Tickets sold out in July; for months, RISD’s Center for Student Involvement had fielded requests from the public. Two weeks ago, when a limited number were released to students, lines formed and were dolled out within hours. A buzz – as close as I may ever see infamously ambivalent RISD reach a general hysteria – floated across campus. Seats were filled beyond capacity in the Auditorium for the 37th Gail Silver Memorial Lecture, a program of the RISD Museum, requiring a live simulcast in the smaller Metcalf Auditorium across the street, which also reported a full house.
The Godmother of Punk, Patti Smith, musician, poet, artist and activist was the high-profile speaker for this year’s Gail Silver Memorial Lecture, delivering an hour and a half of reading, music, and personal narrative to a rapt audience. She proved to be disarmingly genuine, natural and playful, responding to questions about her romantic life from an older trustee with a cheeky “Well, isn’t that a nosy thing to ask!” She moved fluidly from one medium from another, reading excerpts from Woolgatherers and Just Kids, dedicating several of the poems to the young art students of the audience. The poem “Why”, a consideration of the most pressing and difficult of the many questions artists ask of themselves, was particularly resonate.
Patti has been an idol and an inspiration of my own writing for many years. Particularly after the publication of her memoir Just Kids, she has been my favorite example of the romantic (perhaps byegone) story of a young artist making it in New York City. The memoir focuses on her years living in the Chelsea Hotel, her intimate relationship with pioneering photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and encounters in the gritty world of punk in lower Manhattan during the 70s. One of my favorite stories she read was her accidental date with poet Allen Ginsberg: he bought her lunch, thinking she was “a very pretty boy.”
Patti also is known for her political activism, an ardent supporter of HIV/AIDS awareness and staunchly anti-war. Her grassroots leanings are perhaps best exemplified by her rendition of song “Power to the People,” although she played down her involvement. “I wouldn’t say I’m a great activist,” she shrugged, “but I try to do my part.” She encouraged those who sought to be activists to be prepared always to fail, but to keep on pushing for their goals regardless. “The power truly rests within the people, but only when we can come together in not hundreds or thousands, but millions.”
A beautiful moment it was when the audience came together to sing “Because the Night” acappella, Patti’s biggest hit song, co-written by Bruce Springsteen. And again, when she gave what she calls her only true advice to the young people present: regular teeth cleaning.
By: Lauren Allegrezza, Blog Editor
Featured Image – Self-Portrait Photograph, Robert Mapplethorpe, c. 1976, NYC