All-Time Favourites: Patti Smith

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“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”

I’ve spent a lot of my life being defined by musical obsessions. As a pre-teen my walls were papered with Jonas Brothers posters, and that slowly transformed into Justin Bieber, and One Direction after that. Somewhere along the way I ditched the part of my heart that loved groups made up of hormonal boys and discovered that bands existed who wrote their own lyrics and played their own instruments and even loaded their own gear into white tour vans. I fell deeply in love with The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys and Florence + the Machine and The Vaccines. I devoured novels about the beatnik folk scenes of Greenwich Village in the sixties. I read pages and pages about London in 1963 and imagined my favourite city in the middle of an era defined by its youth and their loves. I inserted myself into the narrative of New York City in the seventies, and I mentally reserved a space for my leather jacket clad frame in the crowd at CBGBs. While I’ll be the first to admit that I know all the lyrics to Zayn’s ‘Pillowtalk,’ and I often dance around to Carly Rae Jepsen, I’ve found my niche in a different brand of music, and I haven’t really turned back.

And then I found out who Patti Smith is. And she became the ultimate icon for me, and for about a million others. I wondered how I had never known about the incredible woman, or why I hadn’t made an effort to get to know her sooner. I was quickly enamoured by her music, by her photography, by the very essence of her being. By the way she lives and her dedication to her craft and her loyalty to those she loved. I read Just Kids in twenty-four hours, struggling to put it down in order to eat and sleep and breathe. I felt instantly connected to her in about a thousand different ways. Every word she wrote, every lyric she sang felt like magic, like divine inspiration or even just rules for how I was supposed to live. I’d never been so captivated, so instantly influenced by someone, and that influence hasn’t stopped or slowed down since then.

Patti Smith is an icon in every aspect of her being. She writes like she was put on earth to do just that, and every sentence and every paragraph is raw and honest and emotional. Her music is different and unique and fresh even forty years after her debut album Horses was released. She holds nothing back. She’s rough and raw and unapologetic, but understated and quite simple at the same time. She spent years inventing herself, and just happened to invent the core values of punk at the same time. She lives for her art, and that’s an astonishingly beautiful thing. I couldn’t think of a better role model or a better companion than her and her work.

What strikes me most about Patti Smith is her fierce dedication and overwhelming loyalty. In reading M Train, you quickly learn that she spends every morning writing. Sitting in the same coffee shop and just writing as if her life depends on it, because that’s what she’s been called to do. And she’s loyal beyond belief, loyal to her late husband Fred Smith and to her artistic companion and muse Robert Mapplethorpe.  She’s loyal to her craft, to her writing and her music and her photography. She’s responded to every single one of her callings, every inkling of passion that she ever felt. Her entire existence is astounding. There’s no better way to live.

I’m extremely inspired not only by Patti herself, but by her music. It’s all magic, all perfect words, all philosophical and political and introspective. It all means more than you could ever put into sentences. Her songs tell vivid, impeccably woven, unedited stories. At first, I worked slowly through each album in her discography, listening carefully to everything she had to say. There’s something overwhelming and beautiful in each of her songs, traits that run deep within the words and the arrangement and the melodies. Now I know which tracks are my favourites and which ones mean the most to me, and they often feel like friends or confidantes. They’ve become comfortable for me, and switching on my favourite Patti Smith song is second nature at this point. And it happens often.

The albums I come back to the most are Horses, Radio Ethiopia, and Easter, but I do truly adore them all. I love ‘Redondo Beach’ and how she made something incredibly beautiful about a fear-filled situation when she thought she would lose her sister. I love ‘Break It Up’ and its slow start and its quick ascension into a powerful, chorus-like track. I love ‘Ain’t It Strange’ and its thumping, pulsating beat. I love that everyone knows – or should know – ‘Because the Night,’ and I love the connection I have to it, because I really do feel like the night belongs to me. I love the transition from ‘25th Floor’ to ‘High on Rebellion’ and how you can’t really tell the difference between the two, and I love that the title of the latter often makes me wish I had the guts to be more of a rebel.

Out of the hundreds of tracks that Patti Smith has penned, there are a few that I feel tied to, like their lyrics are stitched onto my heart or have wormed their way into my head forever. ‘Pissing in a River’ is one of them, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over how incredible the call-and-response that comes up throughout the track. It builds and builds into a rumbling, pleading mess of a song, and I think it’s incredible. Another one of my favourites is ‘Babelogue’ and how effortlessly she delivers such a complex piece. I love the rhythmic clapping of the live take, and I love that it feels like her words could fall from a cliff because she’s speaking them so quickly. ‘People Have the Power’ is the last of my ultimate favourites, and it may be the one I adore the most. It’s an incredible track, one that will remain relevant throughout decades and centuries. The message is powerful beyond belief, and the song itself has the ability to believe that you can change the world. The woman is a miracle-worker, I’m telling you.

At this point, I’m in so deep with my infatuation with Patti Smith and I don’t think it’s likely to dissipate any time soon. She’s the reason I write every single day, she might as well be the poster child for the importance of dedication and hard work, and remembering her commitment to her craft reminds me why I do what I do, from my blog to my journal to my half-full sketchbook. She makes me want to expand my horizons, to surround myself with like-minded creatives, to travel like it’s nobody’s business and to love life fiercely. She’s taught me a thousand and one lessons, and I think it’s pretty powerful that someone I’ve never met, someone who doesn’t know I even exist, can have such a profound and lasting influence on who I am, especially when I’m in the middle of trying to figure out who that is. I think it’s pretty likely that Patti’s influence will bleed into most of what I do, and I’m quite happy with that.

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