SHE is thin and small, probably deceptively strong and dangerously fast too. She looks the way we remember her — hiding in a scruffy man's jacket. Apparently, she lives on strong black coffee, up to 18 cups a day.
This is the launch of A Book of Days (2022), and Patti Smith is full of stories. She is charismatic, at ease, and knows how to entertain her audience. She's everyone's best friend. But don't sit next to her at a dinner table, she warns. She's not good with small talk. Give her a stage and an audience and she “performs". Otherwise, she has little to say.
She grows up as Patti Lee — Patricia, to her mother — in a much rougher part of New Jersey than Bruce Springsteen, she says. At 20, she arrives in New York with a copy of Rimbaud's Illuminations and daydreams about Bob Dylan.
“It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of Crystal Ship. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar alight in Monterey. It was the summer I met Robert Mapplethorpe," she writes in Just Kids (2010). She and Mapplethorpe live together, sometimes as friends, other times as lovers.
In the Chelsea Hotel, where they share a small single room, she hangs out in the lobby with Allen Ginsberg and a drunk Gregory Corso. She calls the Chelsea her school. In the elevator, Janis Joplin tries to recover from a perpetual hangover.
These are the proto-punk days of the East Village — the air is heavy with chemicals, the streets “shifty and sexual", dangerous, raging with red ambulance lights. Patti wears the same loose, torn T-shirt for days, her hair unkempt as if she sleeps in a haystack. She moves like a nocturnal animal, performing as a poet in every coffee house, club and bookshop that doesn't throw her out.
Her poetry is published by a few independent publishers. About Jim Morrison, she writes: “he died in a bathtub. slumped/over like Marat. the only clue was the red/rash over his heart." And Amelia Earhart: “I was hearing that music/ancient aeroplane."
In a rare moment, she refers to her pregnancy at 19. (She gave up the child for adoption.) “Bloated, pregnant. I crawl thru the sand, like a lame dog. Like a crab, pull my fat baby belly to the sea. Roll and drag and claw like a bitch, like a bitch. Like a bitch."
In 1971, she performs for the first time with Lenny Kaye, who follows her free-form verses and wild improvisations on an electric guitar. It's like a short circuit. Her poetry becomes lyrics with a few simple chords, a garage punk attitude and a bit of noise.
Rock and Rimbaud
Of course, she wasn't the only one. Lou Reed, Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine also let literature coexist with punk rock in Village clubs such as CBGB.
Patti takes her time, she learns which music elevates her poetry, and in 1975 Horses emerges, music and lyrics with a “feel of horses long before horses enter the scene". Horses, “white shinin' silver studs with their noses all in flames".
On stage, she's a “tough, punky shit-kicker" with lean and emaciated energy. She kicks, screams and spits, breaks her guitar strings and tucks a sock into her pants. A shaman, William Burroughs calls her. “A chanting poet who lifted her words beyond language with the power of music," writes The New York Times.
Horses turns her into a cult hero who walks on water, the godmother and high priestess of punk, a literary rock star. When the Patti Smith Group appear, they release four albums in four years. On Easter (1978), there's the catchy pop hit Because the Night.
By this time, Patti wanted to stop. She was tired of touring and had had enough of her own fame. “The films are disintegrating… the heroine removes herself from the fading aura," she writes in her 1978 publication, Babel.
In interviews, she's arrogant, frequently loses her temper with journalists and throws mean diva tantrums. Her group calls her a field marshal. “Love is a ring/ the telephone," — she misses her lover, Fred “Sonic" Smith, the guitarist of MC5.
In 1980, she disbanded the Patti Smith Group, married Fred and moved with him to Detroit where, according to friends such as Mapplethorpe, she simply disappeared. Gossip is rife, especially about the control Fred exerts over Patti's life, and rumours of his alcohol and drug problems.
She didn't disappear, Patti retorts. She's just busy with other things, and it's her choice to be a Detroit housewife and mother. Together, she and Fred create Dream of Life (1988), where they make their life sound like one long, irritating Utopian dream. After a few more years of silence, she publishes Woolgathering (1992), where she looks back on her childhood through the eyes of her children, “piecing together a crazy quilt of truths".
Her loss is unimaginable — first Fred dies of heart failure at 45, and soon after her brother. With her children, she moves back to the Chelsea Hotel. Her album, Gone Again (1996), is seen as a “raw wail of loss", an attempt to come to terms with her grief and aggression through music and words. She starts performing and touring again. “Welcome back," the crowd shouted. “Oh, I never left," she replied.
At the same time, she publishes The Coral Sea (1996), an elegy for Mapplethorpe, who died of Aids-related illnesses in 1989. I read it with one eye. “Purity, in the arms of a child, is a smothered lamb," for example, sounds to me a bit too much like cruelty towards animals. Goodreads doesn't necessarily agree with me. However, I do enjoy each of her albums, especially Twelve (2007) — I have a musical weakness for cover versions — and Banga (2012).
In 2010, she publishes the first part of her memoirs, Just Kids. Her writing style no longer has the sensation and slipperiness of her early poetry. Her words no longer need to rely on a performance, vocal inflections or music to come into their own. She is now a writer. A good writer.
While Just Kids mostly revolves around her life with Mapplethorpe, M Train (2015) is a travel story, a love story, a book about grief and loss, a book about solitude. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on," she echoes Beckett when sadness overwhelms her.
With The Year of the Monkey (2019), she completes her memoir triptych. In all of these texts, her photos appear like a “polaroid rosary".
A Book of Days was written with photographs as its key point. There are 366 photos, a picture a day (including leap year) like a calendar, as well as the stories that happened with the photos. She explains that all her texts should be read as inter-narrative with each other.
“I sort of don’t know what I’m doing,” she confesses about her writing, but mostly she writes about nothing at all. It's not easy, but if you keep at it, it eventually becomes something.
A last question from the interviewer — any pieces of advice she'd like to share? “Take care of your teeth.” That's it. The performance is over.
Her silvery hair falls forward and she doesn't give us another glance as she walks off the stage.
♦ VWB ♦
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