Some 35 years ago I was hanging out in a house in Woodstock, NY with a bunch of friends when Larry, our California connection, came roaring down the driveway on his motorcyle. He used to do this all the time, get on his bike and drive cross-country, showing up with no advance warning. On this trip he brought along a record album featuring his good friend Lenny Kaye on guitar: Horses. It was the first time I laid eyes on Patti Smith, in that iconic photo, magnificent in her androgyny. Friends came and went all that weekend, spent mostly dancing to the album. When Larry left with it, we all went out and bought our own copies.
This morning Patti Smith was on Democracy NOW, looking like herself, au naturel: now in her 60s, like we who danced to Horses, she no longer appears so androgynous, though she wears not a stitch of makeup. Nor does she style her long hair, which remains dark brown (maybe she dyes it? Somehow I doubt it.) She talked mostly about Just Kids, her memoir of friendship with the late Robert Mapplethorpe, and on not being either a political activist or a musician.
Amy Goodman, the show’s host, said that most people in the audience would love to ‘not be musicians’ the way she isn’t – but Patti wasn’t being falsely humble. Though she grew up with and adores rock ‘n’ roll, she came to making music via poetry. The first time she read at St. Marks Church in Greenwich Village, desperately wanting to make her performance special, she asked Lenny Kaye to stand up with her and strum a few chords on his guitar. Thus a band — the band on Horses and all their subsequent albums — was born.
Smith says her career decisions were never motivated by a desire for fame and fortune, but according to whatever would allow her the greatest artistic freedom. She was perfectly happy to make $20K on a project rather than shooting for the $100K she’d get by allowing someone else control over it. She says all this without the slightest tone of judgment or preachiness: she’s literally telling it like it is. She says she never wanted to look back on her life and see she’d made compromises all over the place.
Her stance on political activism is also an organic part of who she is: while she’s grateful toward those on the front lines, she herself, she says, only does “small” things, like the song Power to the People, or doing free concerts for progressive causes. One could hardly call Patti Smith’s audience small, but still, as someone who is constantly wracked with conflict for not “doing enough,” I can relate to what she’s saying. God knows, what I put out – on my blog, or in other venues – really is small, and frequently isn’t even about progressivism or social justice. I don’t know why, but what Patti said quieted my raging inner conflict, at least for now.
But the most stupendous thing Patti Smith did this morning was to sing, a capella, Because The Night, claiming the song is too complex for her to play by herself. The depth and richness of her unadorned voice was absolutely stunning. Not every singer/musician can sound good outside the studio, with no echo chambers or remixing, no tricks or technology. This was pure voice, and it was gorgeous. Patti Smith may not be a professional guitar player, but if the voice is an instrument, as most people say it is, then she is a professional musician.
Thirty-five years later, and she’s still an inspiration.