On Patti Smith

09 October 2015

I don’t remember when I became aware of Patti Smith. There was no formal introduction to her or deliberate decision to become familiar with her work. In fact, I became familiar with her as an entity before I became familiar with her work. It was like noticing a particularly solid and striking sort of tree out in the wild that I had never encountered, or noticed, before. It had always been there. I hadn’t paid attention to it before. But once I became aware of it, it was suddenly a natural, vital, transformative part of the landscape. That’s Patti. That’s what she is to me.

I’m going to write about Patti Smith, but I’m not going to write about her resume. If you don’t know who Patti Smith is, you can figure out how to find out. This isn’t about the facts of her. It’s what she inspires, specifically for me. She has catapulted from cult figure to established legend over the past couple of years, deservedly so, but what she stands for remains the same. She is that desperately sincere young soul of an artist, looking, looking, looking. Certain that transcendence is possible, and attainable. Reaching out her delicate fingers to invite you to the same journey.

Patti Smith has always been deliberately unpolished, both superficially and profoundly, and her recent reemergence has brought that fact into stark contrast with the reality of the other women I am usually listening to in popular culture. While feminism is now often explicitly part of the narrative for some of today’s women musicians (and Patti rarely, if ever, addressed feminism explicitly), I worry that now the bar has risen in terms of the women we listen to on the topic of women’s places in the world. Now, it’s not enough to talk about women without being a polished, beautiful, fabulous woman yourself. Now, you can be smart and pretty at the same time, and so we require both, and just being smart won’t cut it anymore. There’s nothing inherently wrong about being polished, beautiful or fabulous, whether individually or all at the same time. But, well, I rarely achieve any of that, at any time. I find myself yearning more and more for the examples that speak to my reality. Where is the music of the woman who isn’t perfectly packaged?

Like Patti. A woman I’ve always considered deeply sexy, despite her lack of conformity to the beauty standards of the day. The rawness she expressed, whether in sound or written word, transformed her into a wholly different type of creature than the vamp on stage. Her undeniable energy made her strong, and so did her vulnerable psychic underbelly. A poetess by nature. In her later years, an esteemed laureate, who likes to talk about about her favorite books and detective tales. Oh, this is the woman I want to listen to. This is the woman I wish I were more like.

In a recent speech, Patti Smith related an anecdote to share advice she was once given. It’s really good advice. “When I was really young, William Burroughs told me, ‘Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises. Don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned with doing good work. And make the right choices and protect your work. And if you can build a good name, eventually that name will be its own currency.’”

My name isn’t as clean as I would like it to be, although I’m steadily scrubbing away at it. It’s an honest sort of work, one that acknowledges the fact it’s doing it, that there’s a need to do it, that doesn’t hide or shy away in favor of pretending that I and my name are a shiny perfect package. And that’s what Patti expresses to me. A humble refusal to compromise, a natural acceptance of yourself and your desire to do better, to be great, even. A quiet, strong, eloquent energy. The sort of force that you don’t always notice at first, even if it’s inside you. People like Patti are what help you discover it, and remind you, as often as you need, that you are a force, too.


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