Reigning queen of art punk Patti Smith won the National Book Award Wednesday for Just Kids, a memoir about bohemian New York in the ’60s and ’70s and her “brother-sister” relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Though she may have thumbed her nose at such establishment recognition as a scrawny 17-year-old poetess, Smith was obviously still high on her triumph Friday night at the Miami Book Fair. And this turned out to be very, very lucky for the hundreds of people in attendance.
True to her punk roots, Smith interrupted her own introduction when she walked out onto the stage in the middle of University of Wynwood founder Scott Cunningham’s prepared remarks. Wearing an ill-fitting men’s jacket, white button-down shirt, and jeans tucked into slouchy leather boots, she wandered around the auditorium looking a bit like an old-folks-home escapee as Cunningham led a rousing choral reading of “Vowels”, by French poet Arthur Rimbaud. As Cunningham recited the lines from the podium, scattered members of the audience stood in succession and chimed in:
A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: the vowels.
I will tell thee, one day, of thy newborn portents:
A, the black velvet cuirass of flies whose essence
commingles, abuzz, around the cruellest of smells,
“I never saw anything like that,” Smith would say later. “That was really cool.”
It was quite a compliment from a woman who has seen a lot. Reading from Just Kids, Smith related one incredible story after another: eating at the Chelsea Hotel, in 1969, alongside Jimi Hendrix, Grace Slick, and Janis Joplin (“People ask, ‘Were you at Woodstock?’ No, Woodstock came to me.”); sharing a cup of laundromat coffee and a sandwich with a prowling Allen Ginsberg, who mistook her for “a very pretty boy” (“Does that mean I have to give the sandwich back?”); encountering Muhammad Ali in the Chelsea’s elevator while she was wearing, naturally, light-leather boxing shoes; and seeing Television perform Marquee Moon at CBGB.
Peering through her wire-rimmed Windsor glasses (à la John Lennon), Smith also read a passage about leaving her Southern New Jersey hometown for New York City, intent on following in the footsteps of Rimbaud, whom she first encountered at a Philadelphia bus depot: “His haughty gaze reached me from the cover of Illuminations,” she writes. “He became my archangel, delivering me from the mundane horror of factory life.” Smith copped to having had an actual crush on the poet. “Lemme esplain,” she said in her lingering Jersey accent. “Dreaming of a dead poet was probably more fulfilling than trying to develop a relationship with some kid who didn’t even know you’re alive.” Smith went on to recall her mother’s words as she made to leave town: “‘You’ll never make it as a waitress.’ But I had higher hopes.”
While Smith was reading the book’s elegiac opening passage, some romantic decided to turn down the lights in the auditorium. Smith stopped mid-sentence in disbelief. “Can you imagine Laurence Olivier in the middle of Hamlet and the lights go out,” she said. “Come on — get some sense of lighting.” But she quickly recovered her sense of humor and apologized. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I was so proud of myself.”
In between reading passages of Just Kids to a hushed crowd, Smith sang and played guitar. “I’m not much of a guitar player,” she said (truthfully), “but I know enough that I can play a little song.” At the end of the night, she sang her one hit, “Because the Night”, which Bruce Springsteen wrote and gave to her as a gift. She sang it a capella because, she said, she didn’t know all the chords.
And so the evening ended how it began, with a chorus of Miamians singing the words of a poet. Smith stood at the mic, pumping her fist and raising her arms through the rousing chorus:
Because the night belongs to lovers,
Because the night belongs to love.
Because the night belongs to lovers,
Because the night belongs to us.
The couple behind me were kissing. Several people were crying. At the end of the anthem, the crowd gave Smith a standing ovation. And she couldn’t stop smiling.
Photos by Robby Campbell. More photos HERE.