Aftermath: Patti Smith, Not Quite As Mythic As Her Music, At U of H

Ed. note: Aftermath forgot to mention that Patti Smith came to Houston out of the goodness of her heart without pay to read for VBB, which, in spite of her exhaustion from travel, we thought was very cool of her.

Have you ever gone to see an artist, but then wished you hadn't? Not because of a bad performance, but just because the real-life person didn't fit so neatly into the tiny box you'd made for them in your brain? That's how Aftermath felt about seeing Patti Smith last night at the University of Houston's Cullen Performance Hall. Smith was brought to town by Voices Breaking Boundaries in promotion of the musician's new memoir about bohemian New York in the late 1960s and '70s.

Smith read excerpts from her recently released book, Just Kids, sang a few songs and took questions from the audience. Before last night, Smith felt like an intangible to Aftermath. But instead of coming off as the stoic Godmother of Punk, onstage she seemed flighty, forgetful and even a little awkward.

Smith's book has been billed as a memoir of her long-lasting friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, which began in 1969 and ended in 1989 when he died of AIDS. But the book also touches on the many New York creatives who influence Smith's work and life - Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Jim Carroll.

Smith read a handful of passages from Just Kids while a slideshow of images of her played on a movie screen behind her. The readings were interspersed with anecdotes about Mapplethorpe and a comedy of errors when she kept losing her markers for the sections she wanted to read.

"If I was totally organized tonight, then you'd know I was an impostor," she said.

The absentmindedness was charming at first, but later Smith struggled with the name of the organization who brought her to Houston - calling it both "Voices Without Borders" and "Voices Beyond Borders" but never by its actual name. That was just one of many cringeworthy moments.

After reading the opening pages from her book, which describes her first meeting with Mapplethorpe, she asked for her acoustic guitar.

"I thought I'd punctuate our youthful meeting with a song," she said. "I just thought I'd sing some songs for some comic relief." The she played "Grateful," a song dedicated to Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia.

During the Q&A session Smith touched on Israeli/Palestine politics, told a heartbreaking story about Jeff Buckley and talked about comedian Gilda Radner's spoof of her, "Candy Slice". She also talked about what fans mean to her, imparting a lesson her mother taught her - that without her fans, she'd have no success.

The most amazing aspect of the reading was the discernible change that came over Smith when she performed her music; the switch in her bearing and posture from awkward to engaged was almost surreal, and her voice sounds as rich as it ever did. During the story about her appreciation for fans, she talked about how she feeds off the energy of her audience.

Towards the end of the reading, she engaged the entire hall in a what she referred to as a "scientific experiment."

"I'm hoping telepathically you know what the experiment is," she said, before breaking into a spontaneous a cappella rendition of "Because the Night," inviting the crowd to sing along. It started out breathtakingly, not unlike this similar version but ended goofily when Smith forgot the words to what is probably her most famous song.

She finished the reading with a recitation of "People Have the Power," followed by a performance of "In My Blakean Year," her song inspired by Romantic poet William Blake. "William Blake to his dying day never lost sight of his vision," she said.

The song had an extra extemporaneous verse tacked on to the beginning:

"I came to Houston in the rain/ Sehba and her little girl picked me up/ And I was allowed to go wherever I wanted/ And I wanted to go to the Rothko Chapel/ One of the most beautiful places in the world/ And there I sat, dreaming of tonight/ And now tonight has happened/ Thank you everybody."

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