There’s a moment in The Blair Witch Project when Heather, stumbling aimlessly in the woods and refusing to admit she’s lost, calmly explains, “It’s very hard to get lost in America these days, and even harder to stay lost.” Something similar can be said for pop-culture. With the advent of this kooky thing we call the “Internet,” it’s very hard to remain involuntarily ignorant of any and all music, film, and literature, and even harder to stay that way. Don’t know anything about a certain musician, actor, or author? Here, let me Google that for you.
But if we’ve learned anything from Blair Witch—and oh, we’ve learned a lot—it’s that you can get lost in the pop-culture woods, even today. In other words, we all have our blind spots. Throw a stone and you’re sure to meet someone who hasn’t seen Star Wars, someone who can’t name a David Bowie song, or someone who doesn’t know J.D. Salinger from J.D. Byrider. It’s usually not a matter of laziness or lack of curiosity, and sometimes not even a matter of taste. It’s just one of those things.
Which brings me to one of my pop-culture blind spots, Patti Smith, and this weekend’s “Smith Uncovered” show for Alverno Presents. Here’s the deal: Saturday night at Alverno’s Pitman Theatre, Milwaukee’s own Betty Strigens (Testa Rosa) will assemble a diverse cast of Milwaukee musicians to reinterpret the music and words of rock legend and pioneer Patti Smith. Similar to past Alverno shows like “Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project” and “Unlooped Vs. Marvin Gaye”—which reimagined the music of Stephen Foster and Gaye’s Here, My Dear, respectively—it will be a one-time-only, multi-media event that takes something old and makes it new, rewarding longtime fans with a different take on familiar material. Knowing next to nothing about Patti Smith, I couldn’t be more excited.
(Oh, I know who Smith is, of course, and I know the album art the “Smith Uncovered” promo photos are riffing on. And it’s not that I’m adverse to Smith; again, it’s just one of those things. I bravely—foolishly?—admitted as much when we chatted with Strigens earlier this week on The Disclaimer.)
So why am I going to a show that will feature reinterpretations of songs I’m unfamiliar with? It’s simple, really: there’s something to be said for experiencing a work of art completely fresh, with little or no expectations. It’s increasingly rare, but, again, it can happen. Think of how many times someone has said they’re finally getting around to watching, oh, I don’t know, LOST, and how many times you’ve thought, “Man, I wish I was watching the episode where Locke sees The Hatch light up for the first time.” (Seriously, that scene is incredible.) Think of how many times you’ve heard a random song on the radio, in a movie, or in a TV show, and lost your shit over how great it is. It’s an experience that can only happen once, and one that can never be replicated.
There’s another reason I’m going, and it involves a nifty trick I picked up from past Alverno Presents shows: it’s possible (and sometimes even preferable) to enjoy something on its own terms. I went into this summer’s Trisha Brown Dance Company performance at the Lynden Sculpture Garden completely clueless about modern dance (and left the same), but I was able to appreciate it by simply watching people move. The intricacies of dance and the history of the pieces being performed remained a mystery to me, but damn if I didn’t love it. Ditto for new music that comes my way as part of my job. Metal has always been somewhat elusive to me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the simple noise of it all.
Are there nuances and references I’ll miss this weekend? Undoubtedly. Will a diehard Patti Smith fan get more out of the show than me? Probably. Still, I’m looking forward to that thrill of the unknown, and to giving in to the pleasures of listening to some of the city’s best musicians simply doing their thing. (Those musicians include Die Kreuzen, Dryhouse Ruins, Hello Death, Karl Paloucek, Mark Waldoch, Nineteen Thirteen, and Chris DeMay, by the way.) So here’s to getting lost, and hopefully ending up somewhere new.