SAN FRANCISCO -- Patti Smith was nervous as she took a seat onstage at the
Concourse Exhibition Center on Sunday, and she let it be known.
"Bear with me," she told the audience. "I'll get over it in a couple of minutes."
Smith, a singer/songwriter and poet who has been hailed as the "godmother of punk
rock," was here to read from "Patti Smith Complete", her recently released
collection of poems, lyrics and reminiscences. The 250-page book contains the lyrics to
her seven albums as well as personal reflections that open the door to Smith's creative
mind and soul.
Smith also performed six songs with guitarist Oliver Ray during her appearance, which
was part of the San Francisco Bay Area Book Festival.
She had plenty of support to help her get through her case of nerves. Despite pouring
rain, a sellout crowd of more than 500 showed up, overwhelming the book festival. The
fans ranged from elementary-school kids to graying adults -- such as Smith herself.
Scores of fans unable to gain admission to the reading gathered at the foot of the stairs
that led up to the seating area in front of the stage, where they hung on Smith's words
that resonated through the convention hall.
The dimly lit room and the nearness of the audience gave the performance a sense of
intimacy accentuated by Smith's candor and -- once she got over her nervousness --
In a white V-neck shirt and black jacket, with a red bandanna loosely tied around her
neck, the 51-year-old Smith settled into her seat and immediately apologized for any hint
of commercialism that could be read into her appearance. She emphasized how
important independent book stores had been in getting her career started.
Repeatedly making jokes, many at her own expense, Smith read a mixture of lyrics and
anecdotes from "Complete." She began by telling the story behind "Birdland" (a
song from her 1975 debut, Horses) and reading the lyrics. The rain pouring down
on the skylights added an extra dimension to Smith's emotionally raw presentation.
Before reading the poem that preceded "Rock N Roll Nigger" on her Easter album
(1978), a piece called "Babelogue" on the album but untitled in the book, Smith
addressed "all those under 12 in the audience" about her use of four-letter words.
"All words are good," she explained. "You just have to know the proper place to use
Smith probably was speaking from her experience as a mother. After helping launch the
New York punk scene in the early '70s, she retired to raise a family before resurfacing as
a musician in the late '80s.
She repeatedly took her glasses off and put them back on as she read. Her soft delivery
of the lyrics to "Wild Leaves" -- written as a 41st-birthday present for her friend, the late
photographer Robert Mapplethorpe -- was particularly memorable. That song originally
had appeared as the B-side to Smith's 1988 comeback single, the anthemic "People
Have The Power."
"Everything she does is an inspiration," listener Hilary Reed, 29, said of Smith. "She's
down-to-earth, relaxed and accessible."
In addition, Smith and guitarist Oliver Ray performed a short set that included
Barefoot"(RealAudio excerpt), from 1979's Wave album. Responding to
the cheering crowd, Smith joked, "That was really exciting. How do I know? Because
many strings were broken."
The highlight of the performance was the heartfelt "Farewell," which Smith wrote in
memory of her late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, who was a member of the '60s
agit-rock band the MC5. It took a few tries for Smith to get the opening lines right on
guitar. She shrugged off those false starts with a warning to the children in the crowd:
"See? Now, for those under 12, this is why you should do your homework."
Smith closed with
HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Smith,_Patti/Because_The_Night.ram">"Because the Night"
the Night"(RealAudio excerpt), which she wrote with a fellow New Jerseyite,
blue-collar rocker Bruce Springsteen, and a rousing version of "People Have The
Following the reading and concert, fans rushed down the stairs for Smith's book-signing.
The immense line winding through the convention hall gave further testament to the
adoration in which she's held. The long wait didn't seem to faze crowd-members eager
to meet her.
"She's personal and personable," Canon Wing, 27, said, patiently waiting in line with
about 200 people in front of her. "Her work transcends genre with an open heart. But at
the same time, she's cutting and never takes the easy road. That's what makes her so