The Hammer museum's Smith On Smith event last Thursday night paid tribute to the eccentric artist and music collector Harry Smith through exploits that Patti Smith recounted from her new book, Just Kids. Patti befriended Harry at the Chelsea Hotel during its heyday and ate many 55 cent auto-mat cheese and lettuce sandwiches by his side. She described his wirey beard and brought New York City, 1969, to life around him. Poverty never sounded so cool and avant-garde.
In her Just Kids excerpts, Patti Smith lives on a mat in her Chelsea Hotel room with Robert Mapplethorpe. She often wears a straw hat. She's a poet gathering diary material who doesn't yet know she'll godmother punk music. Mostly, she makes “drawlings.” Once, Sam Shepard feeds her a lobster, and Allen Ginsberg buys her part of a sandwich with coffee thinking she is a pretty boy. Such nuggets from Smith's book let the audience brush shoulders with Jimi Hendrix and Grace Slick. After Patti recounted a tequila shot with Bob Neuwirth that led to writing her first song, Neuwirth appeared on the Hammer stage with a banjo and plucked his way through folk classic “Mole In The Ground.”
The compendium features rural music from 1926-32, including “Appalachean” songs, as Patti pronounced it, and old murder ballads carried around by banjo and fiddle. These tales describe hardship and courtship, such as finding your wife cuddling a cabbage head in bed (“Drunkard's Special” by Coley Jones). Dick Justice's “Henry Lee” gets stabbed and thrown in a well by the townswomen. Killing, cheating, stealing, jail, and what to do with your lady, the lord, the devil, and corn come up a lot. No doubt, the core of lyrical subjects exists in this early music. “Single Girl, Married Girl” by the Carter Family could be considered a precursor to songs like Beyonce's “Single Ladies,” as it boasts the benefits of unmarried life.
A guy who thematically and meticulously arranged these six music volumes had to have some sort of obsessive compulsion. Patti described Harry gently brushing every knot out of her hair but not letting her touch his antique brush. He said “DON'T touch that” a lot.
He collected Native American dress, enjoyed Dexedrine and filed everything. He absorbed books by standing in a bookstore, without reading them. He hand-made experimental films with paint and scissors that suit soundtracks by Philip Glass (who made one in 2004) and DJ Spooky (1999). As Patti filled out an image of Harry, the audience held their chins, vicariously reliving her path to enlightenment. She honored the passing of Howard Zinn for caring about the History of the American People, and J.D. Salinger for “Frankie, Zooey, and Holden Caulfield.”
Patti Smith's got charm and swagger as a storyteller, even when stumbling over words. You can cling to her story like an ancient religious text that instructs on ways of being through bizarre, heroic anecdotes. She sang a Hank Williams song and a few of her own, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. With her tunes simplified to just two or three chords, Smith's lyrical mastery becomes apparent. She may be a wizard. She walks slowly. Her boots drag on the ground and she spits.