On January 25th, legendary punk singer/poet Patti Smith walked on to the stage at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, greeted by hundreds of standing fans applauding her entrance. I had arrived a few minutes late, but not too late to feel the sheer excitement filling the air as she was introduced by Charles Cross, a local Seattle writer and author. Seattle would be Smith’s first stop outside of New York on her tour promoting her recently completed memoir, Just Kids.
After the crowd quieted, Smith stood at the microphone, dressed casually in black boots, jeans, and a knit cap. She spoke humbly, as if unsure where to begin the night. “I’ll just start from the beginning…or a beginning,” she proclaimed in her low, laid back tone, as if choosing from the many directions her life has taken in the last fifty or so years. She began by reading a poem entitled “Oath,” a seeming narrative on views of organized religion and a choice to take responsibility for one’s own actions and choices in life.
Smith spoke of growing up in rural New Jersey and how she often found herself romanticizing the idea of being an artist. She wrote poetry, danced, and drew. She was encouraged by her teachers and her parents to be creative, but heckled by others at school and at work. Her possession of a copy of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations nearly got her beat up by her co-workers at a New Jersey tricycle factory. In 1969, Smith dropped out of teacher’s college and moved to New York, where she met and eventually lived with Robert Mapplethorpe, whom I would imagine her memoir is at least partially dedicated to, as she promised him before he died that she would write it.
After reading a second poem, “Why,” which she wrote for Robert in 1979, Smith read from Just Kids. She stopped every so often while reading to explain situations in further detail or preface a story. Listening to Smith read, it was easy to see how incredibly meaningful each story was to her. So many of the people she met in New York played critical roles in her life, helping to shape Smith in to the icon she is today. She spoke about her photo shoots with Robert Mapplethorpe and told the story of the time she met Allen Ginsberg at the Automat in New York. Ginsberg later became Smith’s teacher and mentor in writing. Smith’s stories were humorous at times, casually delivered with an eloquent sincerity that only someone of Smith’s character could pull off.
Smith later sat on stage with Charles Cross (author of Kurt Cobain: Heavier Than Heaven, and Room Full Of Mirrors – A Biography Of Jimi Hendrix) answering questions from the audience and discussing various life events. She spoke of her friendship with the Ramones and told of the time they brought her a bottle of tequila and an issue of Punk magazine when she was sick – the punk rock version of chicken soup. Once asked to be the vocalist for Blue Oyster Cult, Smith declined the offer, as their music “wasn’t her style” at the time. However she did go on to write the lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult’s “Revenge of the Vera Gemini.” It was highly inspiring to listen to Smith talk about her struggles as an artist at various stages of her life and how to work through “artist’s anguish” – a term she came up with for the times when she was artistically stuck.
To cap off the night, Smith picked up her guitar and sang three of her own songs. Having always been one to collaborate with other artists when it comes to music, Smith prefaced her playing by modestly stating she “was never much of a guitar player” as she slung her guitar over her shoulder. She learned much of what she knows on the guitar from her late husband, Fred Smith. Although the songs she played were simple, consisting of only three or four chords, her vocals and lyrics were anything but ordinary. Smith was sure to provide commentary for the songs, speaking of inspirations and thoughts she had when the songs were written.
What happened next was something I was almost expecting to occur at some point in the night, though I didn’t imagine it would happen on the scale that it did. Leading the audience in an a capella version of “Because the Night” was really the only way the night could have ended. At 63 years old, Smith’s vocals are just as alive and vibrant as ever before. She began the song to a dead-silent crowd, but when Smith paused her singing at the first chorus, it seemed everyone in the house was singing at the top of their lungs with no music to obstruct the artist-audience connection in that moment. Smith’s intriguing words and stories were truly an inspiration to listen to, but hearing so many people share that moment singing with Patti Smith was truly something amazing.