year-old reading poetry to an audience of 18- to 80-year-olds.
The Waves is a dreamy, lyrical book, a stream of consciousness with moods, snippets, random events. A keystone of the modernist period, it suggested that art can exist outside a point in time, that our minds are part of the world, and the world is a part of our minds. None of its six characters are more important than the other and all the voices merge to create a wave greater than the sum of its impressions. This flow and sharing of minds feels central to what Patti here achieved in true 1970s-style.
She transformed The Roundhouse into an intellectual’s New York apartment or a coffee shop. Her earthy attitude and calm movements around the stage set the tone for a relaxed and thoughtful evening. She’d pick up another author’s book to read from here, or go speak to her daughter or son, Jackson, playing guitar, there. She paused to tell an anecdote or a joke – she is understatedly funny – and although everything was planned, it didn’t feel that way.
Patti doesn’t involve herself in fiery spats with other artists, nor can you imagine her arguing with people on the internet. She did terminate one man during this set. “Can we love you now?” he shouted from the crowd, a reference to the lyrics of a song she’d just covered. She replied with vague disgust: “You’re weird.” His daughter next to him piped up in his defence, laughing, “That’s my dad” to which Patti responded: “You’re fine… no, seriously, you’re fucking weird.” Not long after this exchange, a man seated at the front, directly in her eyeline pulled out a huge iPad to film her. Sure enough Patti clocked him and I wondered, cringing, what she was saying in her head about him.
The point: everything Patti Smith does is to be taken by her audience earnestly and with respect. And that’s not to say she didn’t consistently use humour and cutting wit where needed. As such, no one else could pull off a set like this, part-William Blake reading, part-U2 cover (genuinely), and make it so magical to not just those who grew up with her but a new generation of thinkers and music lovers.
Everyone onstage was given a chance to share their ideas, with their fellow performers receiving everything as gratefully as Patti’s readings from her memoirs or her hits “Because The Night” and “Pissing in a River”. Her guitarist and singer covered “I’m Free” by The Rolling Stones, while Patti perched on the edge of the stage; she smiled on as her son ripped through a solo during; and Jesse spoke at length about her work as a climate change activist.
“Next time I’m here I’m taking out the fucking chairs,” she promised near the end of the set, acknowledging how subdued the event had been. If you’ve been to see her perform live you’ll know the high energy and life-affirming warmth to her songs, and there is nothing comparable. This was no falling over on stage, snarling “I fell on my fucking ass.… because I am a fucking animal” as she did Glastonbury a few years ago, or an almost-spiritual set at British Summer Time, the sun bursting through the clouds during “Gloria”. But, despite wishing the set could have sprawled across two or three hours, this was a distillation of Patti Smith, her interests, her loved ones, and rousing modus operandi. It was a motivating format I wish could be replicated – when was the last time you experienced waves of live music, prose, art and ideas circulated so simply and effectively you left feeling creatively inspired?
The day that Virginia Woolf died she wrote her final diary entry: "A curious seaside feeling in the air today." She walked into the waves and drowned, and took her walking stick with her. Now it sits in the New York Public Library. Patti Smith wants to grow old enough to claim the walking stick from the library – be ancient and revered enough to be gifted it – an idea that didn’t seem outside the realms of possibility when she said it that night.
You can find Hannah on Twitter.