The John Hancock Hall in the Back Bay Events Center was filled with people of all different ages, callings, and genders this Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. A spacious room centered around a large and empty stage with hundreds of eager fans waiting with baited breath, all united in anticipation. Enthusiasts ranging from high-school freshmen to grandparents with graying hair sat next to each other, all excitedly chattering over one shared interest–godmother of punk, Patti Smith.
A sold-out event, the Harvard Book Store hosted the Patti Smith at Back Bay Events Center lecture as part of the “Why I Write” series. Members of the audience tightly clutched Smith’s newest book, Devotion (Why I Write), flipping through the pages beforehand to get a preview of what was to come as they entered the auditorium.
On the stage, a single spotlight illuminated the dark floor, bare except for a stool with two water bottles, one chair, and one guitar. Then, the punk poet walked out.
Despite the roaring cheers from the audience, that filled the room at a deafening volume,Smith sauntered onto the stage calmly. A profound poet, lyricist, and performer, she had done this many times before. Turning to face the stage and peering through the dark sunglasses perched on the bridge of her nose, she looked both somber and sober, a wise professor before her adoring pupils. With a voice and history like Smith’s, however, she was no ordinary lecturer. She uttered her first words to the audience stoically, with the familiar and raspy voice that she is known worldwide for.
“This evening is going to be an exercise in surmounting derision,” Smith said.
Although the lecture was planned around discussing Smith’s new book, Devotion (Why I Write), she announced to the audience that she had a level-seven migraine and did not feel well enough to discuss the book. Instead of reviewing her writing process or the book she just published, she would rather perform.
“The good thing about singing,” Smith said, “is that it can be quite healing.”
Asking the audience if they had seen Darren Aronofsky’s recently released film mother!, a film for which she had recorded the soundtrack, Smith stated that she would perform her cover of Skeeter Davis’s, “The End of the World.” The last time she performed this cover had been live at the film’s premiere at Radio City Music Hall. Unlike the confident performance at the premiere, tonight she was extremely nervous because of migraine. At one point during the song, she forgot the lyrics, and laughing, scanned the orchestra pit for her daughter, Jesse Paris Smith. After some encouragement from her daughter and a few sips of water, she continued the song.
Smith continued to sing a range of her songs, from the 1979 released single “Dancing Barefoot,” to the 2004 “My Blakean Year.” Both songs, “My Blakean Year” in particular, are a reminder to people that, despite adversity, it is important to never give up.
When reaching the topic of her book, Smith kept the discussion short. She explained that Devotion serves as a 3-D exercise on the writing process. Devotion explains, shows, and presents the writing process as a whole. In total, however, Smith was pretty close-lipped about her book, simply explaining that it’s pretty short.
“It’s such a little book, I mean really, you’re having a rough day in the bathroom you can finish it,” Smith said.
As the discussion continued, the conversation–and the mood–turned to one of mourning. When the topic of Sam Shepard, one of Smith’s closest friends, was broached. Shepard, who was a playwright, author, director, and screenwriter, recently passed away at the age of 73 due to complications from ALS. Smith and Shepard met in the 1970s, when Shepard was already a renowned playwright.
“I’m not quite ready to talk about Sam, I just miss him so much,” Smith said. “I met him when I was 23 years old, really he was in three-quarters of my life.”
The quiet energy buzzing around the room reached its peak and spilled over when Smith introduced her next song, co-collaborated with Bruce Springsteen. “Because the Night,” definitively Smith’s most popular song, was first released in 1978 as Smith’s first single off her album Easter. Tonight she dedicated her performance to both her daughter and her daughter’s father, Fred “Sonic” Smith.
“I’m choosing this one because I was collaborating and I wrote verses for Jesse’s father, Fred, of course,” Smith said, “and the devotion I felt for him as a young girl has not diminished.”
The audience sang with Smith during the chorus. Together, every voice from the hall joined together in a harmonious celebration of not only Smith, but the legacy that her music and writing has created. As one, the crowd began to clap along and sway to the music, a truly surreal moment. By the last few lyrics, the crowd stopped and listened, in awe of Smith as she crooned the final words, recognizing that “the night belongs to love.”
“This song is really hard to sing with a headache, so if you could help, that would be great,” Smith. said
Despite her headache, Smith was still able to give advice to young adults in the audience who are interested in writing or performing. When asked by a teacher what Smith thinks the most important book for teenagers to read is, Smith paused before responding. She emphasized the importance of the individual, as everyone’s unique identity is special in itself. There can be no essential book for everyone to read, because everyone digests information differently.
“You can’t really tell people what an essential book is because different books are essential to different people,” Smith said. “Tell them to read, read, read, read read.”
Before closing with her acapella rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Smith left some parting words. She thanked the audience for both their attentiveness and their acceptance, then thanking her daughter for all of the help and support she gave during the performance.
“As Bob Dylan says, ‘Just do your thing, and you can be king,’” said Smith.
Featured Image by Kelsey McGee / Heights Editor