Not for picky rock-star reasons. Lit in moody violet and blue, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis' stage was simply too dark for Smith to read the text of her 2010 memoir, "Just Kids." She asked for the house lights to be brought up. "We don't need no sense of drama," she explained. "I got nothing to hide."
She was right: drama wasn't necessary. Her words, her voice and her honesty were enough to leave the tight audience of 300 wrecked from the equal intensity of the joy and loss Smith conveyed in telling the story of her friendship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
Smith read from the chapter in "Just Kids" in which she moved from New Jersey to New York City in the summer of 1967, rescued from homelessness and loneliness by fellow artist Mapplethorpe. She interjected commentary on her own writing, thanking the audience for getting her obscure jokes, as guileless as a writer workshopping a manuscript, not an icon reading from her work that won the National Book Award.
On paper, "Just Kids" is beautifully-written prose. Coming from Smith's mouth, it's poetry -- lyrical and evocative enough to flow into "Wing," accompanied by Tony Shanahan on acoustic guitar. Smith, never known for her vocal prowess, stunned with the unmarred strength of her voice on the ode to artistic freedom.
She continued this pattern through the performance, alternating readings from the book with her songs that captured the time and essence of the story, distilling 320 pages into 90 minutes of prose, poetry, interaction and song.
After reading about her first meeting with Allen Ginsberg, Smith discussed her friendship with Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, dedicating "In My Blakean Year" to her Beat writer friends, giving the first verse an improvised St. Louis twist on his behalf:
Tour bus pulled into St. Louie
I was thinking about William
And the Courtesy Diner
Where I had a horseshoe sandwich
She read about how Mapplethorpe proclaimed the 1970s would be "their decade" on Christmas, 1969, followed by "Peaceable Kingdom" augmented with a spoken verse of "People Have the Power" over Shanahan's piano.
Smith read her poem, "Reflecting Robert," which she wrote after Mapplethorpe succumbed to AIDS-related complications in 1989. The houselights remained up, and nothing marked the transition into her telling of Mapplethorpe's death. Smith's tone remained the same, only her words changing from their joyful youth to his young death at age 42. Her intensity built through the refrain of "Pissing in a River," begging, "come back" over and over, grievous begging that built into rage, serving as a touchstone in the story Smith wove through her performance.
She returned to "Just Kids," jumping to the end to read the letter she wrote to Mapplethorpe as he was dying that didn't reach him in time. She ended with, "...it occurred to me looking around your things and your work and going through years of work in my mind, that of all your work, you are still your most beautiful. The most beautiful work of all." Then merged into a soft interpretation of Neil Young's "Only a Dream."
There was no hiding under the houselights. Throughout the crowd, shoulders shook and the sobs were audible, having built to this emotional flaying. And yet, there was laughter when she flubbed a lyric because she was distracted by an image of Burroughs that popped into her head. She had visited his grave at Bellefontaine Cemetery earlier in the day, offering him a shot of tequila while making a pass at him.
Smith brought original bandmate Lenny Kaye onstage before reading a passage on the first time she and Mapplethorpe heard her biggest hit, "Because the Night," coming from a radio in Manhattan. With Kaye on guitar and Shanahan on bass, they shed the quiet tone of the night and ripped into the song. With one wave of her hand, the crowd stood. With only a bit more encouragement they sang the chorus with her. With no place to hide under the lights, loud and impassioned, smiles stretched across tear-streaked faces as she brought us back to joy.
The band started to leave, but Smith said wanted to keep going instead of returning for an encore. She dedicated "Ghost Dance" to Burroughs, a dirge of repeated "We shall live again" marked by Smith shaking her hands, encouraging the audience to "shake out the ghosts."
In the Mapplethorpe-heavy performance, Smith invoked her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5 only at the end. She told the story of how Fred came into the kitchen while she was cooking one day and said, "Tricia, people have the power. Write it." And so she did, ending the night with the song she'd hinted at earlier in the night. This time, she didn't speak the words over quiet piano. She delivered them as marching orders fueled by pure punk energy. An energy she invented, that can turn a seated art museum audience into a sardined, leaping, scream-along mob.
"People have the power. Don't forget it. Use your voice," she said before she left.
In just under 90 minutes, Smith had proven the power of a voice, of words, and their ability to encompass the breadth of the human experience. All without so much as a spotlight.