We are old friends, both senior citizens who have suffered heavy losses in the last few years. In spite of that, or because of it, we went online and bought tickets to the 2012 dream tour of two musical giants—Patti Smith, the original punk poetess, and Neil Young, playing with his greatest musical foils, Crazy Horse. They were playing only a few eastern North American cities, and one of them was Montreal, in November 2012.
Both artists had released albums earlier that year: Banga (Patti) and Psychedelic Pill, a double album (Neil, with Crazy Horse). Both of them had recently published memoirs. These are not artists who “play the hits.” They approach every new project as their muses direct them, which has led to periods of great creativity and experimentation. Neil had suffered an aneurysm in 2011, and Patti had lost her good friend Robert Mapplethorpe; her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith; and her original piano player, Richard Sohl. Fortunately for their fans, 2012 was also one of the most creative years of their lives.
Dennis: Patti Smith came onstage at the Bell Centre in Montreal waving to her fans like the Queen. She has long grey hair now, and was wearing her signature androgynous white shirt, vest and suit jacket. She introduced her band, including her son Jackson on the guitar. And she gave us everything we came for. Prayers to the Great Mother, white light/white heat, mom dancing; she shook the family tree. She confessed her love for all things Neil, invoked Native American ghosts, gave shout-outs to the poets who forged the alchemy between sea and sky, stretched out her long, white, glowing fingers and moved in sync with the magic drones and melodies from our youth. As she launched into “Gloria,” she released a sustained stream of consciousness—“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” She leaned on the parking meter and we all held our breath as she took the big plunge. But I’m here to tell the world that oh she looked so good, and oh she looked so fine. She is timeless and ageless. She is P-A-T-T-I.
Peggy: In 1978, I saw Patti Smith perform and I interviewed her for the Georgia Straight weekly. She was only seven or eight years older than me, but at the time it felt like interviewing someone from another planet. I didn’t know that I was talking to a poet, who speaks in poetry, a language of beauty. In 2012, in Montreal, she sang old songs and new. “Dancing Barefoot,” “Because the Night,” “April Fool.” Her voice was strong, with chanting rhythms and tones that reminded me of monks. A few songs in, she took off her jacket, socks and shoes. At the end, when she sang “Gloria”—which in 1975 had become an anthem for lesbians and punks and punk lesbians everywhere—the teenagers all around us danced in their seats and sang along. So did we.
Dennis: When it was time for the Main Event, the Music Heavyweight Champion of the World, lights came on and we heard the opening lines of a Beatles psychedelic classic: “I read the news today, oh boy…” The stage filled with middle-aged mad scientists, white hair and white lab coats, arranging Fender amps twenty or thirty feet high and a large microphone with scarves hanging off it. On came the band, and Neil, in his plaid shirt, T-shirt and jeans, opened with “Oh Canada”—in Montreal. The microphone lit up to become a giant “psychedelic pill.” The sound was perfect, an alchemical blend of high tech and primitive noise, loud enough that we could hear the distortion but not loud enough that we could feel it, noise for the mind, not the body. Neil goes back more than forty years, but this is no nostalgia act. His music with Crazy Horse is alive, interactive and bursting with piss and vinegar. He is still writing and performing new works. Hendrix is gone, Neil survived. Nirvana blew up, Neil thrives. Sonic Youth exploded, Neil Young is sixty-seven and he is still Young.
Peggy: That afternoon, outside the Ritz Carlton, we talked with one of the mad-scientist roadies, a well-travelled man in his sixties with long white hair and beard. He told us that a few nights ago when they were playing one of the new songs, “Walk Like a Giant,” he had a moment of revelation: “Being in your sixties is like being in the Sixties—you just don’t give a fuck!” This was not an excuse for not caring; it was a message of freedom.