Who better to kick off the New Yorker Festival than Patti Smith, the platonic ideal of New York City condensed into a person? The woman entered to a standing ovation! In the hour-and-a-half conversation with New Yorker editor-in-chief and friend David Remnick that followed, the singer and writer read from her new memoir, Year of the Monkey (it’s about “70 percent” true), waxed about her favorite detective shows (she loves Idris Elba in Luther: “Talk about a guy!”), and told the story of meeting Trump in the ’70s (horrifyingly, “he brushed his eyebrows up straight”). And even if the event was just billed as a talk, an acoustic and electric guitar sat next to the two chairs, hinting at what the Godmother of Punk had in store.
Remnick had already coaxed acoustic performances of Smith’s “Pissing in a River” and Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” out of Smith before he asked Smith about the political life of her song “People Have the Power.” She explained how her late husband and co-writer, Fred Smith, would be proud of the song’s impact, and Remnick replied, “All right, well that’s our cue!” The audience applauded, and, Remnick didn’t spare Smith a second to think before he picked up his electric guitar. (Yes, the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker accompanied Patti Smith.) “Oh! You’re pulling out the big guns,” Smith said when she noticed he went electric.
“We didn’t practice, so I think this is awesome,” Smith told the crowd as Remnick started to play. Yet she was in her element, joining in when the crowd started clapping. At the end of the second verse, she forgot a line, stopped the song and brushed it off like it was nothing at all. “Wait, I forgot to sing, that’s okay! Come on people, get up!” she said. “I need to find the chorus.” And she did! That power! When the song softened, she told the audience, “I’m sorry, I fell out of rhythm, so — it wasn’t David’s fault, it’s always mine. He’s the new Bob Dylan!” And then in seconds, she got the crowd clapping a new rhythm. The people have the power, indeed! “Use! Your! Voice!” she said at the end of the song.
The impromptu performance may have only left time for one audience question, but Smith still imparted more of her signature wisdom to the crowd: “If things are getting really rough, eat a Snickers bar!” Think that’s how she can still do it all at 73 years young?