The Incomparable Patti Smith

She might or might not like this, but she is a Living Legend

I always had this image of her as a sincere punk balladeer, but back then I wasn’t ready for sincere.  I was into Public Image Ltd. and Devo and the Talking Heads and Reggae and... Well, just looking more for anarchy and giggles. Callow youth, yes indeed.

But when I was invited to see her recently, at the Wiltern in LA, I leapt at the chance.  She had just been given an honorary degree by my daughter’s Alma Mater, Bryn Mawr, and I’d seen the amazing photo of her, with her long gray hair and black hat, looking so damn solid... I knew I had to hear what she had to say now that she’s 65.

Still wearing her signature baggy black jacket, washed out band t-shirt, cowboy jeans and engineer boots... I expected her to perform like a guy.  But she blew me away as she shimmied up to the mike, fluttered her hands in a most adorable, feminine way and proceeded, with her transcendental blend of hard rock, affability and gravitas, to transform an entire crowd. 

Many of the tunes came from her most recent album, Banga, and reveal what a compelling poet she really is - in fact I believe she qualifies as a bard.  Some days later I was in the LA County Museum of Art, looking at some of Mapplethorpe’s most primal, raw images and there were the pages from her lyrical, profoundly intimate introduction to his print series, hanging framed alongside his work.  Words as searing and complicated as his images.  Clearly these two souls were twinned.

She is a singular artist - a poet and a mystic, but a comic as well. There is something pure, strong and unchangeable in her, and at the same time, something light and free.  The Rimbaudian nihilism that shadowed her earlier work, has been burned off and her work has been galvanized, perhaps through motherhood and the death of her husband, into something even more powerful.  There is conviction in everything she sings, and pain and truth.  She questions us; asks if our beliefs are dynamic, our hearts are uncomfortable enough... 

The crowd at her concert was a mixed one, but skewed heavily to the gray. What I wanted to know, later, was how younger women felt about her.  And so I called Victoria Scroggins, a young writer I know, and asked her to write something...