A Night with Patti Smith

November 17, 2015


I can't get enough of Patti Smith. Not since first seeing her in Portland Oregon in 1979, an artist I'd never heard of, but the ticket was $2, so why not? She took the stage, in an old theater--this skinny… boy? girl? in white shirt and necktie. She began, in a voice that was both gravelly and breathy, very very slowly: Jesus died… for Somebody's sins… BUT-- NOT --MINE! she screamed.  The audience went nuts. I went nuts.  My sins, they belong to me…. And then launched into the rock standard GLORIA--with the sexes remaining unchanged.  It was permanently mind-blowing.  My mind is still blown.  Like someone whacking the top of my head with a board.  Ever since, I've craved more--the music, the poetry,  the preacher-like gestures with those sensitive, little-tipped fingers--rising, hushing, reaching out. The power of her voice, her control of it, belting, murmuring. The rhythmic skeins of language--chants and incantations, true bardic rapture.  Her unabashed joy in art and in the things of the world, her sense of outrage, her sheer energy. I have seen her turn gray, and sweeten with the years, a real surprise. Then her book, Just Kids, was published. It absolutely charmed me, a gorgeous recollection of how artists are made, that's what got me about it, what commitment to art looks like,  the attitude of wonder and openness and goofiness and non-judgement--here's my review of it on goodreads if you're interested: Just Kids

A new book has now hit the bookstores, M Train, a dreamy memoir, and to celebrate, she came to LA and spoke at the Los Angeles Public Library Aloud series last night, in conversation with the novelist Jonathan Lethem. Of course I dumped everything to be there. I'd drive 100 miles just to hear how her mind works.  It's so inspiring to see an artist who considers herself an artist. Who still has a creative vision as fresh as it had always been, whose layers of wisdom and experience manage not to rob her of her artistic vitality, her openness to the world--something I treasure more and more the older I get. How cheerful she is, unpretentious and direct, without any pose-- unless naturalness itself is a pose, and if it is, it's the best one to have.

The book sprang from a dream. She allowed one association to suggest the next, uninterrupted, and then explained that she edited it down and inserted small title heads so readers can rest and orient themselves, little 'stations' on the mental train… - Lots of pieces from her travels, photographs… I look forward to just spending time again inside her mind--that quick, broad, childlike, unjudgemental, alert, appreciative space.

Here are some notes from the evening I managed to jot down in the dark.

I learned that she works simultaneously on a number of books at once. "This was the first one to cross the finish line," she joked.  She jokes a lot--I love the way she  takes her work very seriously, but not herself.  She spoke about her sense of responsibility to the reader, to the audience--"There was such responsibility in Just Kids--to chronology, and the people and the times." To get it right. Where the new book is more a meditation, a dreamlike work.  She enjoyed writing M Train because it works associationally--didn't have to be as responsible to truth and people in the outside world.

I liked hearing her talk about the difference between writing lyrics and writing poetry. She was talking about   a poem she wrote about Amy Winehouse and her death, which became a lyric to a song,  "This is the Girl." She'd written it, and then her bass player shared a piece of music he'd written, and she realized that her poem would fit it perfectly. But the difference: "There's a responsibility with a lyric, to others." With a lyric, you have to think about the audience being able to understand you, follow you, it also has to not  violate the mood of the music.  "But with a poem, the responsibility is to the poem itself.  There are a lot of different sensations encoded in poetic language. Your blinders are on this way"--she held her hands up in front of her eyes--"in, towards the work." The poet's task is not to explain or make clear to the outside world, but to speak to the work, to deepen within the poem, a very intimate thing.

A lot of her musical work is improvised, a process that fascinates me, part of that shamanic element of her poetry. It often starts with a riff from the musicians, like  in Radio Ethiopia, or that incredible run in Birdland, about Wilhelm Reich and his son Peter, one of my all-time favorites. The musician starts, and then she mprovises language out of that, around that, a real bardic trance.

Great questions from the audience. Here were a few of them:

An audience member, an actor and writer, asked her about how to find/define success.  She said, "My definition of success is doing something really good. That you can read again and know it's good. even if it doesnt get published or anything, even if nobody else sees it, I'll read it and go, man, that was good!"    Not numbers or sales or followers, image etc. Just to do good work. "How it transformed other people, that's another way." Its contribution to the conversation.   And simply accepting that she's an artist who does work across genres--"I always wanted to be Joan Mitchell. I saw her sitting in front of a big canvas in a film once, and she's smoking and she said, 'I'm a painter. That's what I do.'"  But Smith's been a poet, writer, musician, performer, mother, wife, all of those creative parts.

There were lots of references to films and other poets and writers. She lives in a cultural world, everything from Funny Face--'that's who I wanted to be, Audrey Hepburn in her little beatnik pants, working in a bookstore.' to Rimbaud, Nina Simone, Blake,  Moby Dick--"I read it when I was about 13--but I skipped the whaling chapter.  I was a good reader but I'm a girl, and I skipped the whaling."

About gender: "I staked the right not to have to be fettered by gender."

One audience member asked her what she would recommend for reading material for juvenile offenders who are looking at long sentences. She said, "Who's to say.  Depends on their reading level. With one you could give them the Glass Bead Game, with another it's comic books.  The one thing that can't be incarcerated is your imagination.  Genet was in jail at 14, and read Proust. It changed his life.  Who's to say that a little thug like that shouldn't read Proust. I think we should widen the choices of prison libraries."

On the subject of responsibility, an audience member asked about writing non-fiction, 'what if you're writing about someone very close to you, who would be hurt…' a question frequently asked of memoir writers.  Smith surprised us by saying that you have a responsibility to the living breathing people around you… that in Just Kids--full of real people. She felt a responsibility not to hurt anybody, even the ones who--she didn't even say hurt her, she looked for a kind way to say it 'weren't that careful with me.' "Books last a long time.  I think you should be careful with people in print. It's up to you, but that's what I did."

"I'm not afraid to look uncool." What I like best about Patti Smith is her absolute lack of cynicism, of irony, of beentheredonethat.  Her direct apprehension of reality, her mixture of air and earth--her emergence as the quintessential American artist. I left there inspired in about nine different ways. THIS is how to be an artist. THIS is how to age--joyfully.