The Barnes & Noble at Union Square was packed to the gills last night, with a line already forming on 17th Street long before Patti Smith was due to appear.
Riding the escalator up, we saw kids crowding every floor, sitting amongst the stacks in the hopes of hearing Smith read, even if they couldn’t buy a copy of her new book to get a wristband and get into the seating area and be guaranteed a signature in Smith’s new book, M Train.
It felt like an all-ages rock show, from tweens on up, with a lot of scarves and leather jackets, some legit thrift store items—is that a Boy Scout uniform?—and at least one waxed mustache. And it’s hard to imagine a more exemplary literary rock star than Patti Smith, who not only won the National Book award for Just Kids but was actually inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
There was a ton of love in the room, and Smith got a standing O just for walking in. Apart from being introduced, she was alone onstage, and told us that while sometimes her band comes to these events, they were all otherwise engaged. “You just got me, but I have all of you,” she said smiling, arms open wide. She added that she couldn’t get a moderator, and quipped about a “big moderator convention” happening.
She told us about a “cute, pathetic” young girl, maybe 23, who always stopped her on Sixth Avenue as she was heading to her favorite cafe, Cafe ‘Ino, to ask if she could take her picture, and she would always say no because she wasn’t in the mood. And then one day, Smith was in the mood, and went out and asked the girl, “Would you take my picture?” That girl was Claire Alexandra Hatfield, and her photograph is now the cover of Patti Smith’s book “M Train.” Points for perseverance.
Smith interrupted herself to say, “I’m gonna come clean. I don’t got nothin’ planned,” to massive warm laughter, and said that more-organized friends had suggested putting Post-Its in the book to mark what to read. She read from the opening of the book, delivered almost like a Genius excerpt, as she continually interrupted herself to clue us in. When reading about smoking hash, she added, “Whoops!” and a “Tee hee, It was just a brief period of my life.” And later, “I don’t know why I picked this part, but it’s got a Post-It on it, so…”
The reading went on this way, with winking plugs for the book (”I reveal all, in M Train; read it”), commentary (when assuming a character must be from New Jersey, she added, “Hey, I’m from New Jersey, I can smell one”) and at one point, a request (“Should I keep reading?” greeted by a unanimous yes). She gave us a bright prose poem about snow, a dark meditation on wanting to kill someone for stealing her cafe table, left with no way to escape her “odious conversation,” borrowing heavily from Law and Order and admitting, “such dark thoughts for the sake of a corner table.”
And the girl next to me, cracking her gum steadily, to the murmuration, like beating wings, of Patti Smith’s gentle poetic prose.
Q&As at these things too often lend themselves to audience self-expression, but this crowd had some good ones. We learned that the title M Train doesn’t refer to the line Jay Z named himself after, but a “mental train, or a mind train,” with “no particular destination and no particular agenda. I just wanted to see what would unfold.” She recommended Rimbaud’s collection of letters, I Promise to Be Good. Despite her love of cafes, she’s “not supposed to” drink a lot of coffee anymore—unlike the 12-14 cups a day of her youth—but cheats by watering it down. “It’s quantity over quality.”
Someone in the crowd asked if she’d done this reading to purposely align with the 60th anniversary of the first reading of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl.” It was news to Smith, who said, “That’s awesome,” and quipped, “It was Barnes & Noble’s fault,” and offered to play a cover. “If you happen to have one in your pocket just bring it up,” she said, and then, “listen to all the murmurs in the crowd,” which was palpable. “Maybe Barnes & Noble has a copy.”
Someone in the front row said he had it and passed it to an employee, who took the stage and tried to hand Smith a phone. “Oh, no, I don’t read from phones,” she said, refusing it. “I actually read from books.” But B&N did have a copy.
“I actually learned how to do book signings from Allen,” Smith said. “Before I even had books I would sit next to him—I watched him sign for five hours one day. Five hours. Totally patient, and gave every single person, even just a moment, just a moment of his concentration. It was a beautiful thing.” She added, “Don’t think I’m gonna give it to you,” to wild laughter.
Then she read from “Howl,” gently keeping the beat by tapping two slender fingers against her collarbone. Listen below.
Bradley Spinelli is the author of “Killing Williamsburg” and the writer/director of “#AnnieHall.”