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Patti Smith Shares Her Power

10/08/2013

Patti Smith performs Because the Night, a chart-topping song she co-wrote with Bruce Springstein in 1978. | photo by David O'Connor

Even if you weren’t privy to the rebellious start of the New York punk scene, chances are you’d recognize the distinctive voice of legendary artist Patti Smith. Not only is the creative visionary a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, but her masterful gift with words has earned her a prestigious National Book Award and a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of the Arts.

In a rare appearance, Smith visited RISD on Wednesday, October 2 to deliver the RISD Museum’s 37th- annual Gail Silver Memorial Lecture – in this case, an informal compilation of readings from her books, peppered with a few songs. “Like the best American artists, Patti continually pushes boundaries and opens new frontiers,” Museum Director John W. Smith noted in welcoming the evening’s featured speaker on stage. “Her work can feel improvisational, yet it is carefully and purposefully crafted. It moves effortlessly between the spiritual and the physical. I can’t think of any American artist who contains more multitudes.”

Wearing faded jeans and a professorial blazer and speaking to an overflow crowd at the RISD Auditorium, Smith opened the evening with a reading of The Lovecrafter, her poem paying homage to both wandering nurseryman Johnny Appleseed and legendary Victorian-era horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, a native of Providence. “One could say: How does this [poem] make sense?” Smith noted with a wry smile. “Well, Johnny planted the trees that made the desks that writers such as H. P. Lovecraft labored on. That’s brilliant, right?”

The reigning “godmother of punk” also read several passages from Just Kids, her award-winning memoir chronicling her years living with famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe as the two of them were just starting out as artists. Reading from one passage, she recounted the state of their small, sparsely decorated New York City apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, where one of the culinary specialties she perfected was lettuce soup – a cheap meal that “covered all the major food groups” but could be made quickly on their small gas burner. “I was always hungry,” she noted. “Robert could go much longer without eating than me, but I metabolized my food more quickly.”

That ravenous craving eventually drove each of them to achieve great artistic success – and sometimes led to serendipitous encounters. One night when an especially famished Smith ventured to the local automat to buy a sandwich, she discovered she was 10 cents short. The lanky brunette was scrounging through her pockets hoping to find more change when Beatnik poet and political activist Allen Ginsberg offered to pay for her sandwich and buy her a cup of coffee – discovering only later that she actually wasn’t a “very pretty boy.” Over time, the two became great friends and, as she recounted with a smile, years later when “Allen asked me to describe how we met, I told him, ‘You fed me when I was hungry.’ And he did.”

In one of the most charged moments of the night, Smith recited the lyrics to her famous song People Have the Power, driving home the beauty and urgency of the message through the rhythm of her poetry. She also responded to a question from the audience by sharing the story behind Because the Night, a chart-topping hit she co-wrote with Bruce Springstein in 1978. She explained how she wrote the lyrics to the song Springstein had started while impatiently waiting for a long-distance call from her boyfriend Fred “Sonic” Smith, the man she later married. 

“I needed something to do with my nervous energy,” Smith said, explaining that he had failed to call at the designated time. “By the time Fred called at 1 in the morning, I had written the lyrics to my first hit song.” After admitting to knowing only five chords on guitar, she performed a slightly altered version of the popular song as the audience joyfully piped in (with surprising pitch) during the chorus. “I joke about Because the Night, but I’ve always been grateful to Bruce for that song,” she said.

At the end of the evening – after allowing herself a few minutes to make good on her threat to lecture about dental hygiene – Smith took a moment to expound on the importance of non-violent civil disobedience. “We need to do as Gandhi told us,” she said, clasping her hands. “If we don’t unite as a people – and take things into our own hands – the government, corporations, pharmaceutical companies and the defense [department] will just keep running our world. It’s up to us.”

Abigail Crocker + Liisa Silander

related links:

•    Patti Smith
•    RISD Museum


tags: RISD Museum, students

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Furniture Design students walk along the riverfront, carrying their projects to class.