It’s a cool September evening and Patti Smith is on stage. There are no screaming fans, just a room of quietly seated adults. This is not a rock concert, the setting is Barnes and Noble in New York City’s Union Square.
I’m reminded that her first concert was held in a church. A performance of her version of Mack the Knife. It was the first time an electric guitar was played in St Marks Church. It was 1971 and February 10, Brecht’s birthday. His blend of “art and activism” has garnered her admiration for many years. She loves signs and symbols and symmetry of dates. That date in February would be a significant one; her career would take off that night. Offers from other cities and other countries. She was wary after this success, not feeling ready or worthy, and that somehow she had cheated the system in which her beloved, struggling poet and writer friends had struggled and starved.
This New York night in September though, Patti is reading portions of her latest book Year of the Monkey and she’ll sing a few songs, accompanied, as in 1971, by Lenny Kaye. I hide in the bookshelves with my friend. We tried to get tickets but they were sold out, so we casually browse the nearest shelves in order to see as much as we can. Fortuitously, I come across Patti’s books on those shelves; the deluxe version of Just Kids and M Train. I pray she will sing her song, Paths that Cross, written for a friend who died of AIDS in the 80s. It’s a beautiful song which expresses hope at meeting loved ones again: “Hearts will mend, round the bend. Paths that cross, cross again.” She doesn’t sing it, but she made no promise to.
Patti Smith was born in Chicago in 1946 and spent her childhood in Philadelphia and New Jersey. She carries her roots in her accent and speaks fondly of her mother, father, brother, and two sisters. She escaped the work of factory life and a future of teaching and was reborn in the 70s art scene in New York City, where she arrived with one purpose: to become an artist. She has done so. She is a poet, rocker, writer, traveller, author, photographer and performer.
But before Patti stepped foot in the city she still calls home, before she lived in the Chelsea hotel, and became everything she intended to be, she was something else: a girl about to become a mother. Just a teenager, Patti gave up her baby for adoption. First though, she made a promise to her child that she would be an artist. That she would make something of herself.
The next several years, while uniquely magical, would not be easy for Patti and her comrades. She would find herself in wretched places with suffering morphine addicts, extreme poverty and hunger, in a relationship with a married man, and in complicated unions with other men. “We […] were caught in the twisted briars of our new experiences,” she says of this time. Despite it all, and perhaps because of it all, art would endure.
Patti’s husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, called her an “incomprehensible woman”. Certainly, she is unpredictable. As she talks to the audience of no more than a few hundred, I can hardly believe I am seeing the woman who wrote the poignant Just Kids, Piss Factory, and the acclaimed Horses album. What you expect her to say she doesn’t, and even the sound of her voice surprises. It is not harsh and loud, but soft and a little hoarse. She insisted on keeping her messy hair for an album cover that would go on to define her for a generation. She read a poem backed by a rhythm section with no drummer. Once, Bob Dylan happened to be in the audience, but she wasn’t nervous – she doesn’t get nervous. A little later, she married, settled down, and raised her children, foregoing a tour and adoring fans, for a more simple home-life.
“I was heavily criticized,” she says, “when I left public life and my so-called career to be a wife and then a mother, as if I had betrayed, you know, some kind of ideology that I never embraced […] My art never suffered because I had a husband and children. Having the experiences I had, magnified my work, magnified me as a human being.” When she returned, she brought with her not just new life and the experience of motherhood, but tragic and repeated losses – her husband, brother, and several friends died in a short space of time.
Year of the Monkey, written as she neared her seventh decade, grapples with these losses in her trademark poetic style. Her books are a blend of poetry, prose, and history. She writes in detail, as one who records her dreams when she wakes up (and also her conversations with lovers). Only one who makes notes in solitude could write a memoir of such detail and depth. She once said: “I wrote to give myself something to read.” In her little book, Devotion, she expands on her urge to write: “to channel the future, to revisit childhood, and to rein in the follies and horrors of imagination.”
Patti is a romantic, speaking of her love for her husband with reverence. Often, she tells journalists she doesn’t want to talk of her husband or her time with Robert Mapplethorpe, but she almost always does. She reveals herself in her writing: her rituals, the depth of her friendships, the brown toast she eats with black coffee. She discloses dreams, and the items stored in her pockets. She travels, passing through places of her heroes, visiting gravestones and delivering sacred objects. She is a woman who asks to visit the abandoned penal colony of French Guinea as an anniversary gift. She wants to collect its native stones, and fulfil another promise made to another author and artist. Such items are talismans, connecting her to lost friends, lovers, family members, and artists.
She says of her early work, “I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll.” She was interested in the outsiders, the kids that didn’t fit in, herself something of an oddball and self-proclaimed sickly child. Rock is for the people. She resists the term “feminist”, as she does the title “godmother of women in rock”. But the work she has done for women speaks for itself. She tells The New York Times: “If they want to call me a writer, an artist, I’m really happy with that, or a mother.”
“I’ve done my best work, really my most important work from the ages of maybe 57 to now,” she explains. Another resistance to the mentality that art is for the young – that greatness is in the gift of youth rather than the wisdom and experience of silver hair. And hers is long.
Patti hasn’t performed in over a year due to quarantine, but for Instagram Live concerts, often aided by her daughter, Jesse. Art is still a family affair; her son, Jackson, is also a musician. The music they make is a sacred tie to her late husband and friends.
I get an email in my inbox. Sender: Patti Smith.
My heart skips a beat until I remember it’s her newsletter. The text reads “Robert Mapplethorpe’s Hands” and I am thrown into 1970, the Hotel Chelsea, the setting of Just Kids.
In 1969, Patti arrived at the legendary hotel: a giant dollhouse filled with poets, dancers, writers, musicians, and dreamers like herself. It was a “tremendous stroke of luck” and a “stellar education,” she writes in Just Kids, of the place that defined her work and housed artists such as Leonard Bernstein, Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, and Dylan Thomas. But this magical period, like any, came to an end, mostly due to her financial situation. Even in 1970, New York was expensive.
Robert and Patti, kindred artists, promised one another they would never leave each other until they could stand on their own, which they eventually could. Another promise was kept, until Robert’s early death in 1989. She promised him a story about their lives, about the child that was their art. “I would have never written that book if he hadn’t asked,” she told The Washington Post in 2019. To Patti, it seems art itself is a promise, and a life spent fulfilling it is a life well lived. At the end of the book, Patti asks Robert if they’ve been had by art. “Only a fool would regret being had by art, or a saint” is his response.
Today, Patti shares her thoughts on social media. Her black and white photos have obscure beauty and her Instagram captions read as poetry, often nodding to friends and artists that have passed, noting their birthdays or death days, or their bodies of work. She honours them with a simple photo and a narrow bar of words, beginning always with “This is …”
She has just launched on Substack, a way for those that crave her writing and work to get an email each week, right from the source. Like many other artists, she is adapting. Even Patti adapts to the new. The Reader is my Notebook she calls it. She makes an IGTV announcement: “I’m launching this new thing, and um, I really like it,” she says, with a sheepish grin, as if she has a new crush. The description reads: “Weekly ruminations, shards of poetry, music, and musings on whatever subject finds its way from thought to pen, news of the mind, pieces of this world, free to all.” Another avenue of connection.
September 19, 2019. My wedding anniversary. I walk into a coffee shop and pick up The New York Times. A feature on Patti – “A Banquet Of Music And Words Has Fed An Epic Life, But to Her It’s All Poetry.” I take the paper, my own special artefact. “I had done what I set out to do”, she says to the interviewer about taking time off from touring. As always, she has kept her word, giving the world the fruits of her promises and of her defiance. “I was like that as a child,” she says. “I can’t help it. I’m a punk rocker who loves Maria Callas, you know?”
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References include: Patti Smith’s M Train, Just Kids, Year of the Monkey, Devotion; The New York Times, The Washington Post, Village Voice, National Public Radio, Pitchfork.