Patti Smith at the library

I count myself lucky to have seen three concerts by Patti Smith and, now, two other public appearances by this rightfully legendary singer, poet and artist. I missed her sold-out concert Saturday at Park West, but I made sure to show up for her book signing and reading Sunday afternoon (Feb. 21) at the Harold Washington Library.

Smith’s new memoir, Just Kids, has been getting great reviews, including the cover of the New York Times Book Review. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but the passages Smith read aloud on Sunday were powerful, with crystal-clear prose. The book focuses on Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe during their early days as youngsters in New York, before they became famous (Smith for her music, Mapplethorpe for his photos).

After reading from the book, Smith played two songs solo acoustic (“Beneath the Southern Cross” and “My Blakean Year”) and took questions from the audience, before singing a few hundred copies of her book, plus whatever Smith memorabilia fans brought with them, including old LPs.

During the Q&A, she explained that she wrote her memoir using old journals and diaries as reference points. “There’s nothing in the book that isn’t so,” she said.

Someone asked if she’s surprised that she’s been famous for more than 15 minutes. She replied that being famous was never her goal. “What I really wanted to do was something great … Write something as good as Pinocchio,” she said.

She reminisced about meeting Jeff Buckley for the first time, the way he was standing on the side of the stage when she felt nervous during a Lollapalooza performance in the 1990s, how the very presence of an unknown stranger off to the side somehow gave her confidence. “I felt an energy to the left of me,” she said. Later, “I walked over to thank him, and it turned out to be Jeff Buckley.”

Asked for advice to aspiring musicians, artists and writers, Smith said: “Work hard. … The goal to me is always to do good work.” She spoke of artists who were not recognized during their lifetimes. “William Blake was almost totally ignored in his time,” she said. “Yet he never let go of his visionary power. He never stopped working.”

To hear Smith’s appearance at the Harold Washington Library, visit Chicago Public Radio’s Chicago Amplified site.

Photos of Patti Smith.

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