“Because The Night” performed by Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye at Congregation Beth Elohim. (Video by Donny Levit / Park Slope Stoop)
“I have a chronic cough. If I have a coughing spell, […] don’t think I got something that you’ll catch. If I cough, just talk amongst yourselves.”
It’s hard to imagine, but Patti Smith — the iconic punk rock singer-songwriter, poet, visual artist, and author — has the ability to be effortlessly funny. Her writing — both on the page and through her voice — were on display at the Brooklyn By The Book gathering on September 15 at Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE).
And while her oeuvre has the markings of an intense artist, Smith allowed the audience to get to know many other layers of her persona.
Smith may have been serious about her cough, but the audience clearly recognized the topical parallel to the Hillary Clinton coughing fit dust-up all over the news.
“I am perfectly fit to govern the United States of America,” she added.
The punk rocker, who has been an influence for countless artists ever since she released her album Horses in 1975, offered up her newest book M Train last year. In her New York Times book review, Michiko Kakutani described it as a “kaleidoscopic ballad about the losses dealt out by time and chance and circumstance.”
Smith read from the postscript of M Train, which in less than 20 pages spans a tonal variety ranging from her coping with the death of Lou Reed to her coping with her favorite tv series The Killing being cancelled mid-plot.
“I had just seen him two weeks before in Omen, a favorite restaurant that serves Kyoto-style food,” Smith wrote of her last exchanges with Lou Reed, who died in 2013:
“Kind of Blue was playing quietly in the background. Lou and his wife, Laurie, were leaving and stopped by to say hello. I rose to greet them and we talked for several minutes. As we said goodbye Lou drew closer.
–I love you Patti, he said.
–I love you too, I responded.
It occurred to me later that in the forty-two years we had known each other, those words, however felt, were never spoken.”
In a stunning homage to Reed, Smith, along with guitarist and Patti Smith Group member Lenny Kaye, performed a keening version of The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes.”
Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye perform “Pale Blue Eyes” by The Velvet Underground at Congregation Beth Elohim. (Video by Donny Levit / Park Slope Stoop)
Smith then read about her opportunity to play a cameo in The Killing after she wrote a self-described “fan letter” to the show’s producer. Her storytelling of the event was more of a wide-eyed child than a seasoned artistic icon. Smith bubbled as she told the audience how she was able to keep the sweater of Detective Sarah Linden, one of the main characters in the series.
“On the plane [to the filming of her role in The Killing] I reflected on the fact that both my cameos were for favorite shows in the throes of cancellation,” Smith wrote (The other was Law & Order: Criminal Intent).
After Smith and Kaye performed her song “My Blakean Year” from Trampin’, her 2004 album, she took a moment to pick up her book while feeling around for her glasses. “Yes, I am related to Mr. Magoo,” she told the audience — an admittedly apt description of the moment. She quickly succeeded in finding her specs, which were bordered by thick, circular frames.
While question and answer sessions between audiences and artists can sometimes seem awkward and forced, Smith used her fan’s inquiries as spontaneous opportunities to reveal information about some of her most popular songs.
One audience member asked Smith if she still believed that “People Have The Power.”
“Do I still believe that people have the power? Well, that’s not my line, actually. It was Fred (Sonic) Smith’s,” she responded, speaking about her husband who died in 1994, an influential guitarist known for his band the MC5.
“I was peeling potatoes,” explained Smith. “He came in and said ‘People have the power’. And I wrote it.”
Both intimate and spiritually soaring, CBE’s sanctuary served as an ideal environment for this evening with Smith. The night concluded with a rousing acoustic anthemic version of “Because the Night,” one of her most well-known songs.
The synagogue transformed into a concert hall with literary attendees standing and clapping, with Smith slowly dancing through the audience.
The spiritual icon and spiritual house became one.
Full song list: “Pale Blue Eyes,” “My Blakean Years,” “Wing,” “Beneath the Southern Cross,” “Dancing Barefoot,” and “Because the Night.”