“You hop on a train, a train of thought.” Patti Smith sits in an overstuffed chair, lank and silver-haired, long hands draping over armrests, talking about her new book, M Train, with her interviewer, Tony Paris. She’s a storyteller, talking about her deceased husband Fred Sonic Smith, her children, growing up in rural New Jersey, where nobody ever leaves, and leaving. Her Jersey accent is strong and rhythmic, her voice only a little raspy, although she’s recovering from a cold. Conversation is peppered with references to pop culture that I don’t get for the most part. She is unexpectedly feminine. About some techno something, she says, “I’m a twentieth-century girl.” Talking about being asked her occupation by an airline questionnaire, she says she puzzled over it: poet? She said, “I’m not a musician.” Someone told her to put “entertainer.”
In the Q&A, a young woman asks, talking quickly as though embarrassed, “I know you’re spry-as-hell and sharp-as-a-tack, but what about, I mean, what about when, what about what you leave behind?”
Slowly, deliberately, “You mean, when I die?”
I wait for the explosion. Patti Smith spry? Sharp as a tack? What condescending, ageist crap is this? That little egg, that acorn, that embryo, how dare she say that to the Godmother of Punk?
The outburst doesn’t come right then, but does later, when Patti answers another question and starts blasting out profanity and invective, not mean, just exasperated, angry, pure New York, New Jersey, pure no-sh*t, no-f**kin’way. She orders a guy to shut off the light from his mobile device. He must not have done it, since a few minutes later, she orders him to do it again. Like so many of us, she doesn’t respond to the most direct insult, but blows up about something else, maybe something not quite so close to the bone. She’d probably deny that. It may not be true.
Then, after the questions, when we think it’s time to go, she stands still, a beanpole topped with a white sweeping brush, hands by her sides, and says almost apologetically that she’s sorry she can’t sign our books, but she’s getting over something, and so instead she and a guy who comes onstage with a guitar are going to do a mini-concert.
Lights go down, bright red backlight flashes in vertical bars on the back curtains, we see the piano, the guitar guy starts, and before we can believe our good fortune, she starts to sing.
In the 80s, I never listened to Patti Smith. My partner at the time listened to anything women sang, from Meg Christian to Aretha to Janis Joplin to opera singers Marilyn Horne and Kiri Te Kanawa. I listened to these, plus Chopin, Mozart, and silence.
But one night, on the radio in a hotel room, I heard a powerful female voice singing “Be-cause the Night Was Made for Lovers.” I was mesmerized. Then I filed it away. I wrote a story about a woman rocker who sang that song, as well as other songs of her own making. She was modeled, I realize now, on this woman singer, this presence, who was there on the edge of my consciousness.
Patti Smith sings four songs. She is mesmerizing, tall, sketches minimal gestures with those long witch hands, the stage lights at one point edging her with green fire, her hair a green-white blaze. She ends with “Because the Night Was Made for Lovers.” The audience goes wild, on their feet, cheering and clapping, faces glowing with the ancient joy of communal music. All of us stand and sway and sing along, including kids whose parents weren’t old enough to drink when she began her career. She encourages and conducts us, stepping forward and waving her arms, stopping singing to hear us sing the chorus, then singing again. She is cured from whatever ailed her by this connection, this ritual.
Occupation? Why not shaman, witch?
As we leave, still high on the unexpected and un-looked-for experience, I notice that this is the whitest, most heterosexual crowd I’ve been in for quite a while. That thought brings me down some. Punk anarchic music can and has spoken to people of color, but not this evening. The crowd was of mixed ages. Plenty of white and gray heads in the audience, plenty of lined faces. Yet the absence of dark faces and queer styles saddens me.
Yet I celebrate Patti Smith for who she is, a woman of strengths and lacks. She is in her seventies. A rock star who has grown old like a rock. Like the stones she writes about in her book M Train, stones brought from a French Guiana prison to give to Jean Genet, she’s worn, crumbling around the edges, silvered with mica and dust, but still riding her trains of thought, a raspy voice of female rage, anarchy, passion, and exultant joy.