Fulfilling a life-long dream to perform in one of the world’s greatest Opera halls, a lone Patti Smith clad in a sharp black suit and a halo of grey hair takes to the stage in Sydney for one last time. Armed only with copies of her two books (Just Kids and M Train) and a guitar, she immediately had her audience on the edge of their seats, desperate to be just an inch closer to their punk idol.
Knowing her incredible legacy and hearing so many moving stories about the now 70-year-old poet, it was hard to know what exactly to expect from a spoken word performance. What I didn’t expect however was the endless laughter Smith’s anecdotes generated. Apologising for the mud on her boots, she tells us of how she’d spent her last two days in Australia visiting Uluru and marking one more dream off her bucket list. Rather than causing a fuss with private tours, like many big names do, Smith joined more than one tour group for her Uluru experience, even taking in an evening dinner tour where a sympathetic group invited her to their table. Shaking with laughter at the notion, you can just imagine that not a single person had any idea who she was, and what a beautiful image that is.
Smith shared intimate memories about Robert Maplethorpe and Fred “sonic” Smith, who she describes as, “the artist of my life and the love of my life”, respectively. Though retold with laughter and warmth, the stories of her lost loves do serve as a poignant lesson to cherish those we love while we have the time.
Stories of chance encounters with Alan Ginsberg and witnessing a great willow tree struck down by lightning are so wonderfully peculiar they almost seem like works of fiction, only a woman with a legacy like Smith could have so many stories to tell. She broke up the talking (sometimes recited, sometimes candid) with a few musical interludes. Her self-deprecating humour when it came to her musical ability was, of course, charming but unnecessary, nobody could fault her renditions of ‘Beneath The Southern Cross’, ‘Grateful’ and ‘My Blakean Year’.
Throughout, Smith’s backdrop was a series of photographs predominantly taken by Maplethorpe. The black & white images of a young Smith and the New York she flourished in were the perfect backdrop, simple and stunning. As the image changed to a photograph of Virginia Woolf’s cane, Smith read a small passage from M Train, proving the second greatest highlight of the evening. It reads as follows:
“As a child I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so. And then I realised, quite recently, that I had crossed some line, unconsciously cloaked in the truth of my chronology. How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron-colored hair. Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing to surrender my pen.”
We’re reminded that Smith is just a woman who has lived through some of the greatest heartbreak imaginable and never gave in to sorrow. The entire evening is drenched in nostalgia and romantic notions of what it is to be an artist. An ethereal cloud of hope sits above the audience as they try their best to soak up as much of Smith’s addictive aura possible. Things, as they always do, come to an end too abruptly…not before Smith rallies her fans into a sing-along rendition of ‘Because The Night’. Eyes were wet with joy and a haunting rendition echoed out around us, in the evening’s greatest highlight: I’ve now sung with Patti Smith.