A couple of years ago, after reading Just Kids by Patti Smith, my mother texted me, "You could be a rock star."
For me, the profundity of that message was initially difficult to place. I didn’t have designs on being a rock star but I was glad to receive a note of cool encouragement from my mom. I was, and still am, figuring out how to live my life in the arts as a writer and performer. As well, I knew that my mother supported my creative endeavors and believed that I could make it, as they say in the biz, and it was nice to receive a little reminder of her belief in me. Really, though, the delighted surprise I felt upon reading her message was more connected to the fact that my own mother, not much of a punk rock fan herself, and I were connecting on a plane that had never before crossed my mind as a meeting place; we were connecting on the Patti Smith Plane.
My mother loves music and passed that love along to her children but as often happens amongst generations our tastes would meet over certain sounds then wildly diverge at the introduction of others. I vividly recall taking a road trip with my mother in my very loud Jeep Wrangler playing my very loud X-Ray Spex tape and realizing as I flipped the tape over that my mother and I might not share the same loud love of Poly Styrene and her bandmates. The old “turn that racket down” trope of parenting was never one my mother ascribed to but I could see this tape was pushing her closer to that stereotype than some of my quieter listening choices.
I had begun listening to punk music somewhere in the grey years between middle and high school. I was an active, athletic kid with an equally strong interest in words and ideas and something in the sounds of early punk spoke to me. At the time we were living in San Angelo Texas and mostly all I could turn up in the local music shops were early mainstays like The Ramones, but as I moved on, I made a miraculous find: women were a strong presence in the scene. Not just as fans but as innovators of the music. Women like Poly Styrene. Women like Patti Smith.
If you’ve read Just Kids, you know Smith left her mindless, soul-sucking factory job in New Jersey to live in New York City. She was a poet, an artist, a performer. She busked on the streets of Paris and worked in a bookstore in New York. She found a soul mate in Robert Mapplethorpe and she also took the stages of Max’s Kansas City and CBGB to make beautiful noise. When she formed the Patti Smith Group with Lenny Kaye, Ivan Kral, Jay Dee Daughtery and Richard Sohl, she brought poetic prowess to punk rock. The first single by the band, a cover of “Hey Joe,” included Smith’s spoken word intro about the heiress-on-the-run, Patty Hearst. As Smith continued to make music, her poetry and art were part of the package. Her clear, strong voice would soar sweetly on some tracks and then roll in the dirt with the best of rock and roll’s gravelly growls. She was a woman, she was strong, she was feminine, she made the art she wanted to make and built herself the life she wanted to live.
I see my own mother’s steps reflected in those of her generational peer. I think of my mother as a woman who, too, made the life she wanted to live. Her life was different than what she and many of her peers had grown up seeing in the lives of their parents; the 1970‘s were the beginning of a new world for women. Radical shifts were taking place in how lives could and would be lived and my mother found herself in some of those new roles. Divorce, single parenthood, finding a career. The list of what my mother and myriad other women experienced during this cultural shift can go on and on but one would be remiss not to think of the women who did some really cool stuff with these shifted lives; someone like Patti Smith and someone like my Mom, who found a passionate career (as an educator?), someone who was both mom and dad to their kids.
The women of the boom generation grew up in a whirlwind of change; it’s got to be hard to figure out the next step in a situation like that but that is exactly what both my mother and Patti Smith accomplished. We, in the generations that follow t, have the luxury of reading the accounts and viewing the cultural upheaval? with perfect hindsight. We get to see the photographs and hear the stories that make it seem as if everyone was on the same page and had the same information. We know now though that wasn’t always the case. Those who were living the day to day experience of their own shifting place in the world awakened each day to a life different than the one before.
My mother and Patti Smith were children of the boom. They lived in the eye of the storm of changing culture. They became women at a time when women demanded the right to make choices for themselves and find the way, the means to live the lives they wanted to live.
And that’s why I should have texted my mother back, “You could be a rock star, too.” Because, now we all can.
Victoria Scroggins is a Brooklyn based storyteller, comedian, and writer. She co-produces and hosts a monthly storytelling show, Tell It: Brooklyn. You can find her there and at various other venues regaling audiences with her tales of life in Texas and beyond. Check out www.tellitbrooklyn.com or follow her @victoriaanddog if you feel so inclined.