For Patti Smith, Poetry and Memories

IMG_0977Caryn Rose Patti Smith performed Wednesday night at a celebration commemorating the 40th anniversary of her first reading at The Poetry Project.

The headstones filling the old churchyard at St. Mark’s Church-in-the Bowery churchyard lay buried beneath a deep blanket of snow on Wednesday night. But a line of people on East 10th Street braved an icy chill while waiting to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Patti Smith’s first reading at The Poetry Project, a St. Mark’s institution, which took place at the church on Feb. 10, 1971.

From that distant beginning, Ms. Smith’s lengthy career has gone on to include world wide recognition as a visual artist, songwriter, photographer, musician and writer. In 2010 she won the National Book Award for her memoir, “Just Kids,” describing her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.

The Poetry Project, founded at St. Mark’s in 1966, has included weekly readings, open mike events, and workshops provide a forum where both celebrated and unknown writers can present their work. John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, Yoko Ono, Ted Berrigan, Alice Walker, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Creeley are a few of those whose words have filled the vaulted chamber.

In 1971 Patti Smith viewed the full moon that illuminated the sky that night as a fortuitous sign. Gerard Malanga, an assistant to Andy Warhol at The Factory, and featured reader of the program, generously allowed Patti Smith to open for him.

As a young poet Ms. Smith sought to make her mark, “to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll.” She turned to Lenny Kaye, a musician and writer she had recently met to accompany her on guitar, a bold and chancey move. It was the first time an electric guitar had been played inside the church and some audience members responded with jeers. Ms. Smith dedicated her performance that night to criminals from Cain to Genet. As it was Bertolt Brecht’s birthday, she began by singing “Mack The Knife,” for which Mr. Brecht wrote the lyrics.

Many of the pieces she performed for the first time that evening have since become anthems to her fans. And as she read poems and sang songs on Wednesday night a chorus of voices from the audience sang along.

The fans who formed the line on East 10th Street began gathering two hours before the performance was to begin. They stood, shivering in the icy chill, waiting for the chance to witness Patti’s return performance. As she took the podium, she proclaimed, “My soul is in Cairo, but my heart is with you.” Looking out over the packed audience, she remembered where Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Gregory Corso and Sam Shepard had sat on that night 40 years ago.

IMG_0979Caryn Rose Ms. Smith performs with Lenny Kaye.

She began the evening reading “Oath” a poem she had written when she was 20 years old and which she also read in 1971. As she recited the line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” the crowd came alive.

While a bright future lay before her on the first evening that Ms. Smith took the St. Mark’s stage, she spent much of Wednesday night reflecting, reminiscing and remembering departed friends. She dedicated “Redondo Beach” to Maria Schneider a close friend who had starred in “Last Tango in Paris” and who died recently, explaining that it had been one of her favorite songs. She followed this with a song she had written for J. Paul Getty, who died Saturday.

She read passages from “Just Kids,” fondly remembering Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, all close friends and influences on her writing, now gone, and all poets who had also read at St. Mark’s. As Lenny Kaye strummed the opening chords to “Gloria,” a woman in the audience screamed, “the punk anthem.” The audience members rose, singing and dancing as Patti closed out the evening tightly embracing Lenny Kaye.