There's a scene from an old Superman movie that pops up on social media from time to time where actor Christopher Reeve transforms from the nebbishy Clark Kent into the Man of Steel by merely straightening up his posture and taking off his spectacles. Last Friday at the Miami Book Fair, the legendary singer Patti Smith made a similar metamorphosis.
Beyond her rock 'n' roll resume, Smith is also an author many times over. Her attendance at this year's Book Fair served to promote her recently released book, A Book of Days.
For an hour, she took the stage at Miami Dade College's Chapman Conference Center to conduct a PowerPoint presentation of the book's many photographs while occasionally answering questions written by the audience that she pulled out of a fishbowl.
Even while speaking, Smith has stage presence to spare. She's able to hold court and regale the crowd with stories on any given subject, from how Jimi Hendrix's "1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)" is her favorite song ever to recalling the two-time chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer badly sang Buddy Holly tunes to her.
As charming as these stories could be, after a while, it felt a bit like a slideshow given by your favorite aunt. An hour into it, a gentleman sitting behind me started snoring, and the two acoustic guitars propped up on the stage felt like a tease.
But patience was rewarded.
Eventually, Smith introduced long-time collaborator Lenny Kaye, who picked up a guitar as Smith took off her glasses and revealed that even at 75, she still has a captivating voice.
Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye
Photo by Alberto Tamargo, AET/Miami Book Fair
She opened her set with the folksy tune "Grateful" off her 2000 album Gung Ho.
Her voice got soulful with the occasional backing harmony from Kaye, and her delivery of the lyrics never went down the obvious route. Like the devout student of the great poets she is, Smith always has found a surprising way to recite her lyrics waking up the deepest of sleepers in the crowd.
Next was "Ghost Dance," a song she introduced as having written in 1978.
"Lenny and I wrote it as a call for unity and dedicated it to the Hopi Indian Tribe. I want to dedicate it tonight to the women and all genders who are fighting for freedom in Iran," she told the crowd. Again, her voice sounded as powerful as ever, with her hands shaking with a purposeful ferocity every time she sang the line, "Shake out the ghost dance."
She saved the best for last as she called for the audience to stand up for "People Have the Power." First, she explained the song's origin: "This song was written with my late, great husband Fred 'Sonic' Smith. I was pregnant with my daughter and in a feisty mood. I was peeling potatoes when he said people have the power. We sat and talked for hours on this song to empower and inspire the righteous causes. He didn't live to see it happen, but I did get to see people get together and sing it."
Her voice had you thinking it was still 1975, and then she took off her sweater and moved those arms in that distinct Patti Smith way. For a second, you could imagine you were not in a brightly lit auditorium but at CBGB, watching a performer channel everything alive about music.
I'm not sure if this evening convinced anyone to read her book, but it inspired at least one person to catch a full Patti Smith concert if ever granted the chance.