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Patti Smith Conjures the Dead

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The Multi-disciplinary artist swings by Chicago on All Soul’s Day

On the night of All Soul’s Day, as I was waiting for Patti Smith to perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music, an older woman came up to me and asked if I had been at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) the previous morning. At the CSO, the Chicago Tribune presented Smith with a Literary Award. Slightly confused, I told the woman yes, I was there. She went on to say that she also attended the event and had taken a picture of me to put on Instagram in effort to capture today’s generation of fans who reminded her of the people she used to attend Patti Smith’s concerts with.
 

Patti Smith. photo via flickr user Claudia Cosentino

Patti Smith. photo via flickr user Claudia Cosentino

When I read Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, I had only the vaguest idea of who she was. I read her memoir because I wanted to know more about Robert Mapplethorpe, her beloved artistic twin. For me, encountering Mapplethorpe’s work was like discovering the relics of a dark saint who knew my shadows better than I knew my light.

The pair had a powerful symbiosis. Mapplethorpe encouraged Smith to sing her poetry just as she encouraged him to try photography. Mapplethorpe always had known he was an artist at his core while Smith doubted the validity of the artistic call. She started off with every intention of being a poet, yet ended up living the life or a rock star. She told the audience at the CSO that following her “inherent energy” created a seamless and organic path that lead to music. Seeing Smith successfully create poems, songs, drawings, installations, and photographs and yet still come home to her initial vocation as a writer has given me a certain faith I needed to stray into unfamiliar territory. When the pair moved to the Chelsea Hotel with nothing but their portfolios, they used their work as collateral to secure a room. I’ve adopted this as a standard when making something: Would this get me a room in the Chelsea Hotel?

Staying true to All Souls’ Day the songs Smith played at Old Town School of Folk Music were dedicated to those who have passed away. With the incredible Tony Shanahan and her son Jackson playing the most tender guitars, Smith sang John Lennon‘s “Beautiful Boy.” She dedicated it to her grandson, who was born on November 4th, which is also Mapplethorpe’s birthday and the anniversary of her husband’s death. With a smile, she spoke the last word of the song to her grandson’s name. Between songs, she talked of praying, loss, spirituality, and CSI: Miami, her favorite show.
 

Patti Smith. photo via flickr user Man Alive

Patti Smith. photo via flickr user Man Alive

The previous day, a moment after the woman posted my photograph to Instagram, I met Patti Smith. I hadn’t known she was going to be signing books, and was grateful I’d brought mine. As she scrawled my name next to hers on the title page, I stammered something about how important she and her work is to me. When she looked up and caught my eye through her thick glasses, I realized with mild surprise that she is a mortal, not some descended Olympian. Though she does honor divinity while bringing it into the gutter – I don’t know of anyone else who can infuse a song called “Pissing in a River” with the same spiritual fervor.

Had I been prepared to meet Smith, I would have thanked her for raising the dead. Near the end of Just Kids Patti writes that though she got over the loss of Mapplethorpe’s personal belongings, she never got over her desire (and failure) to wake the dead, to “produce a string of words more precious than the emeralds of Cortés.” Just Kids produced such a strong sense of Mapplethorpe’s presence in her life that I deeply felt his absence in my own. By the end of the concert and the book, I didn’t mourn him, for he wasn’t mine to mourn, but I did mourn the knowledge that I would never have the chance to know him. Which is, of course, a strange thing to feel for someone I never knew. But I think Ms. Smith would understand: while onstage, she talked to a sound technician about her microphone and apologized to the audience that she was having a “private conversation in public.” Her work does the same thing, allowing us into her life, permitting us to know the people she chronicles as she knew them.

Though I’m very glad to have met her face-to-face, I actually connected with Smith more when she was on stage. Perhaps because the moment was rushed by the line of her disciples awaiting their own signature, or perhaps it was because whatever magic she channels through her work speaks more clearly from her embodiment of it while performing than it does in a ten-second conversation. Held next to the light emanating from the words within that book, the emeralds of Cortés are just some dull rocks.

 

Just Kids Cover. photo via flickr user Abby Castelo

Just Kids Cover photo, via Flickr user Abby Castelo

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