Besides the fact that this is a long Memorial Day weekend, here in Seattle we are also celebrating SIFF, which is an abbreviated way of saying that the annual Seattle International Film Festival is upon us. What does any of this have to do with Patti Smith, you ask?
Well, SIFF's opening night featured the world premiere of a film called Battle In Seattle, which is a dramatization about the 1999 WTO riots. The film was directed by Stuart Townsend and stars his girlfriend Charlize Theron, among other notables. This got me to thinking about one of the many Patti Smith shows I've seen over the years, one that took place at about the same time as the riots over the World Trade Organization's conference here.
Never one to downplay her political leanings, Patti used the stage as something of a pulpit at this show, railing against oppression in government, urging the audience to boycott MTV, and in general proclaiming her solidarity with her WTO protesting comrades.
It was classic Patti Smith. In fact, Patti probably could've written a hell of a soundtrack to Battle In Seattle.
From the very first time I heard Patti Smith's brilliant debut album Horses, I instantly fell in love with her. Most of my friends thought I had gone completely nuts as I raved about this album, citing then common complaints about her voice, and the hair under her armpits. But for me, there was simply no denying the beauty of her more often spoken than really sung words, or the hypnotic draw of her stark, minimal sound.
The song from Horses that most grabbed me was "Birdland."
I had absolutely no idea what the words were about at the time — only that her delivery of them had this strangely sacred, yet equally dark and profane beauty about it. Set against a quiet piano, Patti Smith recites the words in a soft, plaintive, and almost childlike voice that builds for the song's nine or so minutes to a thundering crescendo of screeching guitars and feedback. In this particular song, the cadence was everything:
"His father died and left him a little farm in New England.
All the long black funeral cars left the scene
And the boy was just standing there alone
Looking at the shiny red tractor
Him and his daddy used to sit inside
And circle the blue fields and grease the night.
It was if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars
'Cause when he looked up they started to slip.
Then he put his head in the crux of his arm
And he started to drift, drift to the belly of a ship,
Let the ship slide open, and he went inside of it
And saw his daddy 'hind the control board streamin' beads of light,
He saw his daddy 'hind the control board,
And he was very different tonight
'Cause he was not human, he was not human."