The Lensic, Jan. 19
Only the high priestess of punk rock, as Patti Smith became known in the 1970s, could make magical the stripped-down stage she inhabited at the Lensic on Jan. 19. Wearing her typical uniform of a white shirt, black blazer and jeans, and tall combat boots, and accompanied only by her books and a borrowed guitar, the seventy-two-year-old writer and musician brought her divine energy to an enthusiastic sold-out crowd. In stories, readings, and songs, Smith repeatedly returned to moments in her life and invoked the theme of devotion, which is also the title of her new book.
In her reading of a poetic passage from Devotion, she exposed her essential artistic mission. “Why do we write?” she asked. “Because we cannot simply live.”
Smith’s origin story is the stuff of legend: After moving to New York City from New Jersey in 1967, Smith became an acclaimed public artist in 1975, when her critically beloved debut album, Horses, established her as a guiding light of the New York art and punk scenes. To talk about Smith is to name-drop some of the most pivotal artists of that period and beyond.
In 1969, she told the rapt Lensic audience, Smith and her boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe (who later became perhaps the most controversial photographer of his generation) moved into the smallest room in the Chelsea Hotel. There, she entered the orbits of artistic geniuses like Jean-Luc Godard, Salvador Dalí, Arthur C. Clarke, and Janis Joplin.
“I didn’t finish school at all,” said Smith, who seems to remain the wide-eyed fangirl that first entered the circles of the cultural elite. “But it was like having my own university with all these great teachers.”
The evening was peppered with dynamic vocal and poetry performances, but Smith’s storytelling — both seemingly off the cuff and in readings from her National Book Award-winning Just Kids — stood out.
At the Automat one day, Allen Ginsberg bestowed upon her the missing 10 cents she needed for a cheese sandwich. After he led her to a table and she “plowed into the sandwich,” he discovered she was a girl. “Is that a problem?” she replied, her accent ringing with sass. She also remembered dancing with Mapplethorpe to Motown hits, which sparked frequent fights about who was the better dancer.
“Robert was from Long Island,” she said dismissively, drawing out the syllables. “People from South Jersey may not have culture, but they know how to dance.”
In her a cappella singing, which flowed seamlessly from her storytelling, she became a live wire. She called upon the vibrato contours of her voice, trailing her fingers delicately through the air as if conjuring spirits from the rafters.
The ghosts of dead boyfriends made frequent appearances throughout the evening. She dedicated “Beneath the Southern Cross” to her late lover, the playwright Sam Shepard: “Sam loved Santa Fe, so it’s nice to sing him a song here.” In the shivering lyrics, “Oh/To be/Not anyone/Gone,” one sensed the magnitude of both his absence and presence.
Before she sang “Because the Night,” the song she wrote with Bruce Springsteen for her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, she danced a charming gear-up jig. “I never sing this song ... without thinking of my boyfriend,” she said, grinning. The chorus became a heartfelt singalong before she interrupted what would be the song’s guitar break. She chanted in a silly sing-song, “Now here’s/the part/where Lenny Kaye/does his solo.” Though tears were streaming down many faces, the crowd rippled with giggles.
The encore underlined Smith’s love of ... well, love, and all its inspirational power. Accompanied by local guitarist Ross Hamlin, she sang a joyful rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The audience gladly joined in.