Smith shows her familiar punk contempt and lays bare her sweetness at her Seattle performance
For the first time in my experience, Patti Smith was sweet to an audience member at Sunday’s October 6th’s performance in Seattle.
Usually Smith delights in grousing at her fans. In Q&A sessions, Smith cuts off questioners, calls them out for asking about stupid things or mocks them for their interest in her personal life. She delights in insulting her admirers and making them the butt of her jokes. Since it’s in keeping with Smith’s punk persona, the audience loves it.
Last night, standing center stage at a packed Benaroya Hall, with her long white hair, black jacket, pants and boots and a white shirt, Smith alternated readings Year of the Monkey, her new book, and performing acoustic versions of songs from throughout her career. When Smith reads, the lenses of her reading glasses magnify her eyes so much that she looks like Emma Thompson playing Sybill Trelawney in a Harry Potter movie. Tony Shanahan, her band’s bassist and keyboard player, accompanied Smith on acoustic guitar and piano. Smith also played acoustic guitar on two songs.
Year of the Monkey, Smith said, swirls around the illnesses of two dear friends: Blue Oyster Cult’s Sandy Pearlman and playwright Sam Shepard.
She remembered Pearlman’s odd gifts. “Once he sent me the whole [Richard Wagner’s] Ring cycle on vinyl. It was like 11 pounds. I never really liked the Ring. I still have it. It’s under my bed. I like The Hobbit better.”
About halfway through the show, she said wryly, “Now we’re going to have a mandatory question-and-answer session.”
Immediately, an audience member began talking loudly to Smith. In turn, Smith interrupted the speaker twice to demand a question. Evidently the interrogator was complaining about Smith spitting on her during an earlier concert. Furious, Smith explained that when she sang spit filled up her mouth and came out. “If you get spit on, it’s because you were in my motherfucking way.” The audience cheered.
Smith preferred written questions from the audience. One asked about balancing being an artist and a mother. “I just worked every day,” she recalled. Every day she would rise at 5 a.m. to write until it was time to get her kids ready for school. “I had great responsibility having children. I couldn’t stay up all night smoking pot.”
What advice would your 20-year-old self give to another 20-year-old? “Don’t listen to me,” Smith said.
Did you ever go to far into yourself? Answered Smith, “I learned from [saxophonist John] Coltrane. You go out and out. You talk to God; you see the stratosphere but then you come back. Come back home, leave breadcrumbs like Hansel and Gretel.”
Domestication, Performing and Geology
Do you hate yourself for succumbing to domestication? “When my husband [MC5’s Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith] was alive I did everything. Washing the diapers…whatever. You have to do it with a sense of humor or else it’s not sacrificing, it’s just complaining.”
What’s the difference between performing music live and writing? Smith was pleased. “That’s a good question. When you are doing something live, you are doing it for the people. Everything you are doing is sent out for the people. Writing is very introspective. Performing is extrospective—that’s not a word. I’m a loner. I like to read, to be by myself and watch TV. I have two ways of communicating: 1.) not at all.”
She softened as she announced the next question was from 14-year-old Stella. When you were young what did you want to be when you grew up? “I had a lot hubris from an early age. I wanted to do something great. First, I wanted to be a missionary. Then I didn’t want to grow up and I actually never did. I read “Little Women” [by Louisa May Alcott] and decided I wanted to be a writer.
“When I was a little girl, I had a desire to be an opera singer. I was sickly, a fragile kid. My mother told me to think of something else.”
A young girl stepped from the audience—was it Stella? —and handed Smith a geode. Smith was genuinely moved. Suddenly she revealed what a loving, kind mother she must be. “I wanted to be a geologist,” she remembered. “I was about 7-years-old. I was at a church bazaar. They had a hammer, like a big jeweler’s hammer. I tied it to my Wranglers—through the belt loop. It was my geologist’s hammer.”
Now we can think about the punk in a different way.
Set list: “Wing” from 1996’s “Gone Again;” “My Blakean Year” from 2004’s “Trampin’;” “Beneath the Southern Cross” also from 1996’s “Gone Again,” dedicated to Ginger Baker, the former Cream drummer who died earlier that day; a cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” from 2012’s “Banga;” and the closer “Pissing in a River” from 1976’s “Radio Ethiopia.”