It was with wonder and a very uncool-bordering-on-anxiety-type of anticipation that we ambled into the monolithic Emmanuel Centre, prepared to see the musical and literary luminary that is Patti Smith. I freely admit to only discovering Patti through her award-winning book, Just Kids, rather than through her Punk-rock heritage and the subsequent coterie of New York cool that followed.
As such, I expected to bear witness to a conversation that was weighted with thoughtful prose and requisite pauses, the kind one expects from the intellectually gifted. So imagine my surprise when we were in fact confronted with a charming lady who managed to discuss life’s mysteries with a smile and a consistent element of lightness. “There’s so much to do and so much to see” Patti said with a smile, when talking about life, expressed with the kind of enthusiasm you would see from a child rather than from a woman in her 60s who has been seemingly surrounded by her fair share of death and loss.
Interviewed by Andrew O'Hagan on behalf of the Guardian before answering a string of questions from the audience, Patti discussed her writing process for both Just Kids and M Train and mentioned the amount of “responsibility” she felt with the former, namely because Robert Mapplethorpe asked her to tell their story the night before he passed away. Staying with the theme of people she loved/loves that she’s lost, (husband, Fred Sonic Smith, her brother, mother and Mapplethorpe), Patti explained that while these things have been difficult to deal with, they haven’t happened to her, but rather to people she loved – an elegant and selfless distinction that she used to emphasize how many wonderful things she’s experienced.
She discussed her experiences of illness as a child, and joked that she alongside friend, William S. Burroughs, created their own “Scarlet Fever club”, which nobody else could join unless they too had experienced the hallucinations it causes, in addition to its possible assistance with the formation of a creative mind.
Patti spoke of detectives being the new poets (she’s a huge fan of Wallander), likening the search to get their man to her search for words and a punch line when writing poetry. She sprinkled her sentences with words like “unfettered” and “free” and admitted to being faced with her chronology for the first time when she turned 65, and started writing M Train, saying that it forced her to look at the consequence of time and to consider how much of it she had left.
The evening was concluded with a performance of three songs with her long-time friend and guitarist Lenny Kaye, the highlight of which was 'Because The Night' as everyone in attendance rose to their feet, and clapped and swayed for the woman that has continued to hold steady, smile and share her beautiful mind with the world.
Words: Natalie Reiss