Patti Smith has had an amorphous career. Even before she published her National Book Award-winning memoir, “Just Kids,” in 2010, it always seemed salient to ask whether the artist was more of a musician or a poet. Now after her book’s publication we’ve had to ask whether the 66 year-old has been a writer this whole time.
Nowadays, Smith claims writing is her favorite medium, which fits well into her rock legacy. Smith, like The Velvet Underground and Plastic Ono Band, made her mark by smelting traditional western methods of interpretive lyrical meaning to the plebeian noise of rock music. With such literary aspirations, it’s easy to believe Smith may have been a writer amid other parts of her persona.
However it became unclear which part of her persona Smith was trying to showcase during a performance at Bryn Mawr this past Thursday. Smith had been invited to Bryn Mawr College to accept the Katharine Hepburn Medal, an award “given to women whose lives, work and contributions embody the intelligence, drive and independence of the four-time-Oscar-winning actress” and Bryn Mawr alum.
But before the evening award ceremony at the campus’s Goodheart Hall, Smith gave an afternoon “performance” in the same cathedral-like venue. Yet performance would not be the most accurate word. Though billed to perform a concert, Smith’s hour of stage time only saw her perform three songs, which more closely resembled ‘an afternoon with Patti Smith.’
Smith began her onstage time by asking for audience questions, promptings which allowed her to derail into anecdotes about meeting Kevin Shields in Korea and receiving the first CD copy of the new My Bloody Valentine album or her daughter’s eating of all the ceremonial cookies at Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist funeral ceremony. Later she played two songs on her guitar, read two short passages from “Just Kids,” and closed her hour with an a cappella sing-along of “Because the Night.”
This was far from a concert. Though, to be fair, the audience seemed content that Patti Smith was onstage in front of them and acting like Patti Smith.
Yet this was not the rocker who screeched, “I don’t need their fucking shit,” while covering “My Generation” on her seminal album “Horses.” Sure, Smith had no problem throwing off pretensions by throwing in some swears over the course of an hour — “Don’t worry about being embarrassed,” she told the crowd, “now and then everyone looks like an asshole” — but she didn’t intend to fill Goodheart Hall with the radical punk spirit with which she’s oft associated. Instead, the Patti Smith who stood on stage in front of hundreds of Tri-Co students was there to accept a lifetime achievement award from a top liberal arts college, and she acted like it.
Smith spent lots of time offering the audience platitudes and wisdom as if giving a commencement speech. “I wish I’d listened more to my mom,” she said at one point. “Your parents will just drive you crazy, but they know stuff. They’ve already been there.”
Smith understood that the crowd had gathered not to see Patti Smith the poet, Patti Smith the musician, or Patti Smith the writer. They’d gathered to see Patti Smith the celebrity, and so she opened herself up and gave them as much of her persona as she could fit into one hour.
She talked about growing up outside Camden, N.J., about her hungry days at the Chelsea Hotel, about the simple pleasures of hearing your favorite album after a couple of drinks; and she did so in her own Patti Smith way: disarmingly charming, bull-whip smart phrases delivered in the syntax of the street.
The audience loved her without her doing much except — of course — being herself, which is what she’d been invited to Bryn Mawr to celebrate.