We took a break from watching Project Runway on DVD on Monday night to go see one of my all-time favorite people in the world — Ms. Patti Smith. I bought tickets back in September and then waited and waited and waited for January 25th to arrive. Her performance was absolutely worth the wait.
Patti was in Seattle to promote Just Kids, her brand new memoir about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s getting great reviews and I’m eager to read my copy soon, especially after hearing various radio interviews with her about the book, reading an excerpt from it in Rolling Stone magazine during a work break, and hearing her read from the book in person on Monday. (I have to tell you that it took every ounce of my willpower to stay in my house on Monday morning when I heard Patti being interviewed on KUOW by Steve Scher and not rush to the U District so I could wait outside the door of the radio station, with stacks of Patti Smith albums and books under my arms and a Sharpie. I remembered, though, that I would most likely look and behave like an idiot, and stayed home.)
I know I’m not the most objective person when it comes to relating what a Patti Smith event was like. I am a rabid fan, so I lack perspective. Heck, the moment she walked onto the stage, I was already fighting back tears. But, believe me when I tell you that this was a remarkable evening.
Charles R. Cross, former editor of The Rocket, introduced Patti. He’s also a huge fan. He showed us the ticket stub he still has from Patti Smith’s first concert in Seattle, from 1978. Price of admission? $2. It was one of those KISW “Catch a Rising Star” shows, believe it or not. I appreciated the way he spoke about the effect that Patti’s album Horses had on him. He bought it from Discount Records on the Ave when he was a young college student at the UW and took it back to his dorm room and played it over and over. A few years later, I did something similar when I was a college student up in Bellingham. I own two copies of that record (on vinyl) because I literally wore the first copy out (but was never able to part with the trashed copy).
First, there’s the cover with that spell-binding photo that Robert Mapplethorpe took of her. How could someone so skinny be so easily confident and powerful? She looked like a much tougher and cooler Mick Jagger. Then, to hear those first words on the album, the opening lyrics of her version of “Gloria”: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” Women just didn’t do that! (And not many men did, either, at that time.)
So, imagine how amazing it was when the first thing Patti read on Monday night was the poem “Oath,” which starts exactly the same way (and was originally published in Creem magazine in 1971, by the way). Somehow, this 40-year-old poem still sounds shocking and new, just as forceful and beautiful.
Patti effortlessly moved on to reading sections from Just Kids, delighting us with stories from her early days in New York. I think that many people are unaware of just how playful Patti Smith is. She’s a natural comedian, quick-witted and not afraid of poking fun at herself. When she read aloud from her book on Monday night, she often inserted little stories or comments that are not in the book and they were hilarious. Or, she would simply look up from the book mid-story, raise her eyebrows and gaze at us above her reading glasses as if to say, “I think we all know where this is headed.” She was so funny and warm. She clearly wanted us to enjoy ourselves and she seemed genuinely grateful that we were there, spending time with her.
Next, she answered several questions from the audience and continued to shine. Charles Cross asked the questions, which audience members had written on slips of paper. One of my favorites was a question about whether there was anyone new Patti would like to collaborate with in the future because she has collaborated with so many celebrated people in the past (like Bruce Springsteen and Sam Shepard). She answered, “Russell Crowe.” Cross asked whether she wanted to collaborate with him as a singer or an actor. Her answer? “As a girl.”
And, I just have to note that she looked incredible. How does she remain so stylish and cool? She wore her standard type of outfit — white tuxedo shirt, blue jeans, man’s suit jacket, and black boots, plus a tight knit hat — but I can’t imagine any other woman in her 60s pulling that off.
After the Q&A section, Patti played a few songs on guitar and sang, which was heavenly. I can honestly say that I think her voice is better now than ever. Of course, the acoustics in Benaroya Hall are fabulous, but even if she had been standing in front of a bus stop, I think she would have sounded great. She told us that her husband taught her just a few chords before he died and that he didn’t want her to tell anyone where she learned to play guitar. But, she played competently enough during the songs “Grateful,” “My Blakean Year,” and “Beneath the Southern Cross.” Finally, she sang an a capella version of “Because the Night,” inviting the audience to sing along during the chorus, which we happily did. Hey — be sure to click the song titles to go to the YouTube video links of each performance, captured by an audience member. You’ll also get her stories about her inspirations for each song and more, which give you a lovely sense of her personality and creative process. Also, how endearing is her use of the word “writ”?! She gets stronger with each song, so be sure to watch more than just “Grateful.” And, the ending of “Because the Night” is perfect.