It’s the end of a week in which I’d said goodbye to another fine, wild man at his funeral and held hands there with long-gone riches. It's the end of a week in which I’d sat at the Inquiry and watched videos of a five-year-old boy in an Arsenal shirt who knew in his strong, bright heart he had life and a thousand years of play ahead of him, and had then hugged the dad who still saw every minute of every day that same boy’s death, a death five floors down from the place they both called home. It's the end of a week in which I’d felt old and in pain and impatient, with the hallucinating man on the 41, with the world, with my indecisions and rage and sadnesses. It’s the end of a week in which I’ve realised the need to find a way to open myself up fully to the good stuff that keeps running across no-man’s land towards me and being ruthlessly cut down.
At the end of this particular week, we walk through Victoria Park, along its Homerton edge: calm enough, content enough for now. The lazy, ugly, corporate, corrugated fence thinks it’s keeping us outside the circus and the young, happy, special people safely inside. For an abrupt moment, I want to see if I can climb it, want to see if I can knock it down, want to be the tank, herd, explosion - whatever - that bursts through its silly attempts at demarcating and containing and reducing and solidifying. And then we hear the rhythmic Jersey bang of her voice and the jazz-anger of Ginsberg’s Howl starts doing a little dissolving for me. This was the first poetry I ever heard and felt with all of me; one lonely, alien adolescent day I bought a crumpled old anthology of Beat poems and prose in a charity shop and it was the first time I’d come across words that made me want to write and sing and simultaneously told me I would never write this well, never completely sing. Stumbling into that book was the first time I ever wanted to be American and the first time I knew I couldn’t be. Remembering that 1975 kid now, trying to hold him tight, I feel the tight, wet, heartandthroatandeyes shiver of poignancy that usually belongs just to music - sweet saudade, sweet hiraeth, sweet melancholy, sweet self-indulgence, sweet victimhood - and I make a joke because I’m too tearful too often these days and I need a distraction from that and from the strange thrill of this invisible woman reading that man’s words.
We walk round to the entrance, wrongly, absurdly away with each step from the stage and the voice of kind, righteous anger. We shuffle our way through the barriers, get searched, walk through some more barriers, get searched again, buy comically expensive wine, head towards the voice and the stage, buy some more comically expensive wine, walk back towards the voice and the stage.
I think about the truth. I think about the fact that I was never actually a great fan of Patti Smith. I could pretend I was, just like I could pretend I saw The Ramones when they first came here, which, despite my mate’s protestations, I never actually did. I did like Gloria and Because The Night and Pissing In A River and I liked being annoyed by and knocked flat by some of her poems. But in 1976 and 1977 and 1978, when she became real to us, she was far too much for me, she was too female, too unfeminine, too angry, too clever, too intense. Patti Smith’s always been a little too much for me, a little too shadowed and harsh. And not just in the 70s - all my life, I’ve tried to spend time with the comfortingly romantic, the uplifting, the poppy-vigorous and hopeful, in art and in music and in poetry. Death scares me. Drugs scare me. The Gothic scares me. New York scares me. Revolution scares me. Though - of course - all of them draw me to them as I draw them to me and the time a couple of yeards back I realised I now loved Leonard Cohen was the time I realised I should finally give up resisting what’s real.
But... but there was always that line. You know the one: Jesus died... With each new sign from the universe that it’s not 1976 and I’m not 14 anymore, I’ve been finding my relationship with Him becoming more difficult. He was easier to dismiss a few years ago. But now He keeps creeping in like a sly, sepia memory, like an unwanted lodger, like next-door’s cat. My sins are my sins.
She does 'Land'. It's joyous and furious and tremulous in all its mad, silly, knowing, fuck-you nods to rocks past, present and future. I can't stop staring at her. She’s so old. I’m so old. She is absolutely sure about us both. And then, in the middle of it all, she starts flirting with London and taunting our mind-forged manacles and mentions Bunhill Fields and Blake and Plath and the glory of only feeling and only seeing and of our shot, knifed city, and I suddenly remember going to see her small, old photos in an exhibition somewhere or other a few years ago with one of my fine, wild friends and being intrigued and unmoved and a bit disappointed and then Patti smiles and I cry.
Patti smiles and I cry. I cry because, I think - I’ve no idea really - because in that moment it all comes together, it all connects. Feet come off brakes, masks are removed, eyes are opened to all the loss and regret and sense of time slipping and all the contradictions of idealism and pragmatism, to all the hope and joy that the words and rhythms of the good people - the sort-of flawed, sort-of holy people like Patti Smith - can deliver, to the magics they conjure with ancient, eternal beauty and passion, magics that offer daylight and redemptions and resurrections whilst dragging us through the nights and struggles and inevitabilities we all share.
Dusk lurks. The music stops. The sky darkens and it looks like it might rain. The moment’s gone, the quick tears with it. We applaud. She leaves us. The old East End is out there, past the fence, and there Blake and his wife are sunbathing in the nude to shock their sexless visitors and Sylvia's running rings round Ted. Because of them, I think - desperate to stay now and desperate to get home - because of them and because of Patti and because of all the years of this city. It's the end of a week when something changed.