Surrounded by books at St. Mark’s Bookshop Tuesday night, Patti Smith confessed to a standing-room only crowd that she stole books when she was too poor to afford them.
Fresh off her customary New Year’s show at the Bowery Ballroom run that turns out to be her last after 14 years, the singer and writer shared stories of youthful exploits like pinching books, waiting outside Max’s Kansas City to catch glimpses of downtown royalty Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick and sneaking into the Lower East Side of the ’60s for late-night parties, where she collected material for her songs.
Yet, despite the alluring rock ‘n’ roll surroundings of a then-derelict downtown, Smith became more interested in retreating into the poetic worlds of Arthur Rimbaud, William Burroughs and New Directions, the publisher who so many years later would print her own writing.
“If you live long enough, your dreams will come true,” Smith quipped to the crowd gathered to hear her literary locutions. Indeed, her tales of eating Joan of Arc kidney beans from the can on MacDougal Street across from the Gaslight and wandering around Lower Manhattan drinking Pernod in a poverty-fueled daze were testament to how far Smith has come.
The appreciative crowd overflowed into the street. When Smith asked jovially how the audience was holding up, an older woman next to me shouted “We’re out the door, Patti!” Smith deadpanned in response: “At least it’s nice and cool where you are. It’s a furnace up here.”
Smith retains some of the rebellious spirit of the old New York she knew. Indeed, returning to St. Mark’s Place, the gritty, glamorous, isolated East Village strip where she played her first shows, now triumphant with world tours, a family and many acclaimed books under her belt must have been a sweet moment. Yet, Smith shared that while enjoying herself at close friend Michael Stipe’s place on New Year’s, she forgot all about the scheduled reading, until one of his friends reminded her “I’m so excited for your reading, Patti.” “Reading? What reading?” She replied, “I’m not going.”
Smith champions the way of the word with passion, humor and humility. After reading her own lengthy and loving tribute to Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, Smith grinned up at her enrapt audience, saying, “That had a couple vocabulary words I didn’t know I knew.”
Smith’s 1992 collection of prose poems, Woolgathering, has just been re-released, and her book The Coral Sea, an homage to friend and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, is due out later this year from W.W. Norton.