Here's something that I overheard after I saw Patti Smith at The New Yorker Festival, "So, I'm thinking of going to this panel where Atul Gawande talks about vampires. I don't know how that's going to work exactly. He's a doctor?"
Vampire Weekend, I thought. He's going to interview Vampire Weekend. Not vampires. There are times when that kind of overheard conversational snippet will burrow under my skin and I pick it at and scratch at it and just kind of hate the world. But not this time. Not this time! Because, this time, I was just coming from hearing Patti Smith talking about everything from her time in Brooklyn with Robert Mapplethorpe to her love for St. Francis of Assisi to her song-writing techniques, "I love a one-chord song, but you gotta get the right one. It's always D."
So for about an hour and a half, Patti Smith talked and sang to all of us sitting in what appeared to be an Acura showroom that was located in the reaches of the far west 30s of Manhattan. Smith was being interviewed by poet Paul Muldoon, and he was very skilled at occasionally prompting her with questions in his lilting Irish accent, and then just sitting back and enjoying what she had to say.
And she had a lot to say. She was open and funny and didn't hold anything back in a way that made her appear youthful, or rather timeless, in a way that was belied by her reminder to us that she was "65-years-old and has been doing this for a long fucking time." That line, by the way, was said into a hand-held microphone that replaced her static-y body mike. Smith was given the new mike and held it front of her for a beat before saying, "I hate these things. It's like half-dick, half-ice cream cone." There is so much to appreciate about this woman, it's hard to know even where to begin.
It's hard, ok, no, it's totally impossible, to make assessments of "artists" as some sort of whole group that can be understood through an interview with an iconic artist like Smith. But Smith really makes you want to do just that, because she seems like some sort of Platonic ideal of an intelligent musician and writer in a way that it is so easy to latch on to, and try to universalize. Basically, she gives killer quotes.
Here's Patti Smith:
On poetry: Poetry is the most terrible of the arts. It's the most exquisite, the most laborious, the most painful. It tortures you. It torments you. It's like golf.
On traveling: My packing is so pathetic. I have it up on my website. 2 pairs of dungarees...a Murakami book...and a hoodie.
On popularity: We're not really that popular in America. [Paul Muldoon: Not true. How do you know?] Ticket sales.
On rehearsal with her band: That's how I prepare, idiosyncratically. Today is the day St. Francis of Assisi died and we're gonna focus on that. And they're like, "Okay."
On Bob Dylan and her song with Blue Oyster Cult "The Revenge of Vera Gemini": Bob's a Gemini. I think he's Vera or Vera could be the secretary of Mickey Spillane.
On Mickey Spillane: I'm still writing a [detective story.] It was gonna be a little book, but now it's gonna be an epic.
On New York City: When I can't take anymore, I'm leaving. The city's changed but also the culture's changed. It's still a great city, and when I leave, I'm only going a subway ride away. Like to Coney Island.
On death: It's part of the package. When Robert Mapplethorpe died, I didn't put him away. I like having him around every day. My husband, I still look for shirts for him. It's memory.
Smith finished up her time with us by playing five songs, and was accompanied by her bassist, Tony Shanahan. Her singing and playing (that one-chord! that beautiful D-chord!) were energized and soulful. After having spent the last hour hearing so much about her influences, many of them friends and artists who had passed away, the songs were imbued with even more meaning. She led off with "In My Blakean Year" and told us that this song came about because, "I dreamed it and when I woke up, I was singing it."
Then came a song dedicated to Amy Winehouse ("This is the Girl") and one to Roberto Bolaño ("Beneath the Southern Cross") and "Banga." Smith finished with a rousing "People Have the Power" after shouting to her audience, "C'mon, all you intellectuals! Anyone can play one-chord! Anyone can be an asshole!" Which was funny, and no doubt true, but kind of an easy thing to say to a bunch of people at the New Yorker Festival.
But it was during "Banga," as she sang the lyric about how "the paw is pressed against the nerve of the sky" that Patti Smith—the tormented, haunted, hilarious Patti Smith—came through the clearest, singing into the lights that she told us blinded her, singing about how "you can leave him twice, but he won't leave you." Singing about memory and loss and love and death to all of us, sitting there, in a luxury car showroom in what used to be called Hell's Kitchen.
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