Thursday, 31 January 2019
birdland (patti & max)
'But if I see before me the nervature of past life in an image, I always think that this has something to do with truth. Our brains, after all, are always at work on some quivers of self-organisation, however faint, and it is from this that an order arises, in places beautiful and comforting, though more cruel, too, than the previous state of ignorance. How far, in any case, must one go back to find the beginning?' (W.G. Sebald, 'Dark Night Sallies Forth', After Nature)
On Saturday, after the funeral of an old friend in a witheringly cold north Norfolk, we drove to Aldeburgh to see Patti Smith at Snape Maltings. She was performing 'Max', a spoken word and song tribute to WG Sebald, as part of a symposium to mark the 10th anniversary of Sebald's death - with Richard Mabey, Rachel Lichtenstein, Robert Macfarlane and others - and the launch of Patience (After Sebald), Grant Gee's new film essay in response to The Rings of Saturn (which includes contributions by Tacita Dean, Iain Sinclair, Adam Phillips, Dan Gretton etc.).
Patti was astonishing. At the age of 64, in white dress shirt trailing cuffs, black jacket, jeans, boots, and Lennon glasses, she looks like a cross between Keith Richard and an Easter Island statue, her long face breaking into a disarming smile, her voice a blowtorch. Her marshaling of blooded energy in songs that she heats over time and brings incrementally to a shamanic boil wholly belies her apparent 'age'. At times she vibrates and burns like magma, at others she's like a wistful kid, then in a flash ancient, weathered, beyond the clumsiness of gender, a voice from elsewhere.
'Whispering madness on the heathland of Suffolk. Is this the promis'd end?' (Sebald, After Nature).
At one point, a woman near the front shouted, 'Patti, you're a goddess!' 'A shabby one', she replied, with a quiet laugh. ('With a laugh that's a rustling turned inwards', Sebald, After Nature). At another point, a young pissed guy shambled up to her at the lip of the stage, shouting and flicking v-signs: 'This is shit, man. And your audience is shit!' With an exquisite softness and without judgement, she tried to give him his money back. The young punk and the mother of punks; it was clear where the radical energy, openness, humanity and attack lay. After he left, bundled unceremoniously out of the door by an unnecessarily assertive punter, she said: 'Too bad he left when he did. Cos the next song features 27 punk guitarists, and it's specially for him'.
She combined readings from Sebald's associationally layered meditation/poem After Nature ('what is this being called human?') with accompaniment from her daughter Jesse on piano and a young composer Michael Campbell on guitar and vibraphone, with songs (including the song she wrote with Springsteen, 'Because The Night', 'Pissing in a River' and 'Ghost Dance', and a startling cover of Neil Young's 'Helpless' - 'Big birds flying across the sky / Throwing shadows on our eyes'). In addition she read a poem she'd written about Sebald, and shared musings on her own circuitous links to this place via Herman Melville and Billy Budd, Benjamin Britten, her Norfolk ancestry (the Harts), her love of Sebald - her friend Susan Sontag had first recommended him to her - and of the sea.
She opened up the quiet apocalypse of Sebald's poem, made it immediate, available, pulsing, an animate and fluid landscape of memory, illumination, displacement and loss edging towards lament and song. And - a white-hot highlight for me - she sang a staggering, ecstatic version of 'Birdland' from Horses, her wing-flutter hands articulating and sculpting space, taking flight, lifting us all up up up in to the belly of the spaceship within a theatre whose beamed roof mirrors the ribcage of some vast upturned sea vessel:
His father died and left him a little farm in New England.
All the long black funeral cars left the scene
And the boy was just standing there alone
Looking at the shiny red tractor
Him and his daddy used to sit inside
And circle the blue fields and grease the night.
It was if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars
'Cause when he looked up they started to slip.
Then he put his head in the crux of his arm
And he started to drift, drift to the belly of a ship,
Let the ship slide open, and he went inside of it
And saw his daddy 'hind the control board streamin' beads of light,
He saw his daddy 'hind the control board,
And he was very different tonight
'Cause he was not human, he was not human.
And then the little boy's face lit up with such naked joy
That the sun burned around his lids and his eyes were like two suns,
White lids, white opals, seeing everything just a little bit too clearly
And he looked around and there was no black ship in sight,
No black funeral cars, nothing except for him the raven
And fell on his knees and looked up and cried out,
"No, daddy, don't leave me here alone,
Take me up, daddy, to the belly of your ship,
Let the ship slide open and I'll go inside of it
Where you're not human, you are not human".
But nobody heard the boy's cry of alarm.
Nobody there 'cept for the birds around the New England farm
And they gathered in all directions, like roses they scattered
And they were like compass grass coming together into the head of a shaman bouquet
Slit in his nose and all the others went shooting
And he saw the lights of traffic beckoning like the hands of Blake
Grabbing at his cheeks, taking out his neck,
All his limbs, everything was twisted and he said,
"I won't give up, won't give up, don't let me give up,
I won't give up, come here, let me go up fast,
Take me up quick, take me up, up to the belly of a ship
And the ship slides open and I go inside of it where I am not human.
I am helium raven and this movie is mine",
So he cried out as he stretched the sky,
Pushing it all out like latex cartoon, am I all alone in this generation?
We'll just be dreaming of animation night and day
And won't let up, won't let up and I see them coming in,
Oh, I couldn't hear them before, but I hear 'em now,
It's a radar scope in all silver and all platinum lights
Moving in like black ships, they were moving in, streams of them,
And he put up his hands and he said,
"It's me, it's me, I'll give you my eyes, take me up, oh now please take me up,
I'm helium raven waitin' for you, please take me up,
Don't let me here, the son, the sign, the cross,
Like the shape of a tortured woman, the true shape of a tortured woman,
The mother standing in the doorway letting her sons
No longer presidents but prophets
They're all dreaming they're gonna bear the prophet,
He's gonna run through the fields dreaming in animation
It's all gonna split his skull
It's gonna come out like a black bouquet shining
Like a fist that's gonna shoot them up
Like light, like Mohammed Boxer
Take them up up up up up up
Oh, let's go up, up, take me up,
I'll go up, I'm going up, I'm going up
Take me up, I'm going up, I'll go up there
Go up go up go up go up up up up up up up
Up, up to the belly of a ship.
Let the ship slide open and we'll go inside of it
Where we are not human, we're not human".
Well, there was sand, there were tiles,
The sun had melted the sand and it coagulated
Like a river of glass
When it hardened he looked at the surface
He saw his face
And where there were eyes were just two white opals, two white opals,
Where there were eyes there were just two white opals
And he looked up and the rays shot
And he saw raven comin' in
And he crawled on his back and he went up
Up up up up up up
Sha da do wop, da sha da do way,
sha da do wop, da sha da do way,
Sha da do wop, da shanna do way,
sha da do wop, da shaman do way,
Sha da do wop, da shaman do way,
We like birdland.
A spirit passed, and the hair on my flesh stood up.
Yes yes, my god, we like birdland too. A (not so) shabby goddess took us there by the hand, a force of nature, an old old soul.
This being called human.
W.G. Sebald, After Nature (trans. Michael Hamburger), New York: Modern Library, 2002
For Aida Edemariam's Guardian interview with Patti Smith (22 January 2011), see here. For Stuart Jeffries' Guardian article (25 January 2011) about Patience (After Sebald), see here. For a Guardian podcast of a conversation with Grant Gee about Sebald, see here. For the original 1975 recording of 'Birdland', see here
Photo of Patti Smith by Annie Leibovitz
Text first written in January 2011