I get the chills watching this even though I was there. It’s endearing how nervous Patti Smith was before she launched into ‘Because the Night’—the song that made her famous, that she’s performed countless times in venues much larger than Benaroya Hall. But after you see the rock legend live or read her new memoir Just Kids, you realize her confidence has always been a little shaky. She thought of herself as a gawky teen, someone who was “not gifted, but imaginative”. Rather than dreaming of being a star, she bragged that someday “she’d be an artist’s mistress”, a Frida Khalo to someone’s Diego Rivera. She found strength through companionship, and Just Kids is a tribute to one lost love in particular: photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. While on his death bed, Mapplethorpe made Smith promise to tell their story. It was a labor of love, but 21 years later, she’s done—and it’s beautiful.
With large-rimmed reading specs on, a mellowed godmother of punk read excerpts last night, speaking openly about how she used to sleep on the subway in New York City and barely had enough money to eat; how Mapplethorpe rescued her from a bad date with a sci-fi writer; and how Allen Ginsberg hit on her when he thought she was a boy (“a very pretty boy”). At turns poetic and self-deprecating, Smith charmed every single person in the house. We were in the presence of greatness. And she didn’t even know how great she is.
My favorite line of the night came when Seattle rock critic Charles Cross told Smith that Oprah’s O magazine called her a fashion icon. Without missing a beat, Smith said:
“It’s not my fault.” Pause. Big laughs. “I’ve always loved fashion—I’ve just got my way of dealing with it.”
Patti Smith stars in Robert Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids on display at Henry Art Gallery through January 31.