Patti Smith has released a new book of photographs that seems to capture some of what holds (or has held) meaning in her life. It’s an offering that I’m more than happy to accept, as though it’s something she’s leaving for us, something she’s leaving us to. The project reminds me of the half a dozen times I’ve started something similar — a way of focusing myself more on meaning vs. consuming (and finding a way to document that for my kids). I’ve never followed through.
I’m also reminded how much I’d hoped, when my mom died,* that she had used some of the time of her long illness to write me a letter about, well, anything meaningful. I craved something I could hold and point to and know what mattered between us. I didn’t get it. There was no letter. Other people in her life knew her better and already had a connection they could define, so they may not have needed such a letter. While I do know (and did get to see) how fiercely and fully she loved my sons, things between her and me were complicated and sometimes painful.
I’m not suggesting that Patti Smith’s new book is an analog for the kind of letter I wanted from my mother (and certainly I’m not saying that Patti Smith is going anywhere), but there’s something in the gesture I find beautiful and tender. So for me, at least initially, the book is more about what it stirs in me than it is the author, whom I don’t (yet) know much about.
It’s surprising, even to me, that I’ve spent 50 years (so far) on this planet and somehow missed Patti Smith fandom entirely. Until recently, in fact, I’ve known her only as the “Because the Night” singer and as someone frequently mentioned in the same sentence with “poet” and “punk.”
However, I’ve developed a habit of starting my days with CBS Mornings, and the network’s Anthony Mason recently interviewed her on the release of A Book of Days, a new collection of photographs. MOre than 365 of them. A year’s worth. Here’s a short clip of her describing one of the book’s photographs:
Right away, I ordered the book.
As I noted at the start of this post, I also started to feel inspired (again) to tell my own stories more consistently than I have been. And I will.
But this is a Patti Smith appreciation post, and I want to stick with that for a while.
I record CBS Mornings episodes via YouTubeTV so that whenever I get out of bed, even if it’s after the show’s 7 am ET start (don’t judge: I love sleep), I can watch from the beginning. I’m multi-tasking as I do — making and drinking coffee, doing morning pages, checking social feeds, planning my day — so it’s mostly background noise. I give most attention to the first 20 minutes or so, which includes the day’s lead stories, banter at the table and teasers of upcoming segments.
On a recent morning, I heard them say something about Patti Smith’s photography and a new book project. “Book of photography” caught my ear as much as anything. It seems so extravagant and, as much as I abhor the word, quaint.
Another word came, too: necessary. It arrived from a place I haven’t visited in far too long, the part of me that needs slowness instead of scrolling. And honestly, that’s all I’ve been offering it, even as it pleads, “Woman! Please… please… send love and light. I’m dying in here.”
And even if it were “just” extravagant, don’t we deserve some extravagances? A fat book to place on our laps or hold in our hands. Quality paper. Dozens and dozens of images curated by a fellow human being and meant to be, as it says on Patti Smith’s website, “a coherent story of a life devoted to art.”
I also love that the book was born out of her Instagram account. Her website says, “Smith started posting images from her phone, including portraits of her kids, her radiator, her boots and her Abyssinian cat, Cairo. Followers felt an immediate affinity with these miniature windows into Smith’s world, photographs of her daily coffee, the books she’s reading, the graves of beloved heroes—William Blake, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Simone Weil, Albert Camus.” Here’s a sample row of posts from her profile:
While we are blessed to connect with one another in any way at all (yes, even in our phone’s miniature windows), there’s something this book reclaims. There’s something it opens. It says, in part, “Wait just a minute: You know this stuff is real, right? Its impact — it’s real. This sky, this dog, this trinket — they’re real. They take up space in our lives and our bodies.”
Those who are longtime Patti Smith fans already understand her magnetism, but I am somehow a newbie. It’s tempting to call this a Patti Smith discovery post instead of an appreciation post, since I’m so unfamiliar with her work. But how nice is it to find your way to someone for whom the labels “punk poet laureate,” Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and National Book Award winner don’t seem to scratch the surface?!
I’m going to skip biographical details in this post. You can learn about her life and credentials on flaps of books and across the web in places like Wikipedia, Poetry Foundation, NPR (2010) and Rolling Stone (1996). As I make my personal journey through the breadcrumbs, these are some tidbits currently fueling admiration and affection.
- When talking with NPR in 2010, she recalled a particular instance when the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (here’s a bit about their relationship and a New York Times article on her Just Kids memoir) took a series of pictures of her. Of one in particular, she says, when [I] look at the photo, “I never see me. I see us.” It’s a beautiful sentiment and also true of the special photographs we cherish in our own lives. The best images encapsulate an experience, a moment, a love.
- I’ve also discovered that Patti Smith has a son named Jack, as do I. I’m grateful for the little bits of their relationship I can find online.
- And here’s her response in a Rolling Stone interview when asked about the 80s, which was a relatively quiet period in her life: “Fred and I spent a lot of time traveling through America, living in cheap motels by the sea. We’d get a little motel with a kitchenette, get a monthly rate. Fred would find a little airport and get pilot lessons. He studied aviation; I’d write and take care of Jackson. I had a typewriter and a couple of books. It was a simple, nomadic, sparse life. … But I was actually living a beautiful life. I often spent my days with my notebooks, watching Jackson gather shells or make a sand castle. Then we’d come back to the motel. Jackson would be asleep, and Fred and I would talk about how things went with his piloting and what I was working on.”
- I love these lines from “Reflecting Robert,” a tribute to Mapplethorpe: “Sounding the dizzying extremes. / The relativity of vein, the hip of unrest / For the sake of wing there is shoulder. / For symmetry there is blade.”
- She characterizes her path from poetry to music in a 2010 interview with PBS Newshour: “Well, I began, of course, as a poet, but the power of rock ‘n’ roll — rock ‘n’ roll was really the canopy of our cultural voice, and especially in the ’60s, late ’60s and early ’70s, that — and our rock stars, the people who were building that voice, whether it was John Lennon or Neil Young or Bob Dylan, or whoever it was, they were infusing politics and — and political ideology, social justice, sexual energy, poetics, all within the canopy of rock ‘n’ roll, and striving to make this a universal language. It was a real mission. And I — I wanted to add to that.”
- And here’s what she tells Variety about the combo of intimacy and communality her Substack (and maybe our own blogs and writings) expresses: “You literally are walking into my bedroom; it’s where I live and write. My books and talismans are here. I have many secret things. Secret writings that will never be read, and precious objects that are so private. These things can be shareable. Making things as intimate and possible is what I do, though, even on stage. Like we’re all in this together. So in my Substack, where you can see my bed and my stuff, I am bringing you into my world. I like the idea that the reader hangs out with the writer.”
I also think we owe it to ourselves to examine some of the messier, more difficult parts of our rock stars and poets, as does a 2020 post from the punk history site Please Kill Me. In the article’s intro, it says: “Her current status as ‘living saint’ leaves out what I contend are the best parts of the story. Her messy affairs, her appropriation of other people’s ideas, her mistakes—all qualities that humanize her and return to her the credit and the edge I believe she deserves.”
No one is a saint, of course, and I want to look at everything. For example, the title and lyrics of a song recently removed from music streaming services are an issue. They use the N-word, and the word, this type of language as a whole, can do real harm. Wikipedia says the song was controversial from the beginning, and from what I can find, Smith has defended it, including dedicating some space in the song’s liner notes to justify it. It’s not OK with me in any context, and I’m looking for my own answers to some of the questions asked in this AFROPUNK post, which calls the liner notes a “bullshit disclaimer.”
Black lovers of punk are no different than any other kind; we love the assault of impolite, opprobrious sounds thrashed out and hollered with little regard for the protocols of harmony and catchy lyrics that define pop. But what’s a black person to do when their favorite punker drops the “N” word in what might otherwise be a totally awesome song?
The rules remain unwritten. How do we respond to a verbal assault with such heavy implications? Do we abandon a band entirely by deleting every one of their tracks from our libraries, or just refuse to play that one song ever again? Does it really make a difference if said band is using the word as a cheap shot of provocation, or for real social commentary? And if so, does the ladder option mean its okay to give them a pass?AFROPUNK 2011
No matter what right wing activists try to claim, America has a long — and not by any stretch concluded — history of racism. We’re trying to confront some of it (slowly, weakly), but we have so far to go. There’s important work to do. Where all of us fall in this history matters, and we owe it to those who’ve been harmed to get our sh*t sorted.
I’m not the only one who’s been late to discover Patti Smith. In “You’ve Never Heard Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’?!” NPR’s Charlie Kaplan writes, “I was loosely aware of two things about Patti Smith and her 1975 album Horses when I signed up to write about them. The first was her status amongst rock’s elite. The second thing I knew about Horses came from a friend, who told me Patti Smith is considered a poet before anything else.” Kaplan’s piece, which is a review of the album, is worth a read.
Like Kaplan, I’m only getting started. I feel excited to have so much to dig into as I discover Patti Smith, and here are a few notes about possible paths for the journey:
- Albums — I’m starting at the beginning, currently listening to Horses and planning to make my way through them all. In order.
- Poetry and books — I’m going to revel in A Book of Days for a while but do plan to read Just Kids.
- Art and photography — I haven’t found a place to start yet. TBD!
- Documentaries — I watched “Patti Smith Dream of a Life” and am looking forward to The Sound of Us, for which she was interviewed. It’s been on my radar for a while, though I’m not sure when it will make its way to streaming services.
- YouTube — I’m also looking through YouTube to catch recordings of live readings and performances, and I’m part-way through a listen of this episode of Broken Record with Malcolm Gladwell.
- Other — There’s also ton to read and catch up on at her tumblr and her Substack.
What I am not going to do is gobble everything up all at once. I’m simply happy to have all of it among the options, queued up for the despair of long winter and even after, when we’ve made our way through.
I’ve already been inspired by Patti Smith’s new book to start a little photography blog, not an artsy thing by any stretch, but a kind of record of where I’ve found (or am currently finding) meaning. And joy. It’s going to be joyful, as well. That blog is private for now and is primarily a personal project to share with my sons, but I may, at some point, make it public. Seeing A Book of Days helped me feel that the time was right to get this going. It helped me feel a little urgency in terms of how I want to pay attention.
I’m also contemplating bangs, even as I remind myself there’s very good reason I don’t have them.
And maybe you can be inspired by Patti Smith, too. As you know, I love writing prompts. Here’s one based on a quote.
WRITING PROMPT: Make up, or embellish, a birth story
Patti Smith told NPR, “Sometimes people seem to think I came out of the womb cursing, with an electric guitar.” How amazing would it be if that were true? What a way for any of us to be born, reborn or even to go out when it’s time? So! Write a poem, short CNF or micro that tells how you were born, not the real story, though you can include some of those details (just don’t be limited to the facts). Let this be a birth story that explains your own ferocity (even if it’s aspirational).
Now, tell me all the ways you’ve been inspired or saved by Patti Smith, and certainly, please send recommendations as I amp up the amount of Patti Smith in my own life. I have some catching up to do.
In addition, I’d love to here ways in which you’re intentional about finding and documenting what you find meaningful. We need more of what makes life worthwhile and less of, well, other stuff. ❤️
*Important note: As far as I know, neither Patti Smith, nor myself are sick in any way.