The iconic album, Horses, came out 40 years ago today and I find it only fitting to document my long love affair with Patti Smith.
I was 19 or 20 when a friend, who was twenty years my senior, gave me a cassette copy of “Dream of Life“; an introspective, thoughtful and beautiful album that expanded my vision of the world and my own microcosm of young adulthood. (Paths That Cross is one of my favorite songs from that album…hence the title of this post.) I had just come back from living in Paris for a year and felt the reverse culture shock of being an independent, urban dwelling Parisian girl transported back to my parents’ house in the suburbs. Life was a bit confusing to say the least.
The following year I went off to school at UW Madison, a hotbed of political activism, social consciousness and diversity. I heard Patti’s “People Have the Power” played on more than one occasion and felt that song translated to so many facets of life and helped to deepen my understanding of what it meant to be an “engaged citizen”. In one of my figure drawing classes, the teacher played the album, “Horses” and told the students how it had inspired her when she was an art student in NY in the seventies. I thought…wow, this Patti Smith woman is pretty life-changing, apparently.
On a trip back to France during a semester off, I made a stop in the small Northern town of Charleville-Mézièrs to visit a friend and one day happened to walk into a used book store where there was a small section dedicated to the books and music of Patti Smith. As it turned out, the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, was born in Charleville and Patti was a huge fan of his work.
(from the song, “Land” on Horses: Life is full of pain, I’m cruisin’ through my brain
And I fill my nose with snow and go Rimbaud,
Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud!)
I discovered that Patti also had a deep love affair with Paris, French poetry, Renaissance art, café culture, the painter Amedeo Modigliani, Bob Dylan, the New York art scene and our similar interests went on and on…it was like I had found a kindred spirit in her.
So, it just kept going like this between Patti and I for many years…we intersected on different paths as she continued to inspire me without me really seeking her out in a deliberate way. I knew bits and pieces of her life, enjoyed listening to her music and admired her dedication to her craft. It wasn’t until I saw her in concert for the first time that I can say with absolute certainty and conviction that she changed my life and I became a dedicated fan and follower.
I was working in a fine art framing gallery in the West Loop of Chicago. (I think I could write a short story on the characters that I worked with there…mostly older men, rock n’ rollers who all had a penchant for Ms. Smith) It was 1998 and one of my co-workers had bought two tickets for us to see Patti at the Riviera Theater for WXRT’s Concert For the Kids. She hadn’t played a concert in Chicago, the city of her birth, in 20 years and her return to the stage was beyond exceptional. According to Patti herself, she has said that the electric energy of the crowd, combined with the emotion of being back in Chicago inspired what she called the band’s best and most memorable show in their 30 plus year career. It was as if she levitated above the stage that night, her bare feet dancing on the large Persian rug, her iconic hands waving at the crowd and offered in a mid-air prayer as she sang her heart out. I have never in all my years of seeing live music witnessed anything as profoundly intimate, powerful and transformational as that show. Her final encore was a spine-tingling (pseudo) spoken-word version of the Declaration of Independence. It was as if I truly understood the words of that piece of history which I had been told to memorize in school, for the first time. Among Patti’s fans, this concert has become legendary; I was just lucky enough to have been there.
Patti has become my personal guide and mentor through decades of music, culture, spirituality, art, literature, politics and parenthood. Through her writing and poetry, her music, activism, photography and drawings, she has carved out a most elusive and unique place in our world. Whether you know of her magnitude or not, at least one contemporary artist or musician from a band you may like has said that “Patti Smith changed my life”. And here’s the most amazing and impressive thing about that…she doesn’t consider herself a musician, let alone the “Godmother of Punk”; she won’t describe herself as an artist, preferring instead to use the moniker, “worker”. It’s through her humble yet thoroughly grand vision of our collective human existence and her role in it, that she continues to shape and guide my own path as a “worker“, seeker and citizen of our world. Her words speak to my eternally optimistic heart, simultaneously piercing through me and uplifting me at the same time. She reminds me to question the norm, to seek out truth, speak my mind and use my voice even if people may not want to hear what I have to say.
She is real…honest, brave, authentic, vulnerable, bold. She has LIVED so many lives in her 69 years…traveled everywhere in the world, experienced its many wonders and has also endured so much personal loss and pain and yet has risen above it, making incredible, lasting artwork out of the ashes. Reading her recent memoirs, Just Kids and M Train brought me further into her world; her memories, musings, daydreams and approach to her craft. It felt as if our friendship deepened and our similarities grew…even if ours is only a one-sided “relationship”.
Since that magical night at the Riviera, I’ve seen her in concert maybe 6 more times and every. single. time. I come away transformed and amazed at the beauty of music and words and truth and what it means to be alive. To be fucking alive and be witness to this crazy, perfectly imperfect roller coaster ride we call life.
“For life is the best thing we have in this existence. And if we should desire to believe in something, it should be a beacon within. This beacon being the sun, sea, and sky, our children, our work, our companions and, most simply put, the embodiment of love.”
“I believe that we, that this planet, hasn’t seen its Golden Age. Everybody says its finished … art’s finished, rock and roll is dead, God is dead. Fuck that! This is my chance in the world. I didn’t live back there in Mesopotamia, I wasn’t there in the Garden of Eden, I wasn’t there with Emperor Han, I’m right here, right now and I want now to be the Golden Age …if only each generation would realize that the time for greatness is right now when they’re alive … the time to flower is now.”
Thank you, Patti for being beside me on this journey and for the many, many gifts you have shared with the world.