People Have the Patti

Review of Patti Smith presented by Seattle Arts and Lectures

Written by Teen Writer Elle Vonada and edited by Aamina Mughal


Patti Lee Smith is recognized as a legend in the music community. She made her musical debut in the mid-1970s in New York City with her first album Horses. Smith’s first major recognition came when she was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone. She came to Town Hall Seattle on December 2 as part of her book tour for A Book of Days, which came out on November 15. She gave a captivating performance as she alternated between different media. In her presentation, she told entertaining anecdotes alongside a slideshow, answered prepared questions from notecards, and performed a few songs with her guitarist. Smith’s innate sense of humor just added to the evening’s entertainment.

Her slideshow displayed pinnacle moments of her life through photographs that are featured in her recently released book. She told stories about meeting other recognized artists, traveling the world, and of her cherished relationships throughout her career. For example, the necklace exchanged between herself and Robert Mapplethorpe, which she mentioned in a previous memoir, Just Kids, was a fun inclusion. It was sweet to see her reminisce about their time together and put an image to the fabled artifact of her life. Another significant image was of Alice Augusta Ball, a Black woman who produced the original cure for leprosy. Ball sadly passed away at the young age of 24 in a laboratory accident, and it was only a matter of time until her work was stolen by a man. Smith paid tribute to her story and ended with “Hail Alice Augusta Ball.” Though that wording landed weirdly, it is always a good thing for another woman of color’s story to be shared. Smith never explicitly responded to the controversy around her use of the N-word, in her song Rock N Roll N*****, released in 1978. The song was silently retired off streaming services sometime in 2022. She may be using her platform to promote marginalized people to demonstrate remorse. However, without first taking accountability for performing the N-word up until 2019, her use of Ball in her presentation felt performative. Nevertheless, Smith recognizes she is a public figure who is privileged to have a platform and uses it to advocate for and give voice to underappreciated people.

Patti Smith's book cover for A Book of Days

Though Smith was on tour for her book, she appeased her fans by performing a couple of songs. People Have the Power, released in 1988, spoke to feelings around the current warfare taking place around the world. She sang, “And the shepherds and the soldiers / Lay beneath the stars / Exchanging visions / And laying arms.” When this song was originally released, the Iran-Iraq war was coming to a painful end. “Beneath the stars” reflects the commonship people share, as we all reside under the stars. “Laying arms” means to drop one’s weapons. This song speaks to the influence individuals have to cease conflict. In this time of great turmoil in regards to Ukraine, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and several other disputes around the world, People Have the Power serves as a reminder that peace is possible. Smith also performed her hit song Because the Night, released in 1978, in her Easter album. The voices of the audience filled the hall as everyone accompanied Smith in singing the classic song. Smith is an author and photographer, but the response to her music shows that she is a musician first.

There was an opportunity for Smith to answer questions that she had prepared on notecards. This delivery was mostly used as a chance to make the audience laugh. The questions were dodged and instead funny commentary replaced actual answers. When asked about the difference between the preparation process for performing as an author versus performing as a musician, she joked that she doesn’t prepare at all. Though this got a laugh, there were missed chances to educate her audience. She has a unique perspective having experienced the music industry through its evolution from the 1970s to now. From the sample she gave, her book also lacks these discussions, as it mostly seems to revolve around her personal life with few deviations.

Patti Smith is talented and earned her fame with her art. She writes of pain and love in a relatable yet personal way. Her perspective of the world is vast as she has had the privilege to travel and she allows this to influence her music and writing. I can acknowledge this, but her refusal to address her use of the N-word while she continues to benefit from her extensive privilege as a white woman prevents me from fully appreciating her art. This reflects the ongoing struggle around how one should strive to separate the art from the artist. When, like with Smith, the art is intensely reflective of the artist’s life, the conundrum is amplified. Smith’s songs reflect a profound care for the world and its people, and her music should still be loved. However, she has been given the opportunity to own up for her actions and lacks the responsibility to do so, making me think her lyrics are more for popularity than enacting real change. Nevertheless, her performance was engaging, and her vocals have not changed since the ‘70s.

Patti Smith was presented by Seattle Arts and Lectures and spoke at Seattle Town Hall on December 2, 2022. For more information see here.

Lead Photo: Headshot of Patti Smith by Steven Sebring

The TeenTix Newsroom is a group of teen writers led by the Teen Editorial Staff. For each review, Newsroom writers work individually with a teen editor to polish their writing for publication. The Teen Editorial Staff is made up of 6 teens who curate the review portion of the TeenTix blog. More information about the Teen Editorial Staff can be found HERE.

The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about the Press Corps program see HERE.

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