LA's Hammer Museum Presents: Smith on Smith

Since Patti Smith doesn't make her way out west very often, when she does, it's a notable occasion. Added to that, last night she gave an intimate talk at LA's Hammer Museum on the artist Harry Smith -- a close friend of hers and highly influential figure in American culture, that lived in much obscurity.

Harry Smith was not only a photographer, filmmaker, artist, ethnomusicologist, and archivist, but he was responsible for collecting and organizing the Anthology of American Folk Music,

which laid the groundwork for the American folk revival, and artists like Bob Dylan. Smith and Smith met at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, and the young Patti found herself inspired by him and intrigued by his eccentricities.

Last night she reminisced about her time at the Chelsea, and told a good handful of stories about Harry and herself. This included one about him standing in the middle of a bookstore, seemingly staring into space for 20 or 30 minutes. When she finally located him and asked him what he was doing, he responded, "I'm reading." She talked about making up songs in the Appalachian folk style and singing them to him; about how he always tried to size a person up quickly and often asked for money upon first meeting someone. She also mentioned how when she could tell that he was about to "go in for the kill" and finally see if he could in fact get money out of the person, she would walk up to him and say, "Daddy!"

She read quite a few excerpts from her latest book, Just Kids and in her own, laid back style, allowed the night to move at its own pace. Sporting loose fitting blue jeans tucked into well-worn black work boots, a T-shirt and jacket, and even a black beanie, she openly mocked herself and mentioned that another blogger had recently said that she looked something like a crab fisherman.

She also recounted the time that she met Allen Ginsberg. When she was living at the Chelsea, and pretty flat broke, she was ten cents short to get a cheese sandwich at a deli she liked. Then Allen Ginsberg walked in and paid for the rest of the sandwich and a cup of coffee. When she joined him at his table, she started to talk and he surprisingly responded, "You're a girl?!?" "Yes," she replied. "Do you want the sandwich back?" "No," he said. "It was my mistake."

Several different times she couldn't find her place in her own book to read. She endearingly just looked up, smiled, and said, "Sorry," while she continued to shuffle through the pages. Her thick, south Jersey accent makes it difficult for her to pronounce certain words, even if she had the vocabulary enough to write them.

Not only did she pay tribute Harry Smith, but also to J.D. Salinger who died yesterday, and Howard Zinn who died the day before. She even did a beautifully chilling reading of the lyrics to her famous anthem People Have the Power in his honor.

The evening was an insightful, deep look into the lives of two American artists who have dramatically contributed not only to the world of art, but to American culture.

Critics' Notebook:

Last Night: Patti Smith discussing Harry Smith at Hammer Museum in LA

Better Than: Any other talk at a museum than I've ever attended.

Personal Bias: Okay. I have to be really honest here. Patti Smith is my absolute idol, and it was worth driving to LA and becoming a student member of the Hammer Museum so that I could see this performance.

Random Detail: Lots of friends and artists attended, and it was really neat to be in the same room with so many creative, interesting people. I sat next to someone who was a close friend of William Burroughs.

Further Listening/Watching: Patti Smith - "People Have the Power"

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Sarah Ventre