Dressed in a black blazer and black pants, and with untamed grey hair tossed in a loose side braid, Patti Smith blended in with the crowd. I watched as she stood on the steps quietly taking a few breaths, soaking in the energy and staring out at the crowd before ascending the stage. The ambient lighting reflected off Frank Gehry’s sculptural staircase, casting a warm amber glow over the hundreds that stood in Walker Court, both on the main floor and peering down from arched gallery spaces above. 20-year-olds stood beside 70-year-olds, couples held each other, and the dramatically accessorized fashion crowd rubbed shoulders with ageing hippies—it was the most eclectic scene, and it felt wonderful.
Stepping into the spotlight, Smith received an ecstatic welcome of cheers and claps—but then the crowd turned completely silent. “I’m so proud to have an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario,” she said. “So this song is called ‘Grateful.'” And with that began a beautiful and stirring hour-long set.
Born in 1946, 67-year-old Smith still moves, shakes, and belts it out. Her voice is crystal clear, and when she projects the deep notes, you feel them way down in the bottom of your belly. But what’s particularly special about a Patti Smith performance is that it’s a bit of everything. At one point she stopped singing to read an excerpt from her memoir Just Kids about a time when she had no money, and a kind stranger—who happened to be beat poet Allen Ginsberg—bought her a coffee and gave her ten cents to help buy a lettuce and cheese sandwich. She also read an incredibly moving letter she wrote to a dying Robert Mapplethorpe, and briefly talked about their time together as 23-year-old kids, discovering life in New York in the late ’60s. We all listened to every word, and although the Smith before us was wrinkled and grey, it was hard not to envision her in a shitty Manhattan apartment as a young woman on the brink of big things, struggling for food but full of creativity and thought. I liked imagining that.
She sang the song she cowrote with Bruce Springsteen, “Because the Night,” and we all sang along. She talked about her favourite poet, Arthur Rimbaud, and told the story of his last days on a boat with gangrene (his influential work is also displayed in the Camera Solo exhibit). In both her photos and her songs, it’s clear that Smith has a curiosity about death. Onstage she danced, gesturing to ghosts to come out, she called upon our ancestors, and sang about Rimbaud crossing to the other side. When she announced, “This is a little song for Amy Winehouse,” singing “This is The Girl,” it was hard not to wonder if Winehouse was there in spirit. I admit, I looked around, imagining her beehive hair sticking up in third row, wondering if I could feel her.
She’s an artist, photographer, poet, storyteller, philosopher, and songwriter; she has chosen to live life through the constant exploration of her creativity. There were many beautiful moments because Patti Smith is a beautiful person.
Patti Smith: Camera Solo runs until May 19, 2013. Check it out, not because her polaroids are visually stunning, but because when weaved together they tell the fascinating story of Smith’s life—a life we can all be inspired by and learn from.
Thank you to Joe Fresh for sponsoring the AGO 1st Thursday and in particular, the Patti Smith Camera Solo exhibit. Last night will surely be remembered by many as a magical Toronto moment.
Photos by Becca Lemire