I love Patti Smith's poetry. I wasn't a part of the punk rock scene of the 70s when Smith's music first began blowing away people's minds. I was too busy hiding in the Berkshires. I'd heard of Smith, but didn't start getting into her work until I chanced upon her poetry, which happened to be published alongside mine in The Cafe Review in the late 90s. From that moment on, I couldn't stop digging her music and poems. I believe she's also an artist, multi-dimensional, and that's no surprise.
I had the chance to film her tonight, performing, as part of a special benefit event for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA), hosted by the Puffin Foundation at the Museum of the City of New York. She followed the great Pete Seeger and Guy Davis (who is the son of Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis), a powerful Blues artist and musician.
One can't say enough about Seeger, whose commitment as a musician to peace and social justice causes defies description and belief. He's been around as a professional more than 70 years, and has been singing about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and its struggle to save Spain from Franco for 60 years. As someone said at tonight's event, Seeger is "America's own troubadour." He sings because he loves it and loves America. And he makes everyone sing along with him. It's really beautiful to see all that history skimming across his face when he performs.
But here's the thing, although I was there as a professional to film the event, as a fan, I was really there to see Patti. Afterward, I got to meet her and chat with her a bit about her book, Just Kids, which was just nominated for The National Book Award. The book chronicles her coming of age as an artist with friend Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer who died of AIDS in 1989. The 2009 film, Dream of Life, an intimate portrait of Smith's journey as an artist, was also nominated for an Emmy.
Smith is more than a poet, artist, singer, performer and songwriter. She's humble, calm and graceful and wouldn't allow herself to be classified an activist, but dedicated her performances to activists, starting with Seeger. She read from Auguries of Innocence, her most recent volume of poetry, and sang for protesters, prefacing, "The thing is, with activists, they're not getting out there to win, win, win. They're getting out there, knowing they're going to lose, lose, lose."
Poetic and punk, dramatic and low key, Smith is larger than life, an ageless rebel. I especially like that she hasn't let time or trends, opinion or praise compromise her power and grace.