Monday, August 6, 2012

Monday Night in Brooklyn Bridge Park: Books Beneath the Bridge - Community Bookstore presents Patti Smith

Tonight we were fortunate enough to be in the large crowd (you can spot us, just barely, in the pic above, sitting on the end to the left of two people with dark glasses) at Brooklyn Bridge Park's Monday night Books Beneath the Bridge series of readings to see the incomparable Patti Smith, brought to us by the great Community Bookstore in Park Slope.
Patti, though jet-lagged from a recent tour in Europe and celebrating her son's 30th birthday last night in Detroit, gave one of the most memorable readings we've ever attended. She's funny, trenchant, moving, wry, and without a phony cell in her body -- and she read some of her best poems and prose poems and excerpts from her elegant and tender memoir Just Kids.
Back in the early 1970s, we bought an autographed copy of Patti Smith's poetry chapbook Seventh Heaven at the Gotham Book Mart and ever since then we've been a fan of her writing, and of course, her music.
So it was a true pleasure to finally see her in person even if we were so far away that our pics -- the top one comes courtesy of Brooklyn Bridge Park's Instagram -- well, you have to take our word for it that the figure standing up in the middle of two people's heads is Patti Smith.
She read two of our favorite excerpts from Just Kids, starting with the part where she and Robert Mapplethorpe find their first apartment, at 166 Hall Street by the Myrtle Avenue el, for which they paid $166 a month and how they cobbled together a beautiful life with almost no money, street furniture, make-do meals, very occasional splurging, and DIY entertainment, playing the same few albums -- but what albums! Tim Hardin and Tim Buckley and other greats (though Patti went off on a wonderful riff about Robert mostly playing Vanilla Fudge on acid: our brother used to play Vanilla Fudge all the time when stoned, so much so that we grew very fond of VF), and culminating in the scene in Washington Square Park when the older woman wants her husband to take their photograph, saying she thought they were artists, and he says they're "just kids."
Throughout her reading, Patti's asides were priceless. She talked about coming out of South Jersey, her own clothes and style (in response to one of about five questions from the audience, many of whom were squeezed in on the steps -- some of us were in five rows of chairs on each side, and lots of people stood behind barriers), parenthood (she said Bruce Springsteen was a great dad and that was more important than his other stellar accomplishments), and her lack of sound advice to today's young artists struggling in New York ("What the fuck do I know?" she said, about a different world with a very different economy -- but she emphasized that it was always doing the work that was the important thing, even if you do it outside of New York, in cheap Detroit or living in your parents' garage). Everything seemed real, starting with her dropping of g's in -ing words to her frank language and hypnotic repetition. (There were two boys, about 7 and 10, in front of us, who delighted in her description of the smell of boys' drooping disks and her use of asshole; as we all shuffled out, their dad said, "Did you guys like all those bad words she used?" and young as they were, they knew "bad" meant good.)
She read some early work, the first poem she wrote after Robert Mapplethorpe died, a poem for her lifelong friend and former lover Sam Shepard, the section of Just Kids about her first funny and memorable meeting with Allen Ginsberg in the Automat (told, actually, in today's New York Times, in a book review for someone else's book about celebrities' meetings), a poem about her factory work in South Jersey and how she knew she had to escape to New York (Patti dedicated it to Pussy Riot, the grrrl band on trial in Moscow for protesting Putin in an Orthodox cathedral), a very beautiful poem, "Indian Rubies," in memory of her friend Paul Getty, and more, between sips of coffee, bottled water, and turmeric tea. (She asked if her voice was froggy with jet-lag; it wasn't.)
She read Ginsberg's "Footnote to Howl" with respect and urgency in every one of the incantations of "holy": Holy my mother in the insane asylum! Holy the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas! Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse! Holy the jazzbands marijuana hipsters peace & junk & drums!

As the boats passed in back of Patti, a few blew their horns as if to pay respect, and Patti led waving to a "little Disney boat," a tiny tugboat hugging the shore on the river before the deliriously gorgeous sunset skyline -- we were reminded how grateful we were to be in Brooklyn this summer, to be in Brooklyn Bridge Park tonight, and to see, finally, Patti Smith, even if she was not close enough to see that clearly. We heard her clearly, and that was more than enough.
Books Under the Bridge, this summer's new Monday night series in Brooklyn Bridge Park, previously had these curated readings from Brooklyn's best indie bookstores: Freebird Bookstore presenting Brian Francis Slattery; Greenlight Bookstore presenting Amor Towles; Powerhouse Arena presenting Lizz Winstead; and WORD presenting Robin Black, Tania James, Rajesh Parameswaran, Jim Shepard, and Charles Yu. Next Monday night is the last in the series, with Book Court presenting Martin Amis. Sounds great.

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