Brand building through storytelling

Swept away by the artistic rapture of Patti Smith

“Cross over, boys and girls! Cross over!” shouted Patti Smith–arms aloft, gray hair flying as Massey Hall erupted in applause for the 66-year-old poet/rocker priestess who’d transformed the place into the First Dionysian Church of the Imagination. I’d known her as a visual artist of great delicacy and a precise, truth-telling memoirist; this was my first exposure to her music–and thanks to a friend with connections, I was lucky enough to be watching from the front row.

Patti Smith is one of those rare performers who can rivet an audience just by ambling onto a stage, looking so insouciant yet clearly in command of the entire being she’s about to set alight. When she started singing–or chanting, or snarling–I could feel the top of my head being lifted off, to quote Emily Dickinson. Smith amplifies each song with a rich gestural vocabulary that ranges from bird-like finger movements to heart-pounding and full-body vibration. Though not a dancer like Michael Jackson (whose moon walk riveted my family and me even though we were sitting in the uppermost seats of Exhibition Stadium), she exudes a physicality that has nothing to do with sex. (Come to think of it, the same was true of Michael Jackson.)

Everyone says Smith is androgynous; I’d say she’s beyond gender, along with conventional notions of beauty and femininity. Being new to her songs, I had trouble making out the lyrics but caught a good many references to being “lifted up” into another realm and an overarching sense of beyond-ness. Part of what I found so mesmerizing was the constant tension Smith projected between submission to artistic rapture and a master’s control of the voice and body that made it all possible.

I wasn’t prepared to see a woman spitting onstage–and from the front row you can see every drop of those voluminous arcs–but I came to find it strangely appropriate, like the spouting of a whale. It takes a lot of emotional and spiritual juice to power a performance of this kind, which got me thinking of that other sexagenarian icon, Diana Nyad. She must have been spitting too as she pushed toward Florida with a mouthful of sea water. Two 60-plus inspirations in less than a week. One more reason I feel lucky. Or should I say blessed?

Posted by Rona

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