Patti Smith Revisits Her Written Works for 'Words and Music' Staged Reading

DO NOT REUSE EVER.
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux
Patti Smith takes the stage at the Minetta Lane Theatre for the second of her 'Patti Smith: Words and Music' performances on Sept. 23., 2018.

“There are two ways to look at this: It’s a disaster -- or it’s magical.”

Based on the murmurs of encouragement and praise Patti Smith received during two hours of vulnerable, loosely scripted storytelling, the vast majority of those gathered at New York’s Minetta Lane Theatre on Sunday night indicated that the rock scribe’s performance was definitely the latter, even if she joked otherwise.

The scope of Patti Smith: Words and Music, the Audible Theater Project’s latest, three-night mount of a theatrical production at the West Village venue, is straightforward: Smith shows up and reads the hits. She takes the stage of the Minetta Theatre, one she dreamed of playing when she first got to the city, and walks up to the microphone with written materials -- some published, some not, most of them passages from her memoirs, Just Kids and M Train -- in hand. She’s joined by her daughter first, Jesse Paris Smith, and eventually her son, Jackson Smith, and Tony Shanahan, her longtime collaborator and bassist in her band.

She puts on her glasses and begins to read -- a poem for John Coltrane to honor the jazz legend on what would’ve been his 74th birthday; Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Autumn Day” to observe the first day of a new season -- and Jesse plays the piano, her gaze focused on the keys or the profile of her mother.

There are passionate ruminations on time spent with Robert Mapplethorpe, the muse of Just Kids and the one she tenderly refers to as “the artist of my life,” and Fred Sonic Smith, her husband and “love of my life” who died in 1995. Their memories become lit with mirthful recollections and lullabies worthy of her most treasured truths. She sings, extending her arms like a gospel choir conductor to encourage the audience to join her for the chorus of her biggest hit, “Because the Night,” and clapping through “People Have the Power” before she spits on the floor and returns the mic to its stand.

What brought on the vehement applause were not these faithful testaments of her brilliance that fans have long since plucked from her mythology and committed to memory, but the imperfect moments anchoring Smith in the present throughout. Before she read for Coltrane, she laughed off a brief moment of panic when she thought she left her reading glasses backstage; the casual self-deprecation and craving for connection with the audience is what set Patti Smith: Words and Music apart from other VH1 Storytellers-esque affairs. She’d read about Mapplethorpe’s genius and the microscopic room they shared at the Chelsea Hotel and break from the Just Kids text to correct one of the words she put on the page, chastising her draft in hindsight and getting a few laughs in the process. She bridged the formal silence that divided her mic and the front row by commenting on the darkness of the setting and joked that someone should “cough or blow their nose or something.”

She veered off course, but those detours were endearing missteps, and hardly missteps at all. Just Kids and M Train are vibrant, intricate works that tidily contain a vibrant life and the struggle, determination, dedication, raw creativity and intricacies they weave. That she’d occasionally lose her place on her own page or prefer to verbally scrawl in her own margins is what made Patti Smith: Words and Music a success, even if she occasionally found herself losing her train of thought and bouncing between “disaster” and “magical.”

After bringing the house down with “Because the Night,” she apologized for meandering through her anecdotes, saying that she could perform for 20 nights in a row and that “every single one would be fucked up in a different way.” A voice cried out from the shadows, “We’d love you every time!” She offered a delighted “thank you very much,” complete with Elvis invocation, and proceeded to sing through a cover of U2’s “Love Is All We Have Left” before thanking the crowd for joining her on this “strange and miraculous journey” on Minetta Lane.

“It’s a strange night where I can hardly speak -- it’s one of those nights,” she said. “Sometimes, you don’t need a lot of words. Not everything needs to be articulated.” Smith knows the power of hers, even when they overwhelm her, and Patti Smith: Music and Words was a starkly captivating demonstration of that.