I once had a dream that I was wandering the halls of the Chelsea Hotel late at night. In the dream Lou Reed invited me back as his guest, but I’d lost him outside of Max’s Kansas City where he had just played a show with The Velvet Underground. Determined to get into the landmark hotel, I resorted to sneaking up the fire escape. I was draped in layers of long clothing and wearing platform sandals, unconducive to a break-in.
I tapped on the dirty glass and came face-to-face with Charles Bukowski who offered me a hand as I climbed through the window. After engaging in flirtatious banter for a couple moments, I left him to nurse his whiskey alone. In the stairwell between the second and third floor, I encountered a heavily intoxicated Janis Joplin who sat crumpled in the crook of Leonard Cohen’s arm. I felt like I was interrupting an intimate exchange, so I stepped around her hunched body and made my way to the third floor. At the end of the hallway a shirtless Robert Mapplethorpe paced outside of his room, memorably handsome with big, brown eyes and pouty lips. Seashells and feathers hung from a cord around his neck, clinking together as he paced in front of the doorway. Leaning against the paint chipped frame was a wiry, dark haired female who I first mistook for a very beautiful boy. It was Patti Smith. Her Keith Richards style hair looking like she’d slept on it weird, and her jeans ripped at the knee. She wore an oversized, black shirt that hung off her shoulder. I had a sense that I was in the presence of profound brilliance.
The first Patti Smith song I ever heard was ironically not a song of hers, but a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I was overwhelmed by the intensity and dynamism of her voice, which breathed a new life into the overplayed anthem. We were driving in my car to a party when I asked my friend who was singing.
“It’s Patti Smith. She’s basically the godmother of punk.”
The Godmother of punk resided in the Chelsea during the early seventies with friend Robert Mapplethorpe, who would later become a famed contemporary photographer. The two artists served as each others’ muses before parting ways to explore varying forms of art. Smith was already a regular in the New York music scene having gained a following for her performance art and poetry. The latter would evolve into songwriting for a full band. Listeners hailed Smith as a true rock star, her pitchy shrieking and spoken word elements characteristic of her sound, which oozed angst and made her a pioneer in the punk movement that overtook the mid-seventies. Rolling Stone heralded her 1975 debut album, Horses, “a declaration of committed mutiny, a statement of faith in the transfigurative powers of rock & roll.”
Within the last decade Smith has turned to writing, publishing two memoirs that beautifully recount her relationships with Mapplethorpe, and her late husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. Just Kids the won the National Book Award in 2010, and M Train, was released in August 2016.
On a recent October night, Smith paid a visit to Hartford’s Immanuel Church to chat, sing, and converse with her fans. When she entered, she still looked like that punk-rock star who once infamously kicked drinks in the faces of music execs and fell off the stage during a 1977 show in Tampa. A powerful female rocker preceded only by the likes of Janis Joplin, Smith’s look was slightly toned down. Her gray hair was still shoulder length and she was wearing leather boots and distressed jeans.
“Look at where we are–it’s awesome,” she said, turning in her seat to admire the dome of the Byzantine-style church, which was awash in a bright, paper-white light.
Smith and the M.C. of the night, WNPR’s Colin McEnroe, sat in two high back chairs just below the altar. In this church, Smith’s words were gospel and all members of the audience were hoping to understand. With anticipation, gray and green-haired audience members alike waited for her to reveal the secrets of her wisdom. What is it that makes her this timeless, enigmatic, artist floating through decades without touching the ground?
For artistic royalty, she presented herself as surprisingly accessible speaking candidly about her years away from the music industry to raise her children, her relationship with Mapplethorpe, and the places she called home.
“I fell in love with this little, ramshackle bungalow in Rockaway Beach. I don’t know how to drive and I love the ocean. It’s a block-and-a-half from the sea and a block-and-a-half from the subway. And I saved up all my money, and I was able to procure it.”
Patti Smith saved her money for her dream beach bungalow–and she never learned how to drive!
“[The house] reminded me of how I grew up. It had a tiny yard that was all overgrown. I like overgrown yards; I don’t like things mowed and perfect. And it just was humble, and yet there was something. It had a special energy… It’s like an illuminated tramp or a beach bum could live in it, so you know, my kind of place.”
She recalled, almost delightedly, how dilapidated some of her former NYC homes were constructed; including her first apartment that she shared with Mapplethorpe which she described as having dirty syringes in the stove, and grime covering the walls.
“I was just a South Jersey girl, I had never seen nothin’ like that.”
During the Q&A, Smith stood and paced in front of the assembled congregation of fans. All 600 of them. She first deflected a question from a man soliciting her friendship.
I think I’m a better fantasy friend.
“How likely is it,” he asked, “that you and I could be friends?”
Hardly skipping a beat over the vaguely agonizing request, Smith responded, “I think I’m a better fantasy friend.”
After a series of more irrelevant fan questions, an old lady in dark sunglasses, who may have dropped acid a few too many times in the 60s, emerged from stage left and tapped Smith on the back.
“Oh–oh thank you,” Smith said gently, accepting a little black box that the woman has presumably made by hand. Smith quickly turned and handed the box to an incredulous McEnroe.
The seemingly innocent interjection was just strange enough to break up the talk and cause the crowd a bit of discomfort, prompting Smith to conclude her talk by reciting “People Have the Power,” a popular song off of her 1988 record, Dream of Life. Then she grabbed her guitar, and to the excitement of her fans, played a new song, her voice twanging through the arches of the church.
Shortly thereafter, she proceeded through the back exit, leaving the crowd befuddled and dissatisfied with the questions asked.
Though she deemed herself unavailable as a “fantasy friend,” I realized that she isn’t just an iconic rock star or a poet–she’s real. Patti Smith is a human being, who happened to live a phenomenal life; nostalgic, sentimental, and melancholic–even uncomfortable in certain social situations.
“No one expected me. Everything awaited me,” Smith said in her memoir, Just Kids. An artist, a lover, a mother, a friend–if even just in fantasy–thank you Patti Smith.
Thanks so much for this essay! I was so disappointed that I couldn’t make it to that October event in Hartford. Reading about it here made me feel a little better! This is a great piece ….
This piece is amazing! So well written. Well done, Patti is awesome!