When Seattle Arts and Lectures recently brought Patti Smith to Benaroya Hall, they asked if I would introduce her. It took a nanosecond for me to say yes. I hadn’t missed a single Seattle appearance, musical or literary, by Smith since her local debut at the Paramount in 1978. The opportunity to witness her performance while sitting in a comfy chair next to her, rather than in the audience, was hardly a hardship. All I had to do was show up shaved and sober, introduce her, and conduct an onstage question-and-answer session with her during the show.
I’d met Smith once before at a conference, and we had numerous mutual friends. Some were rock stars or literary lions, but we also both know a former butcher who turned into a photographer. The former butcher always spoke highly of Patti, and I always felt he was a good judge of character. Now Smith was coming to Seattle in support of her book Just Kids, which tells of her relationship with a different photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. I’d read the book and was impressed with her prose, but also with this story of young artists as in love with creating as they were with each other.
When Smith arrived backstage at Benaroya on Monday (Jan. 25), it was no surprise that she came minus entourage or star trappings. She was dressed, as she would be onstage that night, in Levis, a thrift store jacket, and army boots without laces. She had a black wool cap on her head. She would have been at home robbing a liquor store, or working on a crab fishing boat. An audience member would later ask what Smith thought about being named a “fashion icon” by Oprah’s O Magazine, and Patti’s response was a smile, and a gesture towards her clothes that said, “Here I am.” Her outfit was typical of the Smith I met that night: Authentic and down-to-earth, but with edges of hardness.
She’d spent the day in a setting she was dressed for. “I’ve been in Pioneer Square hanging with the bums,” she joked. But she wasn’t joking: while visiting Elliott Bay Book Company she’d stopped in at a local mission. Later, during the musical part of her performance, she would improvise an intro for “My Blakean Year” by talking about her soup kitchen visit and how she watched the homeless “doing their job.” Their job, she sang, was simply to ask, ‘gotta little change for a cup of coffee?'”
This was a literary reading primarily, and not a rock ‘n’ roll show, so the only props onstage were two chairs where she and I would sit, and a carpet. Her only artiste moment came when a chemical in the carpet triggered an allergy. “Fred,” she said, referring to her husband, the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, “once surprised me by putting wall-to-wall carpet in the house. We had to have it ripped out.” It was Smith’s only allusion all night to the thirteen-year break she took from show business, when she did what would be inconceivable for many stars: She left a world of fame to raise two children, and build a family in obscurity. It is the most courageous thing Smith ever did, and also probably the hardest, other than burying her husband, who died when he was only 45. The carpet at Benaroya was quickly rolled up.
The acoustics in the hall sounded better without any deadening, in any case. “This room is alive,” she noted during sound check. I told Patti about the time I took my then 6-month-old to Benaroya’s first rock show, which happened to be Lou Reed. Reed had brought in his arena-quality amps, and had played so loud many people, and the one baby in attendance, had to leave. “I mean no disrespect to Lou,” Patti said with her kind of far off look that indicated she meant this with an aloof comedy, “but you gotta play the hall.”
Both onstage and off, Smith was funnier than I’d expected her to be, while at the same time being earnest about wanting to be understood when she was making a point.
The night began with me introducing Smith by talking about how her music had helped me understand how French poetry could fit inside a rock aesthetic. Her early albums, specifically "Horses," had opened up a world of sophistication for me when I was just a teenager. When she came onstage, her intention was to begin by reading from the book she was promoting, Just Kids, but I felt flattered when she said my comments made her want to dip back deep into her oeuvre, so she began by reading the poem “Horses.” Like much of the night it was spontaneous, and sincere.
One of the most impressive things about Just Kids is how it reads like effortless writing, and I asked her how long it took her to finish. She laughed and said the effortlessness only came from hard work, and that the memoir had taken years. “Some days all I’d get was one good sentence,” she admitted. We talked about how Robert Mapplethorpe shot only twelve photographs during the sessions for the "Horses" cover, but still produced a now iconographic image of Smith with a jacket slung over her shoulder. How did he know he’d gotten “the” shot? He just knew.
No evening with Patti Smith, however, can end just with poetry and a discussion of memoir writing. Instead, she closed with a handful of songs played on her acoustic guitar. Her finale was an a cappella version of her 1978 hit “Because the Night.” She’d played this song at every Seattle show she’d ever done, starting with that Paramount gig, where I first saw Patti Smith for the royal sum of $2. The Benaroya show, however, was the only time I’d ever heard her count on the audience to sing the chorus to the song. I belted it out with the rest of the crowd, hoarse by the end of the evening. Even Lou Reed would have been impressed with the volume.
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