Ten: My Teacher, Patti Smith

I salute Patti Smith on the November 2011 publication of the revised and expanded edition of her book of poetry and memoir, Woolgathering, which originally appeared in 1992. Since Smith’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, appearance in her biographical documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life in 2008, and publication of the National Award Book-winning memoir Just Kids about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and their early years in New York City in 2010, she has garnered a much deserved and belated public and critical reevaluation.

Now in her mid-sixties, Smith, for many critics and fans, is just as cool and relevant as she was when she first began performing her early proto-punk classics “Piss Factory” and “Hey Joe” (1974) and the seminal poem-songs on Horses (1975) in New York City clubs in the mid-1970s. But to me she never became irrelevant. Ever since I discovered her through our mutual adoration of the nineteenth-century avant-garde French poet Arthur Rimbaud almost twenty years ago, she has been my shaman and teacher, providing me with the following life lessons that have helped me survive some very difficult moments in my life.

It’s rare and perhaps a sign of the existence of a universal connecting principle – something akin to an emanation of Walt Whitman’s leaves of grass, William Blake’s Albion, or the Buddhists’ Universal Mind – when someone is fortunate enough to connect with another person through the medium of art. Perhaps you have your own Patti Smith – an artist who, through his or her work, helped you learn to commit yourself to developing an awareness of the purpose of your own existence and position in the flux of existence. I hope that you do.

At any rate, here’s my list of what Patti Smith has taught me that I need to work on to live a meaningful and mindful life. If this list has any value, it may inspire you to find a similar string of teachings in the artists about whom you’re most passionate.

10. To take risks. Upon reading Rimbaud for the first time, Smith, at the age of twenty in 1967, decided to give up her college career at Glassboro State College in New Jersey to move to New York City and become an artist. Smith’s risky move to New York City, of course, paralleled Rimbaud’s own defection from Charleville, France to – it’s rumored – join the Paris Commune of 1871 at the age of sixteen. Smith, in taking a similar risk to abandon convention, met Mapplethorpe, her life-long friend, and become a multifaceted artist. She wrote poetry and drama, participated in performance art, busked, painted, acted, and, by 1974, fronted a band – the Patti Smith Group – that created an at-the-time unimaginable amalgamation of poetry and simple but powerful rock and roll. Most critics and fans now deem Horses, the Group’s first album, as essential to the formation of the punk rock sensibility – and Smith’s prophetically poetic lyrics, innovative vocals, and leadership of a band in which she was the only female member were turning points in the perception of women’s place in the patriarchal hierarchy of rock and roll.

9. To become myself. Like many young people before her, Smith became herself through first becoming other people. She definitely knew her Rimbaud, who famously said in one of his letters, “Je est un autre” – that is, in a very literal English translation, “I is someone else.” Rimbaud means that through introspection, we objectify ourselves and, most crucially, experience ourselves as if we belong to other people. We are simultaneously individuals and parts of other people. Smith exemplifies Rimbaud’s philosophy on Mapplethorpe’s stark and iconic black-and-white cover art for Horses. Her hairstyle comes from Keith Richards, her shirt from nineteenth-century French and British Romantic poets, and her suspenders and suit coat from William S. Burroughs and Frank Sinatra. Mapplethorpe’s cover is, on the one hand, a postmodern pastiche of images, but on the other hand, it’s a revelation of the way in which Smith creates herself as an individual through embracing the identities of artists whom she admires. She, like Rimbaud, is an individual and a member of the collective I – and, make no mistake about it – her reconfiguration of male visual imagery in the context of a record by a female artist is feminist and punk rock to the core.

8. To stand emotionally naked. Like many gifted lyricists – Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, PJ Harvey, Sufjan Stevens, Ian Curtis, and Jeff Mangum come to mind – Smith is unafraid to dissolve the wall that could separate her innermost emotions from her audience. She most likely learned to stand emotionally naked in her lyrics from the Beat Generation writers and especially from her friend Allen Ginsberg, whose “Howl” (1955) and “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)” (1961) are, among many other things, autobiographical outcries on existential pain, loss, and mental illness. Take, for example, “Dancing Barefoot,” which appears on her 1979 album, Wave. In the song, Smith writes about her love for her soon-to-be husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5: “Here I go and I don’t know why / I fell so ceaselessly / Could it be that he’s taking over me / I’m dancing barefoot / Heading for a spin / Some strange music draws me in / Makes me come on like some heroine.” Using imagery derived from Sufi spinning, in which devotees spin their bodies to musical accompaniment in an attempt to abandon their egos and seek God, Smith avows her love for Fred. Smith is the only lyricist of whom I can think who would reveal the depths of her experience of romantic love to the search for God.

7. To be compassionate. Smith demonstrates her compassion, as I just pointed out, in her highly introspective lyrics. She also shows her compassion in writing anthemic songs that challenge listeners to rethink their political responsibilities. Some of the key lyrics of “People Have the Power” from the 1988 album Dream of Life are “I believe everything we dream can come to pass through our union / We can turn the world around / We can turn the Earth’s revolution / We have the power / . . . / To rule / To wrestle us from fools.” Smith advocates that we embrace our revolutionary duty to transform our dreams for world peace into political reality.

6. To smile. Did you ever ponder Smith’s smile? It’s a light that somehow encompasses the exuberant energy of her entire life and work, from her birth to her eventual death. As William Blake, one of her greatest teachers says, “Exuberance is beauty.”

5. To work. As a photographer, painter, poet, memoirist, and musician, Smith is always working. But her work isn’t work in the traditional sense that it entails undesirable exertion or effort. Work, for Smith, is rather an extension of her being – something that she’s always doing, whether she’s consciously aware of it or not. She makes this very clear in Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Just Kids, and Woolgathering. In Dream of Life, for example, she travels to Charleville to visit Rimbaud’s childhood home – and even use his outhouse! This visit, of course, cycles back to the Rimbaud button that she wears on her Baudelaire coat, to the photograph of Rimbaud that always pops up in her hotel rooms and above her writing desks, to Rimbaud’s influence on her poetry and lyrics, to her inspiration to leave New Jersey for New York City in 1967, and to the “Go Rimbaud!” lyric in “Land” from the Horses album. Smith’s devotion to Rimbaud and her incorporation of him into every aspect of her life form just one example of the way in which all of her activities lead back to her work.

4. To accept change. Smith has had to accept change throughout her life – and a lot of this change has resulted from catastrophic personal events. The best examples of catastrophes come from the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s, when Mapplethorpe, close friend and original Patti Smith Group keyboardist Richard Sohl, her husband Fred, and her brother Todd all died. But Patti didn’t give up. On the advice of her friends Ginsberg and Michael Stipe of R.E.M., she attended therapy and, in 1995, got back into the music business after an absence of seven years, touring with another friend, Bob Dylan. In 1996, she released Gone Again, her first album since 1988’s Dream of Life. The album contains many introspective songs that reflect on mortality and the acceptance of change, the most powerful of which is perhaps “Farewell Reel.” Dedicated to Fred, the song features Smith singing to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. Some lyrics: “But when it rains / It rains on me / . . .  / But I look up / And a rainbow appears / Like a smile from Heaven / And, darling, I can’t / Help thinking that smile / Is yours.”

3. To grow. Since the deaths of Fred and many of her other close friends and family members (both of her parents died in recent years), Smith seems to have reached an enlightened place. She’s released four studio albums since Gone Again, books of poetry and photography, a documentary film, and an award-winning memoir. She’s also reconnected to her love of performance art, making The Coral Sea (1996) – her long poem on the death of Mapplethorpe – into a spoken-word and guitar piece with Kevin Shields,

the leader of My Bloody Valentine, in 2008. She’s also been a vocal supporter of Ralph Nader, John Kerry, and Barack Obama, advocated for the impeachment of George W. Bush, and written protest songs in opposition to American and Israeli foreign policy.

Indeed, Smith has grown into a public figure who’s spending the final years of her life in an attempt to empower people in the struggle against political injustice.

2. To love others. Smith’s love for other people is apparent in the political activism that I just cited. But did you know that in 2003 she performed an anti-war concert in Austin, Texas in remembrance of the death of Rachel Corrie, an American member of the International Solidarity Movement whom members of the Israeli Defense Forces killed when she was acting as a human shield to prevent the bulldozing of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip?

1. To love myself. Having suffered so much personal loss and anguish in her life, Smith could have given up on multiple occasions. Moreover, she could have felt abandoned in an unjust and unsafe world whose only meaning was death. But Smith chose to love herself enough to go on living and, with the love of her family and friends as her sole aid, see her existence as a meaningful part of a complex, dynamic, and timeless web of being. In making this choice, Smith is a teacher for the ages.  

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One Comment

  1. Beautiful article.

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