4:21 pm Aug. 8, 2012
“Does my voice sound frog-like and tired?” Patti Smith asked her audience at Brooklyn Bridge Park Tuesday night. For a singer-songwriter, she seemed oddly self-deprecating about her voice, comparing it moments later to “a voice from an old hollow hill, whatever that is.”
Smith was being entirely too modest. Behind her, speedboats thrummed and yachts honked as they plied the East River. Cars thumped on the B.Q.E. to the west, and the F.D.R. Drive on the far shore. But her voice rose above it all, true and clear.
In July, park officials launched the inaugural Books Beneath The Bridge series, a series of free weekly outdoor author readings. Smith’s billing, the penultimate in a six-part series, recognized her contributions to literature for four decades. She published Seventh Heaven, one of her first poetry collections, in 1972, long before she was to become a punk-rock legend. Several more books followed, and her 2010 memoir Just Kids won a National Book Award, but her writing work, however impressive, isn’t likely to overshadow her musical legacy anytime soon.
“I love her music, especially the first album Horses,” said Diana Johnston, a 28-year-old who works in publishing. “I really don’t know about her written work.” She said she hoped to change that by attending the event.
The spotlight was firmly on Smith’s work as poet and memoirist. For well over an hour, dwarfed by a silhouette of skyscrapers that dissolved as night fell into mere pixels of light, Smith read selections from works of poetry (Woolgathering, The Coral Sea) and prose (Just Kids).
Malene Lauritsen, a freelance photojournalist from Denmark, said she drew inspiration from Smith’s writings as well as her political activism.
“I loved Just Kids so much. That book was one long poem: the whole story of the starving artist, and her very strong female power,” said Lauritsen, 29. “Even now, she’s like the coolest person ever. So funny and sarcastic and serious.”
Those qualities were evident when Smith took the stage. She apologized for wearing the “same ratty clothes” she had worn for weeks —loose blue jeans, an even looser black jacket that fell mid-thigh, and tan boots. She warned that she overused the word “so” to start sentences (“Maybe it’s because my grandmother was a lacemaker”) and paid a moment’s tribute to “the terrible things going on in the world.”
Then she began to read verses and passages from her works, sprinkled with no-last-name-needed references to “Robert” and “Allen” and “Sam.” The readings were interspersed with impromptu anecdotes.
“Once in a while, a friend would give Robert a tab of acid. On would come that Vanilla Fudge record. Over and over.” And a little later: “It never occurred to me back then to write songs. Sam was the first person to ask me to write songs for him for his plays.”
As she read from the poem “Piss Factory,” about feeling stifled in a lousy job as a teen, Smith’s voice rose fierce in a syncopated cadence; her right leg vibrated, and a hand thumped the lectern in rhythm to the verse. Her voice softened —and her right hand rose to her left breast—when she read from “Reflecting Robert,” a poem written right after the photographer Mapplethorpe’s death.
Switching between books, Smith often digressed (“Sorry, I don’t often digress. Usually I’m right on point”) but her pride in the works was evident. Woolgathering, she noted at one point, was published by New Directions decades after she first dreamed of having them publish her poetry.
“So for any struggling poet, don’t give up,” she said. A little later, she held the little book aloft to her audience and said, “It’s how they used to make books. It’s cloth, all embossed, all hand-sewn. It’s the perfect specimen of a book.”
Then Smith took questions from the audience. How does one make a living as a musician, someone asked. The question seemed to rile her.
“You might have to get two jobs instead of one, I don’t know,” she said. “The goal is to do great work. I worked 9-to-5 jobs for years. Maybe go back home and stay in the garage of your parents. What the fuck. How much are you willing to sacrifice?”
The next question—about her clothing and style—elicited a more sporting response. That baggy black jacket? Made especially for her by the Belgian fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester. Smith did a little catwalk, twirled and revealed the matching vest’s backless design to cheers from the onlookers. Those rather masculine boots? Brushed, gold-flecked leather pull-on boots by Jimmy Choo.
“Fashion-wise, I’m in a Hunger Games mood,” she said. “Sort of Katniss in the woods.”
Smith returned to the podium to read a final poem.
“Every performer has to have a grand finale,” she said. “And I don’t want to be upstaged by my own boots.”
After Smith had completed her finale, Seamus Creighton, a 35-year-old writer from Boerum Hill, lingered on the steps of the park’s Granite Overlook with his girlfriend. A fan of Smith’s poetry, he said he was moved, most of all, by her reading of the poem “Indian Rubies.”
“To see someone of her stature read for free, and in such a beautiful location,” he said, with his eyes fixed on the glittering skyline. “The ambience was A-plus.”
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