Patti Smith's voice filled the Celeste Bartos Forum at the New York Public Library last night, but Smith was nowhere to be seen. Somewhere offstage, she read the forward of her new memoir about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. The words were about the morning Mapplethorpe died. Smith had been sleeping. When she awoke, the television was on and a program was playing "Vissi d'arte," a soprano aria from Act II of Puccini's Tosca.
"I have lived for love, for art," went the aria's first line.
Slowly, Smith appeared, a mess of gray stringy hair, all smiles.
"She has laid her pearls and her jewels before the Madonna," the aria continued. "Why must she suffer so?"
Smith's work, especially her music, has always represented a kind of cathartic bloodletting, followed by a "fuck you" -- highs and lows and no in-betweens ("Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine"). Just Kids chronicles her bond with Mapplethorpe, all the events leading up to that famous first line of Horses, and everything after. Last night, though, Smith was just telling stories.
"I had the same reaction as when I first heard Little Richard," she says of her first encounter with Tosca. She used to imagine "Vissi d'arte" being played at her funeral. But there it was the morning of Mapplethorpe's death, coming out of the television.
"I guess that means I'll never die," she says.
She talked about her first artistic breakthrough: encountering William Blake. She was eight. Her mother had given her a collection of poems.
"It took me a long time to realize Blake didn't write children's books," she says. "He'd expanded."
Paul HoldengrÃ¤ber, the Public Library's director and the night's moderator, gamely tried to keep things dramatic. In a voice filled with melancholy he responded, "Insofar as one does expand from childhood."
A pause. "I don't understand the question," Smith says, who then looked around in a daze: "Isn't this room beautiful?"
"Let's go back to the beginning," says HoldengrÃ¤ber, trying to bring Smith back to earth. Too late.
"I love the lions too," Smith says of the Library's famous statues, which always look dignified despite being covered in pigeon excrement. "I've taken their picture, talked to them."
Smith talked about Moby Dick, about Rimbaud and Genet, about all the people she's lost. All the while HoldengrÃ¤ber interjected with questions like, "Tell me about the spirit that resides in things -- the sex appeal of the inanimate." Smith rolled her eyes and kept telling her stories.
She seemed most comfortable talking about New York.
"The Empire State Building -- it was like God's hypodermic needle," she says. "Everything seemed possible and I had no fear. I liked New York when it was down and out. We could develop scenes because we could afford to live here. That aspect is lost and I mourn that. Cities are supposed to be gritty."
"I was wondering if you could play a gritty New York song," HoldengrÃ¤ber says. It took an hour, but he finally asks about music. The whole night there's a guitar onstage, begging the question, "What's she going to do with that?"
"I'm a very limited guitar player," Smith says. "I only know a few songs."
Smith picked up the acoustic guitar. She holds it like an electric.
"This is a song called 'Grateful,'" she says. "Because I am." Then she strummed the wrong chord. "Whoops, that's not how it goes." Another try. She got it right.
Above: Patti Smith reads from Just Kids at the Robert Miller Gallery in January. Photo by Patrick McMullan.