Before she became the poet laureate of punk, Patti Smith was a visual artist, even though she couldn’t get respect from the mainstream art world.
Her late pal Andy Warhol once had the same problem. So it’s particularly fitting that Smith’s retrospective, “Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith,” opened Saturday at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. It captures her entire professional arc from early, childlike drawings and paintings to her stunning, never-before-seen visual and written reactions to the events that happened blocks from away her home on September 11, 2001 — work no one imagined would exist when the exhibit was planned.
Smith came to Pittsburgh to check out her show and mingle with fans at a Friday night pre-opening party, then deliver a Saturday performance at the Byham Theater. That she showed up at all was an achievement: On September 19th, her mother died.
“We had death, life and art in the space of ten days . . . my mother would have approved of that,” Smith told her adoring audience on Saturday. She dedicated the show to Beverly Williams-Smith, her biggest influence and earliest supporter, then recited her poem, “Mommy.” On a rear backdrop loomed a large photo of her mother’s then-young face. If the film shown just before — a time-lapse rendering of smoke rising from the World Trade Center wreckage on Sept. 13, 2001, accompanied by an Eleanor Steber aria, “Les Nuits d’Ete” — didn’t cause a few misty eyes, the maternal tribute certainly did.
Even before she had these events to address, Patti Smith’s music and art has always been about gut-wrenching honesty and hardcore emotion. But this weekend, she opened herself up in a way that seemed more raw and revealing than ever, and, if possible, more cathartic and rewarding as well. Her performance — an unplugged affair with her bandmates seated around her — was even more intense than usual. Every song, every reading, seemed specifically chosen to reflect the themes of love, loss, justice or injustice.
Opening with the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” — a clever choice, given their association with Warhol — she changed the “the fact that you’re married” line to say, “The fact that you are gone, only proves you’re my best friend.”
Remaining composed all night, Smith refused to get maudlin, instead cracking up the crowd with anecdotes about Warhol, her mom and other topics. By the end of her second tune, “Beneath the Southern Cross,” Smith was smiling. Going into the easy reggae rhythm of “Redondo Beach,” she even vamped a bit in her standard outfit of jeans, untied combat boots and jacket.
She talked about Pope John Paul I, “my favorite pope.”
“Unfortunately,” she added, “he was only pope for about sixty days. So I didn’t have to be Catholic for very long.” Noting it was the anniversary of his death, she read her poem, “Wave,” describing it as “just me happening to catch the pope” walking along the beach. The lines convey the equivalent of a fan’s crush on a rock star; ironically, the night before, standing amid her work signing autographs, Smith was cast in that pope role, listening to testimonials just like her own. Even more ironically, she was partially surrounded by the series she had been working on before 9/11, “Cross Sections,” which represents stages of Christ’s crucifixion.
Whether she saw the parallels didn’t matter as she sang “Wave’s” scripture-like final verses before sliding into a terrific version of “Wing,” with bassist Tony Shanahan singing harmony. On this tune and throughout the night, the acoustic treatment gave new clarity to the melodies and to Shanahan’s and Lenny Kaye’s impressive vocal contributions, wrapped deftly around Patti’s always-passionate deliveries. Kaye and Ray frequently drew from Spanish guitar influences, and Jay Dee Dougherty’s drumming was simply elegant.
Smith did earn one boo, when she dedicated “Boy Cried Wolf” to John Walker Lindh, the American expatriate who will be sentenced Friday for his involvement with Taliban terrorists. She said she hoped he wouldn’t get too much prison time and asked people to petition the government for leniency.
Introducing “Grateful,” about another departed friend, Jerry Garcia, she announced, “By the way, my mother would not have approved of this evening’s event. Because she liked the electric stuff.”
The show regained intensity when Smith read “Twin Death,” her searing journal notes from September 11-17, 2001. Of her visit to Ground Zero, she wrote, “I see their skeletal remains, resembling Brueghel’s portrait of Babel. Atop them, two twisted fingers reach heavenward in the perfect shape of a V. The simple sign for Peace.” As she read, the backdrop showed Picasso’s famed depiction of war’s atrocity, “Guernica.”
She loosened up as she sang “Frederick,” for her late husband, a knockout tune that provoked prolonged applause and a shout of “You still rock!”
She read from Blake and Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, then sang “Wild Leaves,” written for her late friend Robert Mapplethorpe’s fortieth birthday, before finishing with a rocking “Dancing Barefoot.” Smith encored with a reading from “my first [art] catalog that’s just mine.”
Neatly summing up the intent — and impact — of her WTC art, which includes many silk-screened, penciled, and digitized images of the Roman Coliseum-like South Tower remains, she read, “The work submitted contains . . . all the abstract tears shed for people I never knew, yet, strangely mourn. It contains feelings channeled, processed, transfigured.”
The final song — one Shanahan sang to Smith’s mother on her last birthday — was dedicated to “Bev.” It was Elvis Presley’s “Love Me,” on which sexy Shanahan sounded every bit the Fiftiess heartthrob, aided by campy band vocals.
Leaving on just the right light note, Smith gave some final, very motherly advice, “Get home safe and drink plenty of water.”
“Strange Messengers” closes in Pittsburgh January 5th, then travels to Houston, Tokyo and Philadelphia.