NY Conversation January 2011

On Christmas Day the sky is dull and heavy with the promise of snow, but it isn’t until the day after that the first flakes arrive. You probably read about it in the paper – the great blizzard of December 2010, which paralysed NYC for a couple of days and led to a political shitfight about how long it took to clear away the snow.

If you’ve got places to go and things to do, snow probably is a colossal pain in the arse, but for unashamedly romantic and generally non-9-to-5-inclined types like NY Conversation, it’s a thing of wonder. The first thing you notice after it’s snowed is the silence. There’s something primal about it, a stillness that renders all the echoes of the city’s clamour muffled and distant. Peace as an aftermath.

There’s nothing peaceful about a blizzard, though. On Boxing Day, as the wind picks up and the snowflakes comes down denser and harder, sensible New Yorkers close the blinds and heat up the Christmas leftovers. But possessed with some romantic urge, NY Conversation forges out into the driving snow and makes for the subway, hopping the F train and counting down the stations to Coney Island. By the time we arrive, we’re the only people in the carriage, which isn’t really surprising – after all, who in their right mind goes to the beach in a blizzard?

But the experience is totally worth nearly freezing to death. Coney Island’s fading grandeur is evocative enough anyway, all cracked paint and faintly menacing carnies, and in the snow it’s like something out of The Road. The beach and the leaden sky merge on the horizon, the Atlantic dark and forbidding. It’s starkly, bleakly beautiful. We take heaps of photos then retreat to Nathan’s, shaking the snow from our fur coats, revelling in that rejuvenated tingly feeling you get after a morning swim or a cold shower.

The days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve pass slowly and quietly, peacefully snowed in, days for hot cocoa and mulled wine. I barely venture out at all, except to meet a guy from whom I’ve bought two tickets for Patti Smith’s show at the Bowery Ballroom on New Year’s Eve. Buying tickets off Craigslist – I really should know better. And sure enough, when we turn up at the venue on NYE, they turn out to be fake. $120 down the shitter. But serendipity prevails: they’re selling the guestlist, a practice that’s generally the bane of street press reviewers everywhere, but for once works in our favour.

The last time I saw Patti Smith was at the Big Day Out in 1997. I was 18. The experience was transformative. I can still see it now – crammed into the front of the stage next to a large girl in a red t-shirt with “DYKE” emblazoned on it, watching in rapt amazement as Patti came out and read Piss Factory, hawked up a massive gob of phlegm, spat it triumphantly across the stage and kicked straight into Rock’N’Roll Nigger.

Seeing her in 2010 is a more celebratory, sedate affair – a reminder of how far we’ve all come in 13 long years, and how much we’ve changed. And how much we haven’t. For all that her hair is greyer, Smith’s music is as visceral as ever, her severe mien giving her the stern air of some wild lost poet, the type they don’t breed any more. Until she starts giggling and talking about how much she loves Law & Order, that is.

After a mid-set lull (lots of smiling, People Have the Power, ill-advised good-time covers of Daydream Believer and Strawberry Fields Forever), she tears shit up with a transcendent medley of Land and Gloria as 2010 becomes 2011. At one point she reads an excerpt from her memoir Just Kids, the letter she wrote to Robert Mapplethorpe as he lay on his deathbed. Just like the rest of the book, it’s heartfelt and simple and elegiac: “Of all your work, you are still your most beautiful. The most beautiful of all.” 

But it’s another passage from the book that sticks in NY Conversation’s head, a passage that describes playing an early show as a band at Max’s Kansas City: “The people were raucous, divided, the electricity in the air tangible. It was the first hour of the New Year and as I looked out into the crowd, I remembered again what my mother always said. I turned to Lenny. ‘So as today, the rest of the year.’”

As 2011 begins, your correspondent kinda has no money and quite possibly nowhere to live. But the world in white outside, and Patti Smith’s savage beauty and the snowbound boardwalk at Coney Island, they all somehow speak of other things to come. When we dream it, we dream it for free, like she said in the song. And that’s enough for now.

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