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Author, musician Patti Smith visits Pittsburgh

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Novelist Patti Smith visited Carnegie Music Hall for a book lecture Monday night. TNS

Novelist Patti Smith visited Carnegie Music Hall for a book lecture Monday night. TNS

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Novelist Patti Smith visited Carnegie Music Hall for a book lecture Monday night. TNS

By Emily Baranik / Staff Writer

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Author, musician and poet Patti Smith has spent so much time writing about the past — most notably in her best-selling 2010 memoir, “Just Kids” — that she wanted to linger for a moment in the present.  

But, as she said Monday night in a performance at Carnegie Music Hall, staying in the present proved nearly impossible, noting her tendency to daydream and drift off into the past, into dreams and into the future.

The hall was packed with book- and music-lovers alike to hear Smith speak about her new memoir, M Train.” Smith switched back and forth between reading excerpts from the paperback’s postscript and performing songs that related to or were inspired by events she describes in the book, including the death of her close friend, punk rock icon Lou Reed.

Smith said she’d written “Just Kids” at the request of her longtime boyfriend, the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Writing “M Train,” she said, was like jumping on the “mind train” and going wherever it took her.

“I wanted to write a book that was irresponsible, that had no expectations, no particular destination, didn’t have to answer to anybody, and so I began ‘M Train,’” Smith said.

Prior to her books, Smith was highly influential in the New York City punk rock scene. From an early age, she gravitated toward the arts and human rights issues. She often performed in anti-war and political rallies. Her first album, “Horses,” debuted on Dec. 13, 1975.

Since then, she’s amassed a small collection of bound writing, including four recent books of nonfiction and several books of poetry.

To celebrate the new book, all attendees of the lecture received a free paperback copy of “M Train.” Smith said the paperback copy of the book was special because it contains a 20-page postscript which she wrote after the initial publication came out in Oct. 2015.

Wearing a black slouched blazer over gray jeans, with thick black-rimmed glasses, the 69-year-old dotted her lecture with lighthearted humor about her writing process and the public’s response to her memoirs. She noted that some critics accused her of feeding her cats once every three pages, which drew laughter from the audience.

After her last novel, “Just Kids,” which focused on her early years in New York City, Smith said she felt “exhausted.” The stress of writing her first lengthy work of nonfiction on top of raising two kids as a single mother was grueling.

M Train” is a memoir tracing the journey of Smith’s later life, mostly after the death of Mapplethorpe. In the book, she chronicles her travels — to the graves of poets and artists including Jean Genet, Sylvia Plath and Arthur Rimbaud — her “ramshackle” writer’s house on Rockaway Beach and her favorite T.V. shows, including the now-cancelled, “The Killing.”

She also lingers for periods of time on the losses she’s dealt with, especially that of her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith.

“It’s a book that just simply unfolds in time … We’re really moving in this trinity of memory, of past, present, and future,” Smith said.

The postscript — which includes photos she took on her phone — came after the book was published because she just wanted to keep writing, Smith said. She added that she’s still writing — a hint at the possibility of a post-postscript.

Karen Fellabam, from the Manchester area of Pittsburgh, came to see Smith for the fourth time after a friend surprised her with tickets. Prior to this event, Fellabam said she had only seen Smith in concert, so this venue was an entirely different performance.

“Every time I see her, it’s something different,” Fellabam said.

Accompanied by bandmate Tony Shanahan on the piano and guitar, Smith performed various songs from her career as a punk and folk rock musician, including “My Blakean Year,” “Wing,” “Beneath the Southern Cross,” “Dancing Barefoot,” and her biggest hit, “Because the Night.”

Tony Coccagno, a resident of the Friendship neighborhood of Pittsburgh, called her performance a “treat.”

“I’ve been a Patti Smith fan all my life … my favorite part was the way that the music was intertwined with the story,” Coccagno said.

At the end of the lecture, she surprised the audience, most of whom were already on their way out, with an encore. She encouraged people to remain standing, and left fans with the last message to remember to vote before performing her song, “People Have the Power.”

The crowd erupted especially during this performance when Smith sang the lyric “[People have the power] to wrestle the world from fools.”

Spencer Kingman, a Swissvale resident, said he became a Patti Smith fan because of her music. He said he learned about her as a teenager when she sang on an R.E.M. song, “E-Bow the Letter.” Seeing Smith perform her 1996 hit “Beneath the Southern Cross” live was a highlight for him.

Like Fellabam, this was also Kingman’s fourth time seeing Smith live — and he has watched her change over the years.

“It was interesting to see her older, a little absentminded,” Kingman said.

 

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Author, musician Patti Smith visits Pittsburgh