In the world of rock’n’roll, there are stars and there are poets, virtuosos and punks, heroes and losers and fallen idols. And then there is Patti Smith.
I think I may have first heard Patti on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack—a movie I loved as a rebellious teen and still have a soft spot for now as an incisive piece of media criticism disguised as ultraviolent shock-your-parents fare. But that doesn’t do her justice, nor does boiling down her career to that most punk rock (in all the best and the worst ways) track, “Rock & Roll N****r,” a nihilistic snarl and a word she probably shouldn’t have tried to use.
I don’t know when I first bought a Patti Smith record, but I know it was Easter, not Horses, and I know I loved the cover with her sheer shirt, no bra and unshaved armpits—Patti was sexy the same way Frida Kahlo was sexy, because she dared you to look her in the eye and expect her to conform to your expectations of a woman. Of a person.
I’ve since re-purchased Easter (and Dream of Life) on vinyl, collected most of her albums on CD or digital and stocked my iPod with Patti, Patti, Patti.
I don’t listen to punk rock nearly as much as I used to—I’ve gotten country in my old age and have also stocked my headspace with pop both new and vintage, anything that makes me dance. But Patti was never just a one-note punk even in that brief span of time when you might’ve called her a punk. I sought her out because I wanted to know how to be a woman in a punk scene, and I found instead a model for how to be an artist that refuses labels, an artist who doesn’t so much deal with gender as spit in its face as she breezes past.
Lately I’ve been listening to Dream of Life a lot—possibly because it’s the only one I only have on vinyl and thus I have to make an event of it, opening the turntable, remembering to flip sides. It’s the album she released while living in Michigan with her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, the non-Patti Smith Group record, a dreamy, beautiful album and possibly one of her most accessible. I like the reminder that “People have the Power,” and I can call up memories of seeing her perform it two years ago at the Tibet House concert, with a stage full of other brilliant musicians who filled out the bill at that benefit show.
I haven’t yet read Just Kids, the memoir Patti wrote of her time with Robert Mapplethorpe, perhaps because I’ve been saving it as a gift to myself at a time when I might need it. I do have a lovely hardcover book filled with photos, many by Mapplethorpe, and Patti’s lyrics, that I bought in college when I only owned those two records (Easter and Horses). I did listen, this weekend while walking the dog, to an interview with Patti on NPR’s Fresh Air podcast, and I was struck by her description of being pregnant as a teenager, how her life would’ve been different—she would’ve gone to work at a factory, stayed home with her mother and brothers and sisters—and I realized that I don’t think of her that way.
I do think of her as a mother herself—at that same Tibet House show, she performed with her daughter, and I’m well acquainted with the story of her time away from the spotlight—but in my head she sprung fully formed from the streets of New York. But in the last day or so I’ve been following that alternate vision of Patti, toying with the thought that she’d still have become a musician and poet during her struggling working-class time in New Jersey, a sort of female Bruce Springsteen, the populism and progressive politics of her songs stretching to include the concrete failings and victories of eking out a living. A career full of songs like “Because the Night,” made with Bruce, that might have after all been more commercially successful, entirely different but no less strange.
Patti always inspires a sort of mystic lyricism that won’t be confined by place and time. Despite being associated with a moment (“the godmother of punk”) her records sound as fresh now as they ever did, and her politics have only gotten sharper. “Radio Baghdad” might be the best Iraq war protest song out there—moving from Christian scripture to a trip through the past, into the “cradle of civilization,” finding our common human ancestry and in its wildness sounding like war while celebrating and calling for peace.
As I said, I have yet to read Just Kids, but I did find an excerpt online, and so I’ll leave you not with my words but with Patti’s, a bit from the tale of how her first recording came to be.
Wishing to add a guitar line that could represent the desperate desire to be free, we chose Tom Verlaine to join us. Divining how to appeal to Tom’s sensibilities, I dressed in a manner that I thought a boy from Delaware would understand: black ballet flats, pink shantung capris, my kelly green silk raincoat, and a violet parasol, and entered Cinemabilia, where he worked part-time. The shop specialized in vintage film stills, scripts, and biographies representing everyone from Fatty Arbuckle to Hedy Lamarr to Jean Vigo. Whether or not my getup impressed Tom, I’ll never know, but he enthusiastically agreed to record with us.