Patti Smith was in San Francisco, this is what she said
There she was, the one and only, the punk rock poet laureate of past, present, and future – Patti Smith. She was dressed in her quintessential baggy clothes – big brown jacket, loose black jeans, booming stringy gray hair – dragging her doc marten’s in a slow-moving gait maintaining the slightest stutter-step. As she took the stage with her interviewer Dan Stone, I thought to myself, I didn’t know you could get star struck from the upper balcony. I had been listening to Patti’s music since Horses and all through her 11 studio albums, 3 live albums, and beyond. Like Rimbaud, Ginsberg, and Dorothy Parker before her, Patti Smith had that same glint of mysterious shamanistic raw energy capable of stringing together lyrics infused with whispers of the other side and the side right here in the streets, the gutter, the corners where society would rather not look.
Before Dan started, Patti had to let everyone know she was wearing her favorite coat.
“Why’s it your favorite?” Dan inquired.
“No real reason,” Smith said. “It’s just a brown Japanese linen coat, but it’s my favorite. I guess I figured I should wear my favorite coat in my favorite city.”
Patti’s tone was cordial and warm like an old friendly neighbor, one happened upon here and there at the neighborhood corner store.
They transitioned into discussing some of her favorite spots in San Francisco.
“I mean the Fillmore,” she explained, “But they don’t ever ask me to play. I gotta’ make that call to get the job.”
The humility she has, seconded by the genuine happiness and appreciation of being in the room just to talk to people, played through the rest of the interview and performance.
“I always imagine ol’ Jerry Garcia clumping up those stairs,” she joked to a big laugh.
Smith went on to mention City Lights Bookstore and Publishers, the downtown Bridge which is mentioned in her book, and Cafe Trieste which she only went to because of her late friend Sandy Pearlman.
“Also that novel Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan!” Patti laughed.
Much like in her book, Smith was full of these references pulling from Shakespeare to Camus to her dear friend Sandy.
“Sandy was a visionary, talkin’ three sentences at the same time,” Patti joked to more laughter. “He loved The Matrix and cheesecake. He was the one that told me I should be a rock n’ roll singer. I told him, I already got a job at the bookstore. Why would I want to do that?” More laughter erupted. “But Sandy and Sam were both supportive of me. They believed I could do anything.”
Sam Shepard and their 40 plus year relationship of art, process, love, friendship, and together facing mortality followed.
“Sam was his own man. No tech. He wrote by hand or by typewriter. One of the best pieces of advice he gave me was, don’t forget to mess up and to save some for yourself.”
Shepard passed in 2017 from complications of ALS.
“Sam would orate to me, I would write it down, then I would read everything back to him, over and over, editing like that until he heard what he liked,” Smith explained. “That was his way, his process, which is one of the only things an artist truly owns – their process.”
Smith would get up to read three times throughout the night. Her final reading ended with the lines, one cannot approximate truth, add nor take away, for there is no one earth like the true shepherd, and there is nothing in heaven like the suffering of real life. They left me stunned. Her ability to possess such extremes of happiness and adoration for existence, while, at the same time, recognizing the universal pain in it. After a hush in the audience, she took the mic to cover Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. She was poised like a living saint in the white and blue light of the stage. At one point, she forgot a lyric and apologized, making me recall her Nobel Prize speech for Dylan a few years back. She had the same nerves, the same stage fright, showing that she truly holds no differentiation in class, status, or formality. In every sense of the title, Smith is a poet not just for the people, but all people.
Smith would go on to perform her own song Blakeian Dreams, showing her vodka wanderer edge honoring the nearly forgotten Englishman William Blake. She ended with Pissing in a River which she prefaced, somewhat self-consciously considering the lyrics and tone of the song, that we are all here together, having a good night as one. I felt that she wanted us to make sure not to sink into the illusion that outside the walls of the Nourse Theatre, (now called the Sydney Goldstein Theater), everything was dandy and alright. As an artist, she was always cognizant, especially through her lyrics, pissing in a river, watching it rise/tattoo fingers shy away from me (which is a reference to the tattoos her and Shepard got as kids) that we always needed to rebel the powers that aim to drown us in greed, corruption, and corporate manipulation.
Patti ended the night with her body and soul balancing on the razor’s edge of beauty and chaos. With her song and her voice, she was able to tap into and then reflect from every multitude of being. As tears began to take my eyes, feeling that her song was about to end, I realized that I was finally witnessing the mystic, the seer, the punk rock queen in her final form of expression; facing all and nothing and nothing at all, for her, for us, for everyone.