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with Patti Smith and Bob Dylan

a backstage diary by Al Giordano
photographs by Patti Hudson

["Patti Patti Smith on stage --->

Friday, November 23, South Jersey.

It's Thanksgiving at the Smith home, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. (Patti's folks, Jehovah's Witnesses, wait until Friday to celebrate Thanksgiving.) Patti meets me at the door with her father, Grant, who seems amused by the parade of family and friends marching through his little split-level home today.

There's her boy, Jack, 13, wearing a wool cap over his stringy mane. He's 5-8 already, about as tall as his mom, and starting to look a lot like his late father, Fred Sonic Smith. "This is my sister, Linda, who I told you about, the one with the teeth like yours," Patti says, gesturing toward my chipped incisors. "Linda's the reason I tell ya, `Don't ever fix your teeth.' " (In her poem "Babelogue," Patti identifies herself with those who "worship the flaw, the mole on the belly of the whore.") Their mom, Beverly, is bringing plates of ham and turkey out to the buffet table, with the potato salad she made at four this morning.

"You're gonna get me tickets to see Bob Dylan, right dear?" Beverly calls out, hands on her hips. "I wanna see Bob!"

"Can ya believe it, Ma? I'm gonna play with Bob!" Patti says, giggling and doing a jig like a football player's dance in the end zone. As a teenager, she hopped on the bus every Saturday for weeks to ride to the record store in Philly, where she waited for Dylan's Blonde on Blonde to arrive. One day the album jacket showed up, without the vinyl. Patti and the store clerk spent the whole afternoon staring at it breathlessly. Next month, she'll be sharing a stage with him. I can see: Dylan means to Patti what Patti means to me.

But there is sadness, too. The last time Patti saw her brother, Todd Pollard Smith, was in this house a year ago. Her husband, Fred, had died of heart failure three weeks before. Toddy, who had been her road manager in the '70s, took her for a drive, played her a tape of his favorite song, her 1978 "Rock N Roll Nigger," and told her it was time to start performing again. He spoke of moving with Patti to a farm in Connecticut, and helping her raise the kids. But a few days later, on December 4, 1994, Todd died suddenly when his own legendary heart gave out.

It's no wonder that Patti's been writing lyrics these days like, "It's been a hard time and when it rains it rains on me/the sky just opens and when it rains it pours/I walk alone assaulted it seems by tears from heaven/and darlin' I can't help thinking those tears are yours. . . ."

Beverly, enthusiastic about the Dylan tour, laments, "I only wish Todd could see it." She lets me smoke at her kitchen table, and regales me with tales of her tribe. "The first time I heard that song, `Rock N Roll Nigger,' I knew it was gonna be big. Didn't I, dear?"

"Yes, Ma," replies Patti, her Jersey dialect kicking in, hands in her back jeans pockets. "You said it would be a hit."

"And you know how I knew it was gonna be a hit?" she asks. "Because you could clean to it."

It's a punk song
Tuesday, December 5, New York City.

It's 11 p.m., and Patti Smith is rehearsing "Rock N Roll Nigger" with her reconfigured band at a Lower East Side rehearsal studio. This will be big news on the Babel list (babel-list@eskimo.com), the nascent e-mail network of Smith scholars who dissect every lyric and comment made by our girl. These folks are under the impression that Patti, a mother, no longer sings "Rock N Roll Nigger" because she doesn't want her kids using the word. This because at Patti's Thanksgiving weekend acoustic shows in Philly someone cried out "Rock N Roll Nigger!" and Patti, ever the stand-up comic, snapped back, "Watch your mouth!" That one comment has launched a hundred posts in cyberspace.

["Tom <--- Tom Verlaine and Lenny Kaye work through a song

Jay Dee Daugherty, Patti's original drummer, kicks in with a pounding rhythm. Lenny Kaye, her musical alter ego since 1971, when together they took the Lower East Side by storm, smiles as he rattles his Strat; he is the co-author of this song. The new bass player, Tony Shanahan, is a five-year member of the Lenny Kaye Band. At 36, he brings new power to the trio.

And there's another player joining in, that man in the corner: Tom Verlaine, whose lead-guitar genius was first recognized in the '70s when his own band, Television, helped build the CBGBs scene with Patti and Lenny and the rest. Verlaine is playing a countrified treble-filled lead that clashes with the anarchist spirit of the tune. Patti stops the song in mid flight, usually a strong signal of her disappointment in somebody. Tom, sensing it's him, says, "How psychedelic can I make this?"

"Not at all," Patti snaps.

Lenny translates, "It's a punk song, Tom."

"Yeah," says Patti. "Listen to Lenny. It's his child."

"Oh, I see," says Tom.

The door to the rehearsal studio opens, and Michael Stipe, the scraggly baldy from R.E.M., walks in with three buddies. He sits down on the piano bench and fixes his gaze on Patti at the microphone.

Oliver Ray, Patti's 22-year-old protégé and pal, sits up in the corner, where he's apparently been sleeping, and begins to pay attention to the rehearsal. Oliver's been Patti's collaborator on some new songs. They've been learning how to play guitar together. He will play a song onstage with her each night of the Dylan tour, ready or not.

Patti begins to sing:

Baby was a black sheep
baby was a whore
baby got big and she's gonna get biggah . . .
baby want somethin'
baby want more
baby, baby, baby was a rock n roll niggah. . .

Verlaine enters the anarchist groove immediately, effortlessly chopping those strings, up and down the fretboard. Stipe is shaking his leg up and down, like he's had too much coffee, his eyes bulging, staring at Patti. Her voice is more powerful than ever. She belts:

Jimi Hendrix was a nigger
Jesus Christ and grandma too
Jackson Pollock was a nigger
Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger!

Patti's belly-dancing around the microphone as if in a trance. "Lenny!" she cries out, and Kaye sings the refrain, "Outside of society." Then Patti jumps in with, "They're waitin' for me!"

Yeah, they -- we -- have been waiting. Waiting too long for this. Here it comes, on the 20th anniversary of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour, the return of the poet-shaman who can even strip the hate from a word like "nigger," making it a term of beauty.

Almost ready
Wednesday, December 6, New York City.

Tonight's rehearsal is on the West Side, in the 20s, in a huge studio with a stage. (A relief: last night's space was a closet.) Verlaine and Jay Dee are pretty much chain smokers, so I feel right at home. Nicotine clouds rise through the studio.

The set list is taking form. Verlaine is urging a version of "Land," a masterpiece from Patti's first album, but Patti keeps saying, "Maybe for the end of the tour, for Philadelphia," and never gets around to rehearsing it. After all, "Land" was basically an improvisational tune wrapped around Fats Domino and Chris Kenner's "Land of 1000 Dances," and it's been 16 years since Patti has tackled vocal improvisation to a backbeat. (In the '70s, she performed speaking-in-tongues trance raps, inventing some of her most enduring poems on the spot.)

The Dylan tour -- at Bob's request -- has come months before Patti had envisioned doing a rock tour. Tonight is only the second night of rehearsal with Verlaine. It's clear to me the band has not prepared enough for a tour that will receive as much attention as this one. Nine songs are almost ready: "Dancing Barefoot," "Because the Night," Dylan's "Wicked Messenger," "Ghost Dance," and, with Verlaine, "Southern Cross," "People Have the Power," Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," "Rock N Roll Nigger," and "Walkin' Blind," a song Oliver and Patti wrote for the movie soundtrack of Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking.

They're rehearsing Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," a tune Jerry Garcia used to do. Lenny jumps in and starts trading licks with Tom. Patti lets them improvise. They're wailing, their music accomplishing everything the Grateful Dead's accomplished; disassembling the senses and putting 'em back together.

"I don't know whether I'm gonna get to sing with Bob yet," Patti told me the week before tour. "I may have to use my womanly charms on him."

Patti has a history with Bob. Early in her rock career, Dylan took notice, and went to some lengths to make sure the world knew of his approval. Later, he learned of her early '70s poem "Dog Dream," penned after she and Sam Shepard had simultaneous dreams about Dylan:

Have you seen
Dylan's dog
it got wings
it can fly

In that work, Dylan's dog "is the only thing allowed to look Dylan in the eye." He asked her about the poem one day when he ran into her on Fourth Street. She said, "It was just a dream, Bob."

Click to continue...

Al Giordano's e-mail address is radiofreeal@delphi.com
Photographer Patti Hudson can be contacted c/o jessiez@clam.com

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