- 30 Apr 20
A lesson in accepting the concept of fate from the Godmother of punk rock.
I have mounting evidence that Patti Smith is some kind of guardian angel. If there is such a thing as fate, she seems to be responsible for a significant amount of mine. There are some people you are simply supposed to discover.
I used to hate car rides with my Dad. He insisted on total control of the sound system and had awful taste in music. It should be noted here that my father actually has excellent taste in music, and was merely opposed to my ardent desire to "murder his eardrums" by playing The Spice Girls and Avril Lavigne on endless repeat. By the time I was about sixteen, we had reached a tentative treaty: I could choose the music, as long as it was from his iPod (oh, iPods, how I miss thee).
Scrolling one day, I came across a name I'd seen somewhere else recently: Patti Smith. I had been devouring a Vanity Fair interview between her and Johnny Depp, my celebrity crush of the moment. From among titles like 'Radio Ethiopia' and 'Pissing In A River', I selected one that seemed the least offensive: 'Dancing Barefoot'. Closing my eyes, I watched the colours swirl behind my lids and let Smith's final words wash over me: "the line of life / the limb of a tree / the hands of he and the promise / that she is blessed among women". I selected the next song and all but forgot about her, although her words nagged at the back of my mind.
Two days later in a massive downtown Toronto bookstore, her name jumped out at me again, this time from the 'New and Noteworthy' section. My pocket money was spent on Just Kids that day, and my long journey with my favourite book began.
Today, if you open my (lovingly) battered copy of Just Kids to any given page you will find an underlined sentence – perhaps one that had been particularly poignant to my teenaged mind. Beside the passage where Smith details her treatment at the hands of female nurses while scared, nineteen and in labour, the words "fuck them" are scrawled angrily in the margin, as though me cursing those nurses could give Smith herself a sense of comfort.
At sixteen, I had never read anything – fiction or otherwise – that seemed to luxuriate in the written word the way Just Kids does. It's not driven by plot, or in any kind of hurry to get a story out. Rather, it revels in quietly beautiful (but never too wordy) description of Smith's remarkable young adulthood with Robert Mapplethorpe. For a millennial with an ever-waning attention span (thanks, The Internet), I was almost surprised at how rabidly I consumed Just Kids. In four days I drank in Smith's prose like I'd happened upon a lake in the middle of a desert.
In the opening paragraph, Smith writes about visiting Humboldt Park with her mother: "The narrows of the river emptied into a wide lagoon and I saw upon its surface a singular miracle. A long curving neck rose from a dress of white plumage. Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement...The word alone hardly attested to its magnificence nor conveyed the emotion it produced". I had much the same reaction to Just Kids as a young Patti Smith had to the word "swan". I'm a child of the 90s, raised on pop culture, Disney movies, Harry Potter and Twilight: epic fantasies and impossible love stories. I couldn't find words to adequately express what Just Kids had done. It was a different kind of love story, though it's as epic as any pining teen romance.
In 1969, Smith took a bus from New Jersey to New York, got a minimum wage job in a bookstore, and met Robert Mapplethorpe, long before either of them became pioneers of their respective crafts. Just Kids is the pure and undiluted tale of an infinitely complex relationship that spans every kind of love, both romantic and platonic. They were each other's caregivers and supporters. They were also destined, somehow, for meeting one another. Their journey was dusted with fate, but undeniably real. It was sometimes harrowing; a delicate balance that crumbled and re-formed into something new as Mapplethorpe discovered his sexuality and Smith began to explore her own art more deeply.
The Patti Smith in Just Kids, though perhaps just a kid, seemed more sure of herself than I was. She seemed to know her own destiny from a very early age, while I was struggling to figure out what I wanted from life. But I clung to the similarities between us: she liked Little Women, she wanted to be a writer, loved Bob Dylan, was trying to make good art and use it to carve her place in the world.
When I read the final words of Just Kids, I cried. Closing the book, I flipped it immediately back over to begin again. I carried it everywhere, my own personal bible, and I its disciple. I read and re-read a section of the afterword in my copy, in which Smith describes receiving a letter from a woman who obtained Mapplethorpe's desk at an auction when he died, and contains a picture of that woman's daughter, who uses the desk to do her homework. It seems stupid, but I was jealous. I wanted that kind of a connection with Smith, although I knew something like that couldn't be manufactured.
The reality is that Patti and I developed our own strange connection simply because I exposed myself to her work. In 2013, about two years and four re-reads of Just Kids later, my mother purchased a pair of tickets for us to see Patti at The Art Gallery of Ontario, in what promised to be a once-in-a-lifetime concert. I skipped school that day, a transgression sanctioned by the most rock and roll Mam in the world (aside from Patti herself). She even went into the school (figurative guns blazing) to shout at my nightmare of a drama teacher, who threatened to dock 25 percent of my final grade for missing the day.
By pure happenstance I was among the first people to be allowed inside the venue that night, and found myself at the very front. Alongside me was a girl of about my age, and her curly-haired boyfriend (who at the time looked quite a bit like Mapplethorpe). Patti must have noticed that we knew every word. During 'People Have The Power', she leaned over the side of the stage and held her microphone down to meet the girl and I. While sing-screaming, with Smith's face a mere two inches from my own, I couldn't shake the feeling that I knew the girl from somewhere. I reached out on Facebook the next day, the screen acting as a mitigating factor to potential embarrassment. Were you at a Patti Smith concert last night? The reply was almost immediate. It had been Kaitlyn, a girl I'd had dance classes with for years in primary school, and she had been looking me up as well. How strange it was – not that we both evolved from our respective teeny bopper phases and our tastes had improved, nor that we had both fallen in love with Just Kids – rather that in a venue of hundreds of people, because we were standing in the right place at the right time, Patti was inadvertently responsible for reuniting us. I'm not sure where along the lines of our lives divinity (or Patti's influence) intervened. We're dotted across two countries now, but Kaitlyn is still one of my closest friends.
I was one of the failed experiments of my arts-oriented secondary school. My four year stint resulted in aimlessness, and though I went to the school initially to perform, the desire to be on stage was irrevocably squashed by the time I graduated. I went to University not to study drama like my peers, but instead to study philosophy. In what I now refer to as my Smith Semester, my favourite professor taught a class called 'Reflections on Death'. During one of her office hours, where I laboured over potential final paper topics, she noticed Just Kids in my bag and suggested I write about Patti, reminding me that "she is the ultimate griever". Of course, she was right; the prologue and much of the end of Just Kids is dedicated to Mapplethorpe's death. Smith holds on to talismans of the dead, embarks on pilgrimages to the graves of her heroes, and releases grief via the catharsis of art. Incidentally, that paper was graded with the highest mark I'd achieve in school.
At every turn since my fateful discovery, Patti Smith's work has saved me, delighted me, given me purpose, and challenged me. Reading her has led to other works and artists to love, and her prowess with a pen has inspired me to strive toward producing meaningful art myself. There are other, smaller moments where I catch myself thinking: "she strikes again" – a living, breathing anomaly of coincidence swirling about my life and gently spurring me forward.