Upstairs At The Square: Patti Smith

1. Patti Smith shows Katherine Lanpher the black sheep Lenny Kaye had given her. 2. Patti and band take the stage.

Upstairs at the Square celebrated its sixth birthday on June 7 at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. Katherine Lanpher hosted, with no other than punk poet, mother, musician, artist, and icon Patti Smith as special guest.

The event was also to celebrate the release of Patti’s new album, Banga, and her recent book, Woolgathering. Banga is Smith’s first collection of original material since 2004. It’s also her first collection of songs specifically about people. This record feels intensely spiritual and personal, a story captured in each melody. Patti hasn’t softened over the years, she’s opened. Both the book and album have a spirit to them and Patti will agree. “It’s important for us to realize that our dead never leave us. They travel with us even after they’re gone.” She went on to explain that her childhood dog still travels with her, as well.

1. This is the girl. 2. Patti borrows a fan’s book to remember lyrics of “Banga.”

The album’s title has an interesting story attached. Smith once received an Ethiopian blanket. When she opened the blanket a book was hidden inside. It contained a post-it note that simply said “Read Me,” which made her feel like Alice in Wonderland. She picked up the book and began to read. It was Master and Margarita, and it changed her life.

1. The audience, waiting to get books and CDs signed.

That moment of opening the blanket, finding the book and delving into it became the little spark of fire that would become Banga. Patti explained that if you’ve read Master and Margarita, you may remember a little dog named Banga, perhaps the one good, pure soul in the book. Banga was Pilate’s faithful dog. Patti promised herself that one day she’d write this dog a song. That song became an album.

“I always imagined I would write a book,” she read, from the opening paragraph of the collection, “if only a small one, that would carry one away, into a realm that could not be measured nor even remembered.” She talked about what it was like being sick as a child. “My mother spent so many years of her life keeping me alive, I didn’t dare act out as a teenager.” This of course prompted a question about fever dreams. She looked out into the audience and explained that William S. Burroughs had a theory of fever dreams. “He felt that anyone who had scarlet fever as a kid opened portals, and sometimes those portals can remain open to other worlds or times.” If they chose to accept it, they could create from it. “We were part of the scarlet fever club.”

1. Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith, and Gene DeFelice — the Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary Barnes & Noble.

Conversations with Patti flow from motherhood to death, to creation, family pets, to Saint Francis, to thinking the “Dream of Constantine” painting was Spanish instead of Italian and searching twenty years only to find it in the small village of Arezzo. If there’s one thing you’ll ever notice about Patti Smith, it’s that she’s undefinable. “Even though I am not religious, I like to spend time in churches to meditate and pray,” she said.

At the end of the interview, Patti took the stage to sing a few songs from the new album. The first, “This is the Girl,” is a song in memory of Amy Winehouse. As Patti sang, the audience, entranced, swayed to the melody, which is reminiscent of Amy’s ballads.

“April Fool” brought a lighter energy with its upbeat tempo and living energy:

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

Patti ended with “Banga” and the audience exploded as Patti took over the stage. Not a bad way to celebrate a sixth birthday now, is it?

Special thanks must be given to Maria Celis, Lauren Cerand, Gene DeFelice, and Katy Gwizdala.

***

Katelan V. Foisy is a multimedia artist, blogger, writer, tarologist and muse, sometimes model. She is known as La Gitana.

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