My love of New York is inextricably linked with my love of music. While there are many pros to this city, its diverse music scene and plethora of concerts were ultimately what drove me to move here, twice. I mean, the opportunity to hear good live music, whether it’s a new local band or one of my all time favorites, is available literally every night of the week. Two weeks ago, I was especially lucky and got to see two artists who’ve had a particularly significant effect on my New York experience, almost back-to-back. While Patti Smith and Against Me! have different styles and stories, both are powerful figures in punk’s past and present. And since both have hit a similar nerve with me as a writer and music addict, it didn’t seem fair to have to choose just one to write about.
Thursday, September 15: Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye at the Brooklyn Book Festival
On September 15, I was among 1,200 or so witnesses to an evening of storytelling with Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye. During her appearance for the Brooklyn Book Festival , Smith read passages from her latest memoir, M Train, performed acoustic versions of classics like “Beneath the Southern Cross,” and invited the audience to “hang out” as she took questions in the beautiful Congregation Beth Elohim synagogue.
Like many artists and writers, Smith’s first memoir, Just Kids, resonated with me profoundly. I read Smith’s story of artistic development alongside Robert Mapplethorpe in late 1960s/early 70s New York just before my own move to the Big Apple in 2011. The book is filled with sublimely intricate descriptions of this city I have come to love so much, as well as some great moments in rock history. But what struck me most were Smith’s beautiful ruminations on the creative process. The book served as a perfect reminder for why I enjoyed writing so much in the first place.
Smith’s work was obviously prominent in my personal soundtrack during my first year in New York. Songs like “Free Money” served as the perfect catharsis for financial stress, while the stories of Just Kids echoed with me as I first explored and wrote about this city. To this day, I still get excited when I pass one of the book’s landmarks like the Chelsea Hotel or St. Marks’ Cathedral.
Smith began her Brooklyn Book Festival appearance with a health report, “in the spirit of the election,” announcing that she had a slight cough, and apologizing for not being able to sign any books after the performance. Apparently signing thousands last year took a severe toll on her wrist, and she aggravated it further after recently agreeing to a signing in Istanbul, where she grossly underestimated her ability to draw a crowd, and 1,100 people showed up.
Smith had no problem fostering a sense of connection in the room, though, as she seamlessly wove music between the pages of M Train. She told a story about running into Lou Reed shortly before his passing, followed by a poignant cover of “Pale Blue Eyes.” After reading a passage about a dream, she shared the story of “My Blakean Year,” a song she woke up one day singing during a period of feeling under appreciated. (She added, “I don’t know why. You all showed up.”) And of course, The Killing, Smith’s favorite detective show and central figure of M Train was discussed throughout the night.
The audience, which spanned generations, listened with intent and obvious admiration. At one point, I saw the girls next to me following along with Smith’s words in their own copies of M Train. The spiritual surroundings made it hard not to feel like I was watching congregants reading along to a holy text.
Around the show’s halfway point, Smith welcomed questions, casually inviting the audience to shout out their inquiries, rather than having a formal moderator run around with a microphone. The discussion ranged from her thoughts on The Killing’s finale (she loved it), and the current state of her house in Rockaway Beach (it’s in great shape after post Hurricane Sandy repairs), to weightier topics like the election, which she hesitated to address. She did later apologize, though, for not being more articulate on the subject, but she had been hoping for a respite from this season’s chaos. (I can’t blame her; I’ve been feeling similar rage exhaustion lately.) Lastly was the inevitable “Do you still believe people have the power?” (“Yes, but they have to exercise it.”)
After Smith’s final reading from M Train, she closed the night with her voice in top form on “Dancing Barefoot,” followed by a strikingly ethereal version of “Because the Night,” with the entire room singing along and swaying.
During the Q and A portion of the night Smith received a request for advice to young artists. She reiterated William Borroughs’ words to keep your name clean, and added that it’s important to truly know the reason why you are creating. If it’s for fame and follower numbers, that’s fine, she said, but know that is why you are doing it. But, she added, if it’s to create good work, even if it’s not appreciated until later like Van Gogh or other artistic greats, that’s alright too. For me, as I walked out onto the brown stone lined street, my own answer was obvious-because I want to document transcendent shows like this.
Saturday, September 17: Against Me! at Rough Trade Records
I was back in Brooklyn two days later to see Against Me! at Rough Trade for an in-store performance and record signing in celebration of their day-old seventh album, Shape Shift With Me. Though this band has been around for over a decade, I just discovered them last year, when I became an instant fan during their set at the 2015 Northside Festival.
I watched the band deliver one furiously anthemic track after another, and the audience went nuts in a way I hadn’t seen in a LONG time. I distinctly remember thinking, as I watched crowd surfers riding over a sea of fists in the air, this intense positive energy is why I love music so much.
While Against Me!’s roots are in Florida, this band has definitely had an impact on my second stint in New York. Since Northside, I’ve been hooked on the band’s protest songs and front woman Laura Jane Grace’s hit-you-in-the-gut belting, but their influence hasn’t stopped at my playlist. This past February, as I was taking an extended break from publicly blogging, I saw Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers headline at the stunning Jazz at Lincoln Center. The show followed a similar format of music and storytelling, featuring acoustic songs and readings from Grace’s own soon-to-be-released memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout. After hearing excerpts from Grace’s journal entries, I decided to seriously tackle journal writing – something that has always terrified me – for the first time.
When the band took the stage at Rough Trade, Grace offered a friendly greeting with the afternoon’s agenda. They would be playing some new songs, then some old and “then we’ll all hangout!” As with every time I’ve seen them, the band gave a sonically tight set as Atom Willard pulverized the drums, and the rest of the band thrashed around accordingly, with bassist Inge Johansson throwing in an occasional kick or jump.
The crowd’s energy was unfortunately on the sleepier side, with only a handful dancing up front and no threat of a mosh pit whatsoever. Maybe 2:00 PM is just an awkward time to have a show because standing in line, both before the concert and for the signing, I got the impression that everyone was pretty psyched to be there.
Surely everyone will be throwing their fists in the air at the next show, though, because Shape Shift With Me is a solidly thrilling effort. Written largely on the road, this record delves into Grace’s experiences with love since coming out as transgender in 2012. From the budding of a crush, to the pain of heartbreak, Grace tackles the topic with a caustic candor that provides catharsis whether the listener can directly relate or not.
The set opened with the album’s first single, “333,” a distortion laden detailing of an awe-inspiring trip to the Guggenheim during a tour stop in Spain. Songs like “Crash,” “12:03” and “Rebecca” didn’t stray too far from their recorded versions, while some tracks were certainly enhanced live. The spooky chord progressions of “Haunting, Haunted, Haunts,” were just a little more menacing, and though I enjoy the vocal effects on “Suicide Bomber,” I do prefer Grace’s unfiltered growl. “Boyfriend,” a standout both on the record and onstage, perfectly showcases her vocal range and lyrical wit, as she wails “It’s not love/it’s just adornment/bathroom wall graffiti/like clichés printed on a t-shirt/fortune cookie poetry.”
As promised, the latter part of their set was comprised of staples “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” the gut-wrenching “Black Me Out” and “Walking is Still Honest,” which got the most animated crowd response of the hour.
Before leaving the stage to go meet the audience, Grace emphasized that she really wanted everyone to feel welcome at their shows. She and the band definitely stayed true to their word on that during the post show signing, taking as much time as possible to talk to fans.
That vibe of camaraderie is ultimately what is so appealing about this band. Against Me! is inspiring for many reasons, but the most important one is the connection they manage to cultivate every time they put on a show. And like with Patti Smith two days earlier, I walked out that afternoon back onto 9th Ave., feeling that familiar post-show buzz thinking, that is why I write about music.