§ The Awesome Patti Smith


Patti Smith - M Train
Patti Smith – M Train

Patti at Congregation Beth Elohim SynagogueThe Reading…

I saw Patti Smith Friday night, September 15, 2016, at the beautiful Congregation Beth Elohim synagogue in Brooklyn reading from her recent memoir M Train. She is an institution in the city and was clearly adored by the 1,400 crammed into the space.

She brought Lenny Kaye along and, between the readings, they played 5 or 6 songs including a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes.” Here’s a 1976 version from Boston that segues briefly into “Louie, Louie” at the end.


Patti, Lenny and the crowd closed with a rousing “Because the Night”, a song she and Bruce Springsteen wrote about her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith.

It was a delightful night. She’s quite charming and seems like someone you’d want to talk with over a cup of coffee. Her extemporaneous asides were self deprecating, humorous, and witty. After stumbling over a sentence she noted “Hey I wrote it, doesn’t mean I can pronounce it!” By the way, the paperback of M Train includes a new ending chapter that was not in the 2015 hardcover.

The Book…Van Gogh

An aside and disclaimer…The thoughts below may very well be nothing more than a projection of what I want to be true…

Today I sit outside on our little deck reading M Train. I’m struck by how she remembers scenes. They are descriptive of course, but I get the strong feeling that they are remembrances through a hazy lens, intentionally coated with petroleum jelly. Her goal is not to recreate the scene but to interpret it like an impressionist painter. She picks and chooses, choreographs, and curates what is and what is not of essence.

I imagine a sense of time where memory is elastic and purposely romantic. Where what is important is less about accuracy and more about inhabiting a world in which one is both a participant and a director. It is akin to my axiom to never ruin a good story with the truth.

But she is after truth in the sense that she gets to the core, if not the perfect details, of the experience. To claim that she is not faithfully portraying the scenes misses the point. Did Van Gogh faithfully paint his sunflowers and are they not the most beautiful you’ve ever seen? M Train is like a deep satisfying dream, perhaps a story filtered through an image of an opium den or maybe a channeling of the ghost of William Blake. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.

This is not really a review per se as I’m less than halfway through the book. It’s more about building myself a frame of reference as I slowly make my way through, savoring each little nugget. Obviously M Train is highly recommended.

If you are interested in learning a bit more about Patti I highly recommend checking out the brilliant Maria Popova at her fascinating website Brain PickingsIn this post she writes about when Patti really knew that she was an artist. The quote from Patti’s delightful first memoir Just Kids suggests that my interpretation makes some sense.

The swan became one with the sky. I struggled to find words to describe my own sense of it. Swan, I repeated, not entirely satisfied, and I felt a twinge, a curious yearning, imperceptible to passersby, my mother, the trees, or the clouds.

What a beautiful swan she is.

From BrainPickings.org
From BrainPickings.org

§ NYC Cultural Affairs Guided Tour of Harlem Public Art

Willie BirchI was lucky enough to get on the list for #NYCultureonWheels and join NYC Department of Cultural Affairs (NYCDCR) Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, Kendal Henry, NYCDCR Director of the Percent for Art Program, artist Gabriel Koren, Eugenie Tsai, the Brooklyn Museum’s Curator of Contemporary art (and Tom’s wife), and a pack of public art lovers. We toured Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) public art and NYCDCR Percent for Art Program pieces. In addition, we were joined by Marcus Garvey Park Alliance President Connie Lee who showed some wonderful work within this underappreciated Harlem park.

It was great to meet Commissioner Finkelpearl and see Kendal again, but I met some new wonderful and interesting people too. Artist Jorge Luis Rodriguez was so gracious and we saw two of his pieces. Connie Lee was a great tour guide. I also chatted with a delightful young woman from The Studio Museum of Harlem and I can’t believe I’ve forgotten her name!


While writing this up I found a fascinating NYT article on Alison Saar’s solemn and captivating piece and why Harriet Tubman is defiantly heading south.

I also found a rather tragic but unfortunately way too common story of Gabriel Koren whose Frederick Douglass sculpture at the northwest corner of Central Park began our tour. The 2015 article describing her loss of studio space, Priced Out of Brooklyn, a Sculptor Seeks a New Studio to Rent, is even more relevant today as I watch and read about the loss of space for artists of all types in nearby Gowanus. Reports like this seem to be in my inbox on a weekly basis.

Back to regularly scheduled programming……Here’s a few pics of the public art, murals, sculptures, and installations we saw on the walk. Click on any image for a slideshow.

§ Lesley Riddle, the Carter Family & the History of Country Music

Step by Step cd coverOkay, so this is a bit of a tangent, a little history on Lesley Riddle, an important and underappreciated African-American musician who, with the Carter Family, changed the course of country music. I’ll follow up this post with another that includes some of Lesley’s music and also some bits of tape recordings from Lesley, Maybelle Carter, and Mike Seeger.

A couple of years ago when I was Creative Economies Director at the NC Arts Council I was tasked to write an appeal to the NC Historic Commission for their rejection of a highway marker honoring Lesley Riddle, an African-American from Burnsville, NC. Riddle had a singular relationship with A.P. and Maybelle Carter and the Carter family starting in the late 1920s. The appeal followed a specific format documenting errors made by the commission. The appeal was successful and actually got applause from the panel. (It helped that two friends from Burnsville played a couple of Lesley songs at the end!)

The written appeal is 10 pages (download here) and includes the history of Lesley & the Carters relationship along with a series of support letters from historians, a relative of Lesley’s, and Rita Forrester, Sara and A.P. Carter’s granddaughter. I hope you enjoy this bit of history, truly a great American story.

Lesley Riddle appeal for a highway historic marker