I skipped Hardly Strictly Bluegrass this year. Though it was tempting, in the end I didn't want to wrestle with the ghosts of Penelope and Thaïs that surround my memories of the festival. The decision was made even easier by the fact that Patti Smith, one of the main draws for me this year, was going to do a show at the Fillmore the following night, making me feel like I wasn't going to miss out entirely.
I never really heard much about Smith's appearance the day before, but the Fillmore show was a surprising disappointment. Smith is one of the most incendiary performers I've ever seen onstage, but this gig started off with a subdued "Kimberly," followed by a couple of tracks off her latest album Banga- "April Fool" and "Fuji-San," all set snugly in mid-tempo groove and Smith and her band seemed in no particular hurry to turn up the heat. She talked about her expensive dungarees, Obama, John Walker Lindh, and some other Patti-banter, which the audience ate up. She was in an avuncular mood, perhaps too relaxed from the massage she received before the show, which she also told us about.
It wasn't until "Beneath the Southern Cross" that the show really started to burn, but after that she left the stage for Lenny Kaye's medley slot, which also felt rather perfunctory and dialed-in, and the momentum flagged again. I ran into CC and her longtime boyfriend in the audience early on, after I moved toward the rear of the crowd to escape two Neanderthals who were yelling at each other as a means to communicate over the music, and was standing next to them as Smith came back on to sing "Maria" from the new album.
The song includes a refrain with the lyrics "I knew you when we were young," and I couldn't help but think of the woman now standing next to me, whom I used to date almost 20 years ago, with her current partner on her other side, and how much both of our lives had changed in the ensuing years. How they've gone in such different directions. I remembered sitting in the living room of her Pacific Heights flat, which was filled with carefully-cultivated succulent plants, and how she would tell me of her appreciation of Marlon Brando when he was younger; of the night we went into The Owl Tree for the first time. It was late and in the middle of the week. We were the only people there, seated at the bar, and C Bobby said in his own inimitable nonchalant way, looking out the open door at the fog rolling down Taylor while cleaning an ashtray, "It's a perfect night for a murder."
Suddenly I was filled with this melancholy sense of loss I couldn't shake, which only gathered its own momentum as Smith went into "Because the Night"- a madeleine song for me like few others. "Pissing in the River" didn't bring me back from that ledge, and "Gloria" sounded obligatory.
The audience, many of which seemed to have never seen her before (including CC and a charming vamp I met before the show), seemed to made up of a number of the curious rather than the converted, and ate the entire thing up, bringing Smith back for a three song encore which began with a pompous-sounding "Banga" and ended with "Rock and Roll Nigger," which Smith dedicated to Obama in the evening's one true moment of vintage Patti.
The next day, I was at work when I received an email from CC saying she and her boyfriend had gotten into an argument about our plans to see the Mariinsky Ballet together later in the week and that she wasn't going to be able to go. If she had to upset a man, it wasn't going to be the one with whom she's lived for more than a dozen years. I left my desk to take a walk down to the Bay and ended up sitting at the end of a pier where a woman had once thrown her two children into the water. The lyrics to Smith's "Redondo Beach" came into my mind, creating yet another madeleine.