“Tonight is going to be an exercise in surmounting derision,” announced iconic musician and author Patti Smith, taking the stage at the Back Bay Events Center. On Sept. 28, Smith was slated to discuss her latest novel, “Devotion,” but she had come down with a particularly nasty cold. She assured the audience, which had welcomed her with a frenzied standing ovation, that while she could not read from the book, she could still sing with a headache. As for reading, she playfully suggested everyone give it a read themselves … the next time they’re having a bad day in the bathroom.
Gesturing to the black sunglasses on her face, Smith quipped, “I’m not trying to be cool, I don’t need dark glasses to be cool,” before diving into a captivating a cappella cover of the song “The End of the World” by Skeeter Davis, which she had recorded during the credits of Darren Aronofsky’s film “mother!” She paused for just a second, forgetting the words, but the audience filled her in without missing a beat. She transitioned effortlessly into praising the late author William Blake for his lifetime of hard work and unrecognized creative brilliance. “I know I’m appreciated, but I am often misunderstood … I wrote this little song to remind myself that William Blake had it a lot tougher,” she said, picking up her acoustic guitar as her daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, accompanied her on piano for a performance of her 2004 song, “In My Blakean Year.”
The event incorporated her book’s themes into a curated set list of some of her greatest songs. She described her novel as “a three dimensional exercise on the writing process … It speaks on the writing process, shows the writing process and the fruits of the writing process.” To illustrate these three levels in “Devotion,” she chose the song “Dancing Barefoot,” which she said was her written farewell to public life . The is a love letter to the people, to her late husband, Fred Sonic Smith, and to God. Smith’s voice, candid and reflective, quieted as she recalled her lifelong friendship with playwright Sam Shepard, who passed away this July. While not quite ready to talk about him extensively, she reminisced for a moment about their endless phone conversations on books, and his funny habit of always keeping a Samuel Beckett play nearby for comfort. For Shepard, she picked up her guitar and strummed the song “Beneath The Southern Cross,” whispering at its conclusion, “farewell Sam.”
Smith did not leave the audience on a sorrowful note, instead choosing to bring the entire hall together in a sing-along of her most famous song, “Because The Night.” The emotion and energy of the audience exploded into a cathartic group rendition of the chorus. After a second round of rambunctious applause, the floor was opened for a short question and answer session, in which audience questions prompted Smith to speak both on loss and on feeling lost. Tackling grief, Smith said, “In the center of any tragedy we have to hold onto all the different aspects that make us human.” On staying inspired in such politically troubling times, the musician replied, “That is exactly when you’re supposed to feel inspired.” Smith closed the night with another sing-along, this time an a capella rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”
The audience, having erupted into one last standing ovation for Smith, left feeling hopeful and energized, chattering with one another in the lobby of the event center. Audience member Caroline A. Weeks said of the night, “I really like that I didn’t get what I expected.” The night that was supposed to be a talk had transformed into an impromptu show. “We got a concert!” Weeks exclaimed.
“I just like being in the same room as her, it feels warm,” said audience member Rose J. Nisotis of Smith’s performance.
She and her friend travelled from Connecticut to see the event, and found themselves particularly taken with Smith’s calming, often humorous tone and the cohesiveness of the audience. Her friend added, “We drove two hours to get here, and we made friends!”
Jessica A. Halem, a Cambridge resident, was more taken with Smith’s legacy, attitude, and influence on a generation of musicians and creators. “Punk rock is how we share our greatest voice,” she remarked. “Patti Smith reminds us to remain optimistic in difficult times.”
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