Gary Flockhart: Ginsberg’s poems get a big Patti on the back

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PHEW, that was close. I almost missed out on the Patti Smith/Philip Glass evening of poetry, music and song in their tribute to the late, great Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg at the Playhouse the other night.

Somehow, I had no idea the show – part of the Edinburgh International Festival – was even on. And it would have remained under my radar, too, were it not for a Twitter post from Ian Rankin on the morning of the gig.

I’ve been a fan of Smith for years, and my favourite story about the New Jersey singer concerns her first meeting with Ginsberg himself.

It’s November 1969 and the then 22-year-old – “just a girl that worked in a bookshop, who lived at the Chelsea Hotel” – is trying to buy a cheese sandwich at the Horn & Hardart Automat in Manhattan. She finds herself a dime short, when Ginsberg approaches and asks if he can help. He kindly gives her 10 cents and treats her to a cup of coffee. Later, they’re talking about literature when suddenly Ginsberg leans forward and asks if she’s a girl.

“Is that a problem?” she shoots back.

Ginsberg, openly gay, laughs and says: “I’m sorry... I took you for a very pretty boy.”

They became great friends and all these years later, with Ginsberg 16 years in the ground, the godmother of punk was paying homage to the granddaddy of the Beats with accompaniment from minimalist composer Glass and a projected collage of paintings and photographs.

Smith gave intense, wonderfully understated renditions of Wichita Vortex Sutra, Footnote To Howl and On Cremation Of Chogyam Trungpa, Vidyadhar, found time to throw in a few of her own songs, and, unexpectedly, performed Robert Louis Stevenson’s Looking Glass River and The Land of Nod, two of her favourite childhood poems, “just for my own pleasure – to read him in the place of his birth.”

In what will be remembered by many of those in attendance as THE highlight of the Festival, 66-year-old Smith commanded the stage and audience from start to finish.

An awesome night, then, and a real coup for the EIF.