“The transformation awaits.” Early in her New’s Year Eve set at the Bowery Ballroom. Patti Smith signaled that this was no golden oldie retread session but an evening devoted to evoking the historical crossroads that is Occupy. In the 1929 building completed weeks before the crash of 1929 and left vacant till after the Second World War, Smith hailed her old avatars in the new context. She was a shaman, conjuring pasts that seemed forgotten and making them newly alive.
A song was dedicated to Charles Baudelaire, somewhat to the mystification of one section of the eclectic crowd. She talked about Verlaine and Rimbaud, she read from “Howl” and she sang “The Drifter’s Escape” from Dylan’s 1967 John Wesley Harding. Then she told a story about how she and Robert Mapplethorpe had bought the album while both were working at different branches of Brentano’s bookstore. She talked about CBGB’s, site of New York punk, about a mile up the road.
Then the word “occupy” started to appear, as if by coincidence. Over and again, the idea resurfaced. At midnight there was “People Have the Power,” followed by a roof-lifting version of her Who cover from Horses, retitled “Occupy My Generation.” In a cascading version of “Fade Away,” Smith announced that this was (maybe) the last of her fourteen years residency at the Ballroom for New Year’s Eve. Insisting over and again that “the future is now,” it was fitting that the last words sung were the iconic “outside of society” with which she and other punks had scandalized New York in the 1970s.
One of the stranger liberal complaints about Occupy is that there are no new songs from the movement. Patti Smith replied that we have two centuries of music to draw on, to repurpose and reimagine. As she stepped down from her position as Queen of Downtown, she passed the legacy to us, to Occupy.
You might be reading this thinking that you wish you had been there. You were. You still are.