Death loomed large at the Philip Glass–curated benefit concert for Tibet House U.S. Monday night at Carnegie Hall, when a parade of legendary talents — among them Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Michael Stipe — performed numbers in honor of deceased friends. And as if that weren’t depressing enough, when the thrilling succession of reimagined hits and covers stopped, we suddenly realized that all our idols onstage talking about death will die, too. Oh, God.
There were chanting monks, a beautiful, minimalist set from Sigur Rós, and Ben Harper. Debbie Harry happily danced to an acoustic version of “Heart of Glass.” And then came Lou Reed, the first to sing about getting old. Ray Davies harkened back to the Kinks’ glory days, getting the crowd to sing along with “Lola,” “Sunday Afternoon,” and “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.” He admitted to being foggy about why, exactly, he was there: “This is a great event. I’m not sure of all the details, but the spirit moved me.” And then he, too, got wistful about age. “Being in a band at this point in my life is a separation anxiety of the worst sort,” he said. “We never know when we’ll meet again.”
A very chatty Stipe sang a duet of “Everybody Hurts” with Smith; then he performed “Chorus and the Ring,” written in honor of two dead friends, Kurt Cobain and William S. Boroughs, and dedicated to Karin Berg, the A&R rep who’d originally signed R.E.M., the Cars, and Television, who died in 2006. “I’ve never sung it live before,” he said, “other than with my band in my apartment yesterday.”
It may have been the best concert we’ve seen in years, and the night belonged to Smith. She did an amazing cover of “Within You Without You,” in honor of George Harrison’s birthday on Sunday; she rocked “1959,” the rousing antiwar anthem she wrote “addressing the rise of the Beats, the takeover of Tibet by the Chinese, and the beautiful Chevy Impala”; she and Glass gave an incredible tribute to departed friend Alan Ginsberg. Back in 1995, a few months after her husband’s death, Smith explained, Ginsberg had brought Smith out of her seclusion to perform at a Tibet House benefit. Every year since Ginsberg’s death, Smith and Glass have performed his poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Monday night it rose on a slow crescendo till Smith intoned in strident staccato, “I declare the end of the war!” If only it were that easy. —Jada Yuan