Patti Smith, Roseland Ballroom, NYC -10/2
NYC ROLL-TOP: Romantic Entanglements with a Ragamuffin Saint
On Saturday night at Manhattan's Roseland Ballroom, the valedictorians of New York punk's class of '75 shared a stage for the first time since, well, probably sometime around then. Headliner Patti Smith and more-than-opener/less-than-co-headliners Television were once connected by deep Romantic entanglements both literal and, um, literal. Their shared fascination with French poetry made itself known both through their abstractly cathartic lyrics, and their entire mode of performance.
For them, punk wasn't about pure abandon (though the live take of "My Generation" affixed to the reissue of Smith's classic debut, Horses, does that, too), but a mature expression of that abandon — which, when ya think about it, is sort of an funny thing for a buncha snotty 20somethings to wanna do. Television frontman/guitarist Tom Miller – who dubbed himself Tom Verlaine after French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine – was linked romantically with Smith, too, and one could easily sense a shared fire in their inspiration.
So they lived like their heroes, more or less, or tried to, with sex and chemicals and passion, and burned out or went aground or did whatever it is that intelligent people do after making big, important statements and finding that they don't have much else to say for the time being. I guess they faded away. Both have returned, at various points. For Smith, it's been a gradual process, returning to the stage in the late '90s after a couple of decades of graceful New England motherhood. Television have been (sorry) more on and off with their attentions, reuniting and releasing a new album in the early '90s, and later playing now-annual reunion gigs, usually at New York's Irving Plaza and wherever that year's edition of the tastemaking All Tomorrow's Parties festival is taking place.
The fact that those gigs have been mostly nostalgic affairs made it both surprising and wonderful when Television turned in an hour set not only composed almost entirely of new material, but seemingly good new material. (How often does that happen for a band that’s been a quarter-century dormant?) Given Roseland’s naturally muddled sound, it’s hard to be entirely objective about the songs’ quality, but the band was unquestionably fantastic. Perhaps driven by the material, perhaps by the larger hall and the sense that their time seems to have finally come, the extended jamming between Verlaine and nimble punk-jazz guitarist Richard Lloyd was almost as ecstatic as all those old, breathless reports from the Voice and the New Musical Express and Creem made it sound (a far cry from the polite noodling of the still-wonderful Irving shows).
As they did in their heyday, Television sounded as if the Talking Heads had taken harmony lessons from Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. Opening with 1992's "1880 or So," dotting the mid-set with Marquee Moon’s "Prove It," and encoring with that disc’s title track, the band made a decent case for their recent adoption as respected rock elders. If they’ve got new tunes, they might be recording. And if they might be recording, it means we’ll probably be seeing Verlaine and Lloyd and company again soon. And if we see Television again soon, this is very good news.
Smith and her band had their own nostalgia-beating tactics. Her newest album, this year's Trampin’, is a sadly dull affair (aside from the haunting and perfect title track). Smith’s lyrics are still prescient, but the band’s delivery on-disc hardly lives up to the trance-like power of Horses, or even the band’s own live heroics circa 2004. At Roseland, long rambles like "Gandhi" (played in honor of his 135th birthday) and "Radio Baghdad" rose to epic proportions.
And though a ballroom in midtown is hardly the time to fully appreciate the nuances of a poetic history of Iraq's capital city, that's sort of the point of putting guitarist Lenny Kaye behind her and adding a backbeat. Listening to Smith is visceral, not intellectual, which only hammers home when the overwhelming torrent of words (when they come through): "City of ashes / With its great mosques / Erupting from the mouth of god / Rising from the ashes like / a speckled bird / Splayed against the mosaic sky…"
At their best, Smith and company didn't look back because there were simply too many words, too well written. The set's highlight, a transcendent reading of Horses’ "Birdland" began literally, with Smith delivering the lyrics from a book. By midway through the song, she had abandoned the text as guide, the book held limply, as the words came tumbling back, alive and real and floating above her like the buttery "fine points of the stars" of which she sang. It was the visual equivalent to her and Kaye’s old trick of accelerating imperceptibly from a spoken recitation to a pumping melody, and it worked as well as ever.
Smith was ebullient and playful throughout the evening, joking with the crowd, turning in a surprisingly straight-forward cover of George Michael's "Father Figure" (?!). "Going over a song once in the bathroom doesn't always work," she grinned afterwards, and the audience ate it up. And why not? Long closer to the hippies that punk supposedly rebelled against, Smith was elegant in her ragamuffinitude. She is a rock personality every bit as original as Jagger, Dylan, or any other shmuck you could put under a spotlight, and remains undimmed in her ability to win over a room with sheer magnetism. A Patti Smith show is someplace you wanna be.