In a church service like no other, “Godmother of Punk” Patti Smith brought a couple hundred people to their feet Wednesday night at St. Mark’s Church, fists pumping and voices rising to the 200-year-old ceiling to the tune of “Gloria,” the lead track off her revolutionary punk-rock-meets-poetry album, Horses. Forty years ago today, she and guitarist Lenny Kaye did their first poetry performance in this very spot, with New York legends Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Sam Shepard, Robert Mapplethorpe and others in the front row of the audience. Last night, those ghosts were palpable in the space simply referred to as “the sanctuary.”
The service began with an introduction by Poetry Project artistic director Stacy Szymaszek, followed by a beautiful reading by Smith’s longtime friend and poet Janet Hamill. Then another energetic and heartfelt introduction by former Poetry Project director Anne Waldman, rattling off for pages a laundry list of Smith and Kaye’s accomplishments and personable qualities, set the tone for the rest of the evening: spiritual and triumphant. Smith took the stage solo first, rising from her seat on the floor and grinning from ear to ear at the thunderous applause. She said, “Well, I can’t really live up to that. Time to prove Anne wrong.” Her graciousness and humility was, as always, on prominent display.
After announcing that her soul was in Cairo, but her heart with us, Smith began with the first poem she ever read publicly, at just 20 years old: “Oath,” which begins with her famous line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” History exploded for a moment, as the realization dawned across the room, that we were all witnessing something that 40 years of time and space couldn’t squelch. She then progressed through a series of poems: “Dog Dream” – a poem she penned after she and former lover Sam Shepard awoke one morning in the Chelsea Hotel and realized they had the same dream about Bob Dylan. Smith did her best Dylan impression – and really it’s quite good – as she described him confronting her about the poem: “Patti, what’s ‘Dog Dream’ about?” Her response: “I dunno, Bob. It was just a dream.”
Smith discussed her love for French poet Arthur Rimbaud, responding to criticism that she loved a dead man more than living ones: “I figured I’d get as much from him as I ever did a live boy.” She then read her poem “Dream of Rimbaud” before guitarist and lifelong friend Lenny Kaye took the stage to do a solo performance. Smith followed with several segments from her heart-wrenching memoir Just Kids, including her unforgettable description of meeting Allen Ginsberg in an automat after he mistook her for a boy.
Smith picked up her acoustic guitar, commenting that 40 years later she can still only play seven chords. “It’s philosophical,” she said, giggling. “I don’t want to be better than anyone else.” She and Kaye played “My Blakean Year” – which Smith began with a long public thank you to Kaye for standing by her for so long – followed by “Redondo Beach,” in honor of actress and friend Maria Schneider who passed away earlier this month. Then an incredibly moving rendition of “Pissin’ in a River,” dedicated to friend Paul Getty, who also passed away this month. Smith then kissed her guitar as Kaye picked up his electric. Smith then performed “Ballad of a Bad Boy,” a poem seemingly about Sam Shepard’s car, and the closing song, “Gloria.”
Smith has achieved such fame with her album Horses and her subsequent 11 albums – not to mention a National Book Award for last year’s Just Kids – that it would be easy for her to retreat from life, a reclusive artist taking her sojourn from the modern world, a place less and less interested in poetry, or any art form that takes up more than 140 characters. Instead, here she was shouting, “Don’t let poetry die! The world needs poetry! Keep it alive!” during her rousing performance of “Gloria.” Everything seemed to grow silent for a moment as she spread her arms on an invisible crucifix, arched her back and to the skies belted the last “Gloooooooria!” It was a sound that seemed not to emit from her mouth but from some place between her rib cage and hips. Here she was, still moving souls and hearts in a more guttural way than perhaps any musician alive today, 40 years after her debut. With any luck, we’ll hear that growl for 40 more.
By Meghan Blalock
Photo courtesy of Jenny Anderson