Friday, July 01, 2005

Patti Smith's Meltdown (featuring Alan Moore)

Our first night in London, we hied ourselves to the Royal Festival Hall, where a couple of years back we saw a wonderful Halloween show of Dracula accompanied by by Philip Glass with the Kronos Quartet. This time we were in the smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall, for Patti Smith's Meltdown, a brilliant series of events exploring the arts and the state of the world today. I was really sad to be missing Yoko the following night, but well, we were there to see Patti and of course, Alan Moore (whoo hoo!) celebrate the life and writings of William S. Burroughs, the man who once wrote that language is a virus. We were all infected that night.

We entered the hall and were delighted to see how close to the stage we were (thanks Liz!). They were projecting Gumby cartoons on a screen up over the stage. A little before the starting time, Patti drifted out to check on the audience (I guess) and to watch Gumby for a few minutes before disappearing again. A guy came out shortly thereafter to announce the show and Gumby was replaced by images of Burroughs. Almost at once, out strode Marc Ribot, Ian Sinclair and Alan Moore.

Ribot began playing a twanging, industrial guitar sound, sometimes hitting the strings with a small hand fan, pressing upon a wild profusion of pedals, while Moore and Sinclair seated themselves at the table center stage and waited for the opportune moment to begin reading. Moore began, a wild narrative of Burroughs and the atom bomb, a tale of place and time from Los Alamos and St. Louis to Morocco, Paris and finally Kansas. He swayed to his own rhythm as he spun a tale of explosions waiting to happen. It was hypnotic to actually see Moore perform, rather than just hear him on a CD. Ian Sinclair dove in too, telling about developing a literary magazine at his university, sending out letters to ask for pieces from famous writers and receiving only one -- scrawled letters on pages from Burroughs in Tangiers and putting them in the magazine with Batman on its cover, and later meeting Burroughs in London.

Patti came out and declared the evening was devoted to celebrating two great American voices: Burroughs and Gumby. She talked about meeting Burroughs when she lived at the Chelsea Hotel with Robert Mapplethorpe. She had a crush on Burroughs, for whom she would call cabs at the end of his night in the bar next door. She said he had told her she could be one of The Wild Boys because she had survived scarlet fever as a child. She read from Wild Boys, then played clarinet while Tilda Swinton (who stepped out looking brilliantly, slouchily elegant in black and white) read more. Then we took a break.

Returning to the stage, Moore and Sinclair were now accompanied by J. Spaceman and pianist Matthew Shipp. Moore read from Junky and made the words wriggle and squirm off the page. Sinclair remembered seeing Burroughs near the end in Kansas, surrounded by giant cats, guns and paint. Patti came out again, planning to read a poem she had written, but lamenting that she had lost it. She began by recalling her last vision of Burroughs at his New York bunker, at the end of the party, walking her down the long steps and hailing her a cab -- a return for all her similar duties many years before. Her voice cracked and the tears tracked down her cheeks. She read the poem, found by someone then thrust at her by a backstage technician, and she read from the introduction to Queer where Burroughs talks about his accidentally shooting his wife Joan in a William Tell stunt and how it turned him toward writing to deal with the guilt and horror.

Patti talked about wanting to use this night as a chance to "open the third eye." She played her clarinet while Swinton read more and Sinclair and Moore continued, jumping off the stage to stroll around the audience, wailing away. Sinclair seemed a bit irked but read a bit more, as did Moore. Clearly Patti could have gone on for hours -- she invited anyone from the audience to join them onstage, but when she returned to the stage and brought a kind of denoument, Sinclair shuffled his papers together and got up. Moore seemed half inclined to stay, but Patti gave an enthusiastic wave to Burroughs' image, and Moore saluted him too, then stepped back stage.

It was quite a night. The audience left buzzing after enthusiastic applause. We overheard one group of guys departing, one loudly pontificating that while Moore was a magician, Sinclair "refused to admit" he was one too. Whatever: but it was indeed a magical night.

On meltdown: we just ended the driest June on record down here. Despite that, the humidity still hovers over 90% and the temperatures are creeping up to 100 (with heat indexes over 100). It's dispiriting. May the virus take me far from here, at least for a little while.

[Many thanks to Gene for supplying the Treo-snapped pictures, alt versions here, here, and here.]


throatsprockets said...

Great write-up! Wish I'd been there.

ulalume said...

Jealous, I am! Glad there were pics, though! :)

C. Margery Kempe said...

Hey bunny! How the hell are ya? Have to cruise by your site.