“Tonight is going to be an interesting night.”
Those are the words of Patti Smith as she stepped onstage at the Back Bay Events Center last night (September 28), bedecked in thick sunglasses and enough veteran cool to fill all of Boston. The singer/songwriter and distinguished poet had been scheduled to discuss and read from her new book, Devotion, as part of the Harvard Book Store’s special event, but a day-long migraine had other plans for the 70-year-old legend.
“I’m very happy to be here in Boston. I’ve always enjoyed such support here,” she told the crowd before explaining her dilemma. The headache she had been harboring all day — one she rated as a 7/10 on the pain-o-meter — prevented her from being able to read passages from her book. What it didn’t have any power over, however, was her voice.
“As providence wills it, I can sing with a headache,” she said before breaking into the old Skeeter Davis tune “The End of the World,” which she originally sang over the credits of the newly-released film mother! At one point she forgot a line, paused, and held her head in her chin, mumbling “oh, okay” before confidently returning to her a cappella rendition.
From there on out, Smith sang tunes from a small setlist tucked in her pocket that her daughter had made prior to the show, offering a touch of insight into each song. From “My Blakean Year” (“It was one of those times when I felt misunderstood and unappreciated”) to “Dancing Barefoot” (“when I wrote it, I knew I would be leaving the public”), Smith remained cool and copacetic, not letting on to her pain.
The evening was what Smith called “an exercise in surmounting derision,” just like a philosophy professor would say to an auditorium brimming with college students. But between cracking one-liners between songs, smirking from behind her shades, and offering sage life advice, the sold-out event fostered a familial environment instead of a stuffy or heady one (taking Smith’s sense of humor and quick wit into consideration, this isn’t exactly surprising).
On a particularly sentimental note, Smith clutched her acoustic guitar and dedicated “Beneath the Southern Cross” to her late friend Sam Shepard, who passed away in July. “I just miss him so much. He was such an awesome man,” Smith reflected before the tune. “I met him when I was 23 years old. I’ve known him three-fourths of my life.”
When given the “five minutes left” cue from a manager offstage (imagine having that job?), she chose to wrap it up with “Because The Night” before an onslaught of fan adoration in the Q&A portion of the night. Her final farewell, however, hinged upon a cover of “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” that she tacked onto her adieus.
When Smith did speak about her book — “a three dimensional exercise on the writing process,” as she explained it — it felt like a footnote of the entire evening.
“It’s such a little book. If you’re having a rough day in the bathroom, you could…” Smith trailed off, raising her hands in a shrug and allowing the audience to infer the rest of her statement.
As guests filed out of the auditorium, each clutching a copy of the miniature red hardcover, they left without the literary experience they had come for. Instead, fans exited with something better: A deeper, more intimate snapshot of the woman behind nearly five decades of cultural influence.
Follow Victoria Wasylak on Twitter @VickiWasylak.