Metropolitan Museum of Art
Friday, December 2
Better than: Whatever Met gala I’ll never be invited to.
About three-quarters of the way through an impossibly good, set-closing rendition of “Gloria,” Patti Smith tried something new—and failed. Where she would usually spell the name of the song’s title character, she attempted to spell that of the woman whose letters she had been reading between songs. “G-E-O-R,” but she couldn’t get any further, 36 years of singing it as Van Morrison intended preventing the muscles in her throat from doing it any other way.
Those letters, sent between G-E-O-R-G-I-A O’Keeffe and husband Alfred Stieglitz from 1915 to 1933, provided the emotional center of the show, punctuating some songs and introducing others. A few of the more beautiful letters were themselves set to melodies composed by pianist (and daughter of Patti) Jesse Paris Smith, and all contributed to the presentation of a couple as deeply in love with each other as they were with their art. The letters also connected the show to the museum’s ongoing retrospective of Stieglitz’s work as a both photographer and an advocate for early modern art, a man who collected and exhibited works first from European masters like Picasso and Matisse then from a generation of American artists that included John Marin, Charles Demuth, and of course, Georgia O’Keeffe.
Naturally, Smith started the set with selections that showed the artists’ early days as a couple (including one in which a young O’Keeffe asks Stieglitz, whom she barely knew at the time, for an honest appraisal of work) and matched these tender, blissful tunes like Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love.” Although enjoyable in its own right, this portion of the show also laid the foundation for a charging finale that brought everyone to their feet and a few people almost to tears.
“Pissing in a River” led the way, its “Every move a make I move to you” echoing similar—and equally pained—statements of devotion found in the letters. At one point she had joked, in her usual, self-deprecatory manner, that with her little mistakes—a misspelling here, a lost sticky note there—she was just trying to insert a little imperfection into a building where everything is perfect. Still, even as she fumbled through the anthology’s 832 pages, Smith was always in command, using these moments to lighten the mood and relieve the tension built up by the more intense songs.
So it was when a small joke eased the transition between “Pissing” and “Because the Night,” her next number, and the perfectly imperfect performance of “Gloria” that completed the initial set. Of course, an encore followed (and had it not, that crowd might still be in there applauding) and brought the group back out to pair “Georgia on My Mind” (no wrong lyrics here) with “People Have the Power” (dedicated to occupiers). “We want you to stay on stage forever,” someone shouted from balcony. Once again, Patti could only shrug, and we could only laugh, expressing our admiration both for the still incredible performer and the audience member who only said what we were all thinking.
Critical bias: Two days earlier I had watched guitarist Lenny Kaye speak on a panel moderated by Love Goes to Buildings on Fire author Will Hermes and enjoyed both events immensely.
Overheard: As it approached showtime, I was pulled from my book by the people behind me discussing a recent fundraiser that raised $600,000 to help make some school (presumably a private high school but who knows these days) “more competitive.” The event couldn’t started a moment sooner.
Random notebook dump: Patti at one point justified referring to “Alfred,” “Georgia,” and “Jackson” (Pollack) by their first names because after all, she had known them her whole life. If I do the same to Patti, it’s on this logic.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 5, 2011