My Long-Time Secret Love Affair with Patti Smith

One of the things that few people know about me is that I have, since about 1979, been a huge fan of poet Patti Smith. When I discovered her, I had no idea who she was, or what she was about. I had just moved back to the US from a three-month musical stint in England and my attention was on getting a record deal in the ever-shrinking world of what was then called, more than a little deprecatingly, MOR, or Middle Of the Road. Although I’d been introduced to Punk in England, I wasn’t at all fond of it and, when I came home, I was met with the less confrontational, more palatable New Wave. Apart from Bob Dylan, Bette Midler, and Billy Joel, I knew nothing about what was going on musically in New York. Because my then managers were steering me into what they considered to be more financially lucrative waters, Smith as a singer-songwriter flew totally beneath my musical radar...

During one of my many afternoon-long safaris through Waldenbooks at our local mall, I came across a copy of Smith’s book, Babel. It was the cover that grabbed my attention, of course. I’d always been drawn to androgyny, especially in women, and Smith possessed that allure in spades. As I sat on the floor in the poetry aisle, I read as much of the book as I could, then realized I had to buy it so that it could be at hand at all times. Through the following years, despite the fact that I bought more of her books, my copy of Babel became annotated, tattered, and dogeared and eventually the cover came loose. I taped it back on, but it kept falling off. By the time it got lost in The Big Dump of 2001, it was more tape than cover.

The odd thing is, I never really became a huge fan of her music, although I certainly like it. My admiration has always been for her writing, her photography, and her mind. Who she is as a person was always the main thing, the way she lives her life as art, her way of viewing the world, and her circle of friends and colleagues. But as we both got older (she is in fact five years older than me), I saw a kindred spirit: a woman raising two children, a young widow, an artist forced by death, loss, grief, and responsibility into a long dry spell, and a woman who struggled to pull herself out of that creative drought while continuing to confound those who would hang a label on her.

On the surface no one would ever suspect that we have so much in common, that I can relate to her in so many ways. While in her early peak years she was tall, thin, and menacing in an oddly androgynous “bad boy” way. I on the other hand was short, red-haired, and pixie-like, about as menacing as Puck or Peter Pan: tomboyish, but not gender-bending by any stretch of the imagination. But I recognized her as a kind of alter-ego, the kind of image I would have liked to have had. Best of all, she has evolved in a way that I ardently admire as she continues to inspire me. She digs getting older. She is there for her family and friends. She is the embodiment of what it means to be an artist. She has come through exceedingly difficult times and she is happy to communicate all of it to us in an unflinchingly honest, sometimes almost brutal way.
“As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag… The issue of gender was never my biggest concern; my biggest concern was doing good work. When the feminist movement really got going, I wasn’t an active part of it because I was more concerned with my own mental pursuits.” – Patti Smith  
Throughout my life, most of my role models have been male, not by virtue of their gender, but because of their insistence to live life on their terms. For this same reason, Patti Smith is one of my few female role models. She is a hands on mentor who inspires me viscerally. As she evolves and ages, her warmth, understanding, and compassion deepen, and she continues to inspire me not only to carry on writing, but to claim my own life as my canvas, my camera, my manuscript.

Patti Smith’s Website