On what started off as a very Welsh summer’s day last week, with the mist hanging low over Sir John’s Hill in Laugharne, Patti Smith made a pilgrimage to Dylan Thomas‘s old Boathouse home there, to perform an afternoon gig for an audience of twenty people.
It was not her first visit and not the first time I had seen her perform in Laugharne. In 2008 she headlined the second Laugharne Weekend playing in the Millennium Village Hall. She also played a small gig in the Boathouse then, with Patrick Wolf, but I could not get tickets for that.
This time, squeezed in during her current tour of the UK, she was also doing a benefit gig in the Congregational Chapel in the evening, a real tribute to her support for Laugharne, a small town of less than 3000 inhabitants, and a reflection of her admiration for Dylan Thomas, one of her ‘hundred idols’?
Magically, the sun came out as we sat on the terrace of the Boathouse admiring Dylan’s view. Patti had apparently found Welsh rarebit on a menu (having not been able to find any in Cardiff the previous day) and was having her lunch first. We then had over an hour of her company in Dylan’s old bedroom in the Boathouse, reading and playing, accompanied sometimes by her bass guitarist Tony Shanahan.
Asking for any books we had brought for her to read from she was given Just Kids and The Coral Sea, the latter written as ‘a metaphor for Robert Mapplethorpe‘s passing’, so inevitably the afternoon became a homage to her early days in New York. Many of the extracts she chose seemed to be about food, or lack of it. Maybe this selection also appealed to her in her current self confessed Hunger Games period. She talked about life in the Chelsea Hotel, which was of course a connection with Dylan Thomas. At one point she lived in the room next door to the one where he had been staying just before he died, which was only about twenty years earlier. She had felt his presence.
Her response to critics of her name-dropping in Just Kids is that people like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and other musicians, artists and writers were not that well known then and anyway were part of her everyday life – ‘They lived in my house’, the Chelsea Hotel. I was amused to see cards and posters of the neon lit sign of the Chelsea Hotel for sale in the Boathouse bookshop. After a declamation of People Have The Power, her song written with Fred Smith, and some more poems, she read Fern Hill, apologizing for her New Jersey accent. This, followed by Helpless, the Neil Young song, had many of us in tears. By the time we finally joined in the chorus of Because the Night we felt like we were part of the band rather than an audience and she thanked us.
Afterwards she took photos peering into Dylan’s writing shed on her way back along Dylan’s Walk, as the pilgrimage path to the Boathouse is now known.
A female Peter Pan, still challenging herself, still a rebel and still true to herself, we had by turns seen the companion, the punk, the poet, the seer, the mother, the widow and the pilgrim, although she never names herself anything.
- Patti Smith Looks Ahead to New Projects After ‘Banga’ (rollingstone.com)
- Soundcheck (New!): Patti Smith (wnyc.org)
- Patti Smith: how she rocks our world (guardian.co.uk)
- Patti Smith: The responsible artist (theglobeandmail.com)