Almost exactly 40 years ago, Patti Smith gave her first poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. She took the stage with Lenny Kaye, the guitar player and music critic who went on to anchor the Patti Smith Band, with whom she has collaborated for the past four decades. As for the idea to pair her words with Kaye’s music, that came from Sam Shepard, who Smith was seeing at the time.
This is all a matter of historical record, recounted in lyrical and loving detail in Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids . But history came alive last night at New York’s 92nd St. Y, where Smith once again combined reading with musical performance — with Kaye and Shepard on hand to back her up.
If you’ve never seen Patti Smith live, you need to know that there’s no celebrity quite like her. She is, simply, the most unaffected performer I’ve ever seen. Last night, she took the stage in a blazer, brown T-shirt, and jeans tucked into boots, her long, gray-streaked hair hanging proudly natural, as though it had never, in her 64 years of life, touched a thing called “product.” She greeted us in bold and friendly tones and seemed grateful, after all these years, that people still want to hear what she has to say.
As she read from Just Kids, spending most of her time on the earliest years it covers, the late ’60s. Delightfully unpolished, she laughingly sympathized with our confusion over whether and when to clap. “It’s always hard to figure out what to do,” she said. “I’m always thinking, ‘Is this a clapping part?'” Often, she would start to tell a story and then abruptly stop herself, remembering that she didn’t want to give away a surprise planned for later in the evening. Despite decades of fame, Smith has remained unabashedly unpolished, continuing to pronounce “drawing” as “drawling” and “birthday” as “birfday.” Unlike almost everyone else who has ever been a household name, she is utterly and completely herself.
Her spontaneous asides provided some of the night’s best moments. In the middle of reading a passage where she describes buying a guitar on layaway, Smith paused to ponder what’s been lost now that it’s so much more common to buy on credit and pay later, rather than save up until we can actually afford it. Introducing a poem she wrote after a dream she and Shepard shared about Bob Dylan’s dog, she told us she’d become obsessed with this week’s Westminster Kennel Club competition and cried when Hickory — her favorite — won Best in Show.
Smith has an incredible memory for dates, and February 16th is full of meaning for her: She opened the night by mentioning that it was the anniversary of the unveiling of King Tut’s tomb. Later, she told us that on this day decades ago, she and a friend were in Mexico. They got so much sun there, they “turned purple,” Smith said, and thought they would die. Most important of all, last night was her sister’s birthday. Before evening’s end, because someone in the audience had shouted out, “Allen is in the room!,” she told us an anecdote about Allen Ginsberg on his death bed. In spite of his spiritual beliefs, he just couldn’t bring himself to let go of life. Ginsberg’s teacher pulled Smith aside and told her that Allen was being a “naughty Buddhist.”
The reading itself was lively, with Smith’s frank delivery highlighting the humor in the book and her poems. But there were somber moments, too: reading the passage of Just Kids where she first lays eyes on Robert Mapplethorpe, sprawled out beautifully in a Brooklyn brownstone, she paused and inhaled. I couldn’t tell whether she was simply stepping back to give the image the gravity it deserved or if Smith was actually choking up a bit and needed to compose herself.
And then, of course, there was the music, which she interspersed with the reading. Smith did her first number, “My Blakean Year,” solo on an acoustic guitar, creating an intimate, almost folk-music vibe. After reading about how she came to collaborate with Kaye, she brought him out for “Fire of Unknown Origin,” the first song they worked on together (and which was later a hit for Blue Öyster Cult). It’s easy to forget that the godmother of punk has such a great voice for blues, but that duet made me remember.
Kaye remained onstage for the rest of the night, smiling indulgently at Smith’s awkward moments and even briefly serving as emcee while she answered some questions from the audience. Questions about St. Francis of Assisi and playing music with her children got thoughtful answers. Asked about using journal entries in her memoir, Smith replied, “Try another one.”
When she read us a selection from Just Kids in which Shepard buys her a homely but well-loved guitar, he took the stage with a guitar of his own and quipped, “I had no idea it was so complex.” He sat in with Smith and Kaye, taking the lead on a few blues songs — including a wonderful, spare rendition of “In the Pines.” The trio also dedicated a playful version of “Redondo Beach” to their friend Maria Schneider, the Last Tango in Paris actress who died earlier this month. “Goodbye, Maria,” Smith said as it ended, making a fluttery motion with her hands, as though sending the song directly up to the heavens.
Smith, Kaye, and Shepard ended the evening with “People Have the Power.” It was an especially appropriate choice less than a week after the Egyptian people took their country back from Mubarak, and Smith said the song was for “our brothers and sisters around the world who are using their voices and taking to the streets.”
Like Patti Smith herself, the evening was messy and honest, intimate and utterly gorgeous. More than the songs or the readings or the special guests, what the night really offered was two glorious — and fun — hours with one of America’s greatest living artists. I can’t think of a better way to spend a night out.
Photos by Joyce Culver for 92Y.