Just an introductory note: I never meant for this piece to be so long – I started it a few months ago, meaning for it to be a simple review of a show I’d recently attended. And then…it just sort of materialised into a reflection on what Patti Smith meant to me, what the show represented, all the feelings that “fandom” ignites in its participants…and then…I wrote a poem about the experience for my English class, so I had to include that too! I’m incredibly proud of what I’ve written – I hope you all enjoy it too! But there is also a 4,000+ word count, so read in increments if you like. I’d love to hear your feedback, though, or about any similar experiences you guys have had – be sure to leave ’em in the comments!
PART 1: The essay.
I don’t think I’d ever really expected to be standing in the presence of one of my greatest heroes. This wasn’t exactly helped by the fact that virtually all of them lived in assorted locations on the other side of the world, and that the vast majority of them were either in their senior years – or dead. But yet, I found myself doing just that several months ago, on Easter Sunday, as I stood in the aisles of Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, dancing and screaming and revelling in the fact that, maybe 20 metres away me, was Patti Smith.
The story of how Patti became my absolute greatest living hero is like something out of a cliche coming-of-age movie. I was in a massive record store one morning a little over two years ago, in June or July 2015, when – while searching through the sales section – I randomly came across the cheapest CD I’d seen yet. It had a cover quite unlike anything else I’d seen – so stark and cool, and yet so inviting – and it carried a ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker, which seemed so very edgy and grownup at the time. I decided to buy this album – Horses – on a whim, as I slowly realised that I vaguely recognised Patti’s name from a bunch of Pitchfork articles and interviews with Courtney Barnett, an artist who I liked. I stuck it in my CD player when I got home, eager to see if she was as good as Courtney had made her out to be. It kind of confused me at first – I’d read that she played punk music, and the soft piano chords that began the album didn’t exactly align with what I thought ‘punk’ was, back then. But then, this voice sings a lyric so liberating and disembodying – “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” – to my impressionable ears, that I physically had to stop everything I was doing for the entirety of the album’s length.
Patti’s – and David Bowie’s, whom I would discover only a couple of weeks later – arrival in my life signified a new era of my identity. If the Beatles started to teach a younger me about the importance of creativity, idealism and individuality, it was Smith and Bowie that slammed this philosophy into the essence of who I see myself as. These two artists existed on a plane where not only was it okay, but actually rather cool, to be what mainstream society deems “weird” – where liking obscure postpunk compilations and disaffected ’60s literature and perplexing art movies and a mishmash of Doc Martens and assorted op-shop clothes was encouraged; where being a girl didn’t mean that I had to wear my skirts below my knee, find a good man to stand by, have 2.5 kids, and be a perfect, God-fearing housewife, like my school at the time had taught me for the entirety of my preteen years; where I could dream about writing the greatest alternative album of the 21st Century and living in the East Village of Manhattan without being shunned. I fell madly in love with their world, and began to throw myself into it pretty quickly. In the case of Patti, by the end of that year, I’d consumed a large amount of her writings and other albums, devoured the records of her CBGB contemporaries, wrote lists of my favourite albums and books that always positioned her work somewhere in the top 3, Blu-Tac-ed a picture of her to my wall alongside one of my Beatles posters, cemented a skinny black tie as a mainstay of my wardrobe, and begun a fascination with New York City on the basis of Just Kids that’s only increased ever since. Unlike all my heroes before, Patti and David were also alive – although it was extraordinarily idealistic, collaborating with them on some multimedia avant-garde art project was a lot more possible than my previous daydreams of hanging out with John Lennon and Brian Jones could ever have been.
So let’s fastforward to a year later – November 2016. It’s now been close to eighteen months since I spontaneously fell in love with Horses. The combination of her influence on me across this time and my growing adoration of her mean that she seems kind of like a mythical goddess to me. I’ve also since become a lot more knowledgeable on the details of her career, and am aware that she’s mainly a writer, now – and that even if she had done several recent shows around the place to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Horses, I know that seeing her live is a highly unlikely event. This context should help you to understand the earsplitting scream I let out when my mum showed me an email on her phone one afternoon – an email containing a receipt for tickets to Patti Smith’s first Melbourne show in eight years. It wasn’t even particularly surprising, or anything. I knew that Patti was going to play a music festival up north around that time – and I’d read an hour or so earlier that she was playing shows elsewhere, and was already partway through planning my sermon to my parents as to why flying to Melbourne (the show closest to my hometown, Adelaide – yet still an hour’s flight away) to see her would be a sane idea. It was just this idea that something I’d fantasised about for so long was going to become a reality – that I would, indeed, be standing in the presence of probably my greatest living hero. Let’s not forget that my other greatest dream – meeting David Bowie, or at least seeing him live at the surprise Blackstar concert I (prior to January 10) was convinced would be randomly announced via an obscure social media platform one afternoon – had been crushed that January, and how this had only cemented the idea that seeing my heroes was a scenario reserved for my daydreams. It blew my mind.
I spent the six months or so that ensued in a state of excited shock. I was thrilled about what was happening, but it seemed too unreal for its inevitableness to be contended with. I listened to Horses countless times, and tried to imagine what it would sound like live. I planned what I’d wear – a t-shirt over the top of a striped polo-neck, with a black mini-skirt, fishnet tights, and Doc Martens – months beforehand. I spent one night a couple of days prior to the date printing a t-shirt reading ‘Patti Smith Is Cool’ with my mum. I reread my copies of Just Kids and M Train and Collected Lyrics: 1970-2015. I made playlists of all her songs and listened to them on repeat, and lipsynched my favourites in front of my mirror like some romcom trope. I packed my bag the night before, snuggling my copy of Collected Lyrics in between my toiletries and my tartan shift dress that I planned to wear the day after. I couldn’t fathom, though, what the day would actually be like – constantly revisiting the material that had affected me so just made her seem even more mythical, and the idea that this person, who I’d never met and yet had changed my life, could be just as real as myself appeared to become even more unthinkable.
This even continued as the day began to arrive. I saw Blondie the week before. Although I was a good 500 metres away from the stage (at least), seeing Deborah Harry “in the flesh” was incredible – and yet, perhaps it was just that I was largely watching her on a massive TV screen, that she was too far away to really see, but I could barely get over my disbelief that the woman in front of me singing ‘Atomic’ was the same one whose records I’d memorised, whose likeness was stuck on my wall. It was almost unbearably surreal – this person, who it felt as if they only existed within the planes of music blogs and record shops and my mum’s record collection and my brain, as if they were almost a figment of my imagination, had suddenly become tangible. This lingered in my mind as the days ’til Patti crept closer- why can’t I see my heroes as real people? Are they – as I perceive them – even real? If I could only barely put this weird sensation to one side in order to dance and recite the rap part of ‘Rapture’ by heart in front of maybe my 10th-favourite band, how would I cope in front of my greatest hero in the entire world?
Then it was suddenly Sunday, a day I’d awaited for so many months, that I’d dreamt about so much that it felt like a dream itself . I flew to Melbourne, listening to Horses and reading the entire “Early Work” section of Collected Lyrics over and over and over. We wandered around in the hours before, drinking tea in the cafes and buying takeaway rice paper rolls from the restaurants that we always visited, but it didn’t feel the same. My heart raced as I half-watched a bizarre quiz show on the hotel’s cable channels while blaring ‘Dancing Barefoot’ through my headphones, as I fixed my makeup, as I slipped my homemade t-shirt over my turtleneck, as I ran out the hotel room door, my legs shaky with excitement, and down the lift and across the city and to the concert hall. It all still seemed too surreal, like a dream sequence from my imaginary biopic film – I physically could not believe what was happening, my brain could not compute as I approached the hall, as I walked past the chalkboard out front that read “Patti Smith: Tonight!”, as I stood by the big glass doors of the foyer and watched so many people with clothes as kooky and copies of Collected Lyrics as worn as my own shuffle across to the theatre doors… I felt so heady and trembly – endlessly perplexed as to whether I was really just experiencing a super realistic lucid dream. I knew this day was so important, that no moment in my life before had received such an anticipated build-up, that it would be one that I would fixate on when retelling tales of the “good ol’ days” in middle age – my daydreams had told me as much – but I’d dreamt about it too often. I couldn’t work out whether my surrounds were real or not – I could barely replace the scenes my anticipation had conjured up in the previous months with what was becoming a reality around me. What if I’d removed myself from reality so much that the event itself would have little effect on my psyche – what if it became as insignificant, in the scheme of my life, as whatever day had preceded it?
I had to line up for half an hour to buy my merchandise. I shuffled through the foyer, my hands breaking out in cold sweat, the air humid with body heat, as piles of people crowded around me, doing just the same. I watched as the line snaked past the door, as it grew so long it could barely fit within the confines of the room – people grinning as excitedly as I was, with the same Dr Martens and mismatched vintage clothes and strange haircuts as those that Patti and her contemporaries had allowed me to wear, discussing the merits of ‘Piss Factory’ and ‘Land’ as fluently and passionately as my own thoughts. Music, and the culture that surrounded it, had always been such a solitary pursuit. It was something I read about quietly in the back corner of my classrooms, that I Blu-Tac-ed my passion for over my bedroom walls, that I bought from the privacy of a eBay username or from hard-to-find shops, that I write about on here in the comfort of my anonymity – heck, even the “rebellion” and liberation it inspired in me was merely the inward knowledge that I was cooler than most people around me had ever assumed I had the capability to be. And yet, here were these people, like me. It was the most disconcertingly beautiful thing.
My mum and I chatted with the Melbourne couple behind us, in the half-hour merchandise line, who spoke of how they’d seen Patti in a small club in New Orleans, of how they’d been to literally every show and festival (they’d been to Dark MOFO!) I’d ever dreamt of attending. It wasn’t just Patti that felt magical – the idea of Melbourne felt mythical, that night, with its abounding arts culture and opportunities and “the world is your oyster” attitude so much greater than anything I’d ever known, too. I swiped the last remaining tour brochure, that someone had dropped on a nearby bench, even with the beer-glass stain that circled Patti’s face like a halo – not an activity that was even remotely dangerous, and yet, it felt so daring and adventurous. I felt daring and adventurous, and all kinds of incredible like I’d never felt before.
Later, the doors opened, and I found my seat, stumbling in awe. Twenty minutes ’til Patti. Starting promptly at 8:30. Magda Szubanski sat three rows down from us; Courtney Barnett herself, perhaps the reason I even knew about Patti in the first place, was seemingly in the second row of the stalls. I sat in the dress circle, at a height almost as heady as my blood pressure. I could already feel the heat drifting up to my face, as I found my spot, the fold-down seat bouncing as I nervously shifted from side to side. I could see the roadies placing Lenny Kaye’s guitars on stage; the stage lights were switched on, too, their blue streaks bouncing off the house lights. A group of 20-something girls sat down next to my seat, one of them clutching a copy of Collected Lyrics as worn and well-loved as my own. I’d never seen another real life copy of Collected Lyrics before. My fishnets itched against my legs.
The lights dimmed, the stage swathed in a layer of twilight-blue lighting; an image of Patti, black-and-white, steely gaze, jacket swung over shoulder – the very same image that compelled me to add Horses to my record collection two years earlier – illuminated in the background. Electric silence. I sat as far at end of my seat as I could, just short of falling off, peering intently over the dress circle balcony for the slightest billowing of a stage curtain, for an indication of her presence. And then, there she was. She stood at the stage’s centre, sporting a waistcoat, a white shirt, black straight-legged pants, brown boots, her long grey hair falling around her shoulders. She looked exactly the same as every recent picture of her I’d ever seen. I’d always assumed she’d (or that anyone, for the matter, who’d I stared at incessantly over the Internet) look different, in real life – but she didn’t. It was like in Mulholland Drive, when Diane attends a party and sees a cowboy leaving, a cowboy identical to a presence who recurs in her dreams. It was bizarre.
Soft piano chords. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” I can’t move. So much like how I felt, that morning in 2015 – and yet, so different, so far. Patti is there. The voice floating from the speakers is from a stage a few metres below me. The woman that recorded an album that entirely changed the course of my life is standing right in front of me, performing said album. I don’t think I could tap my foot, or even smile, at that point – I sat totally rigid, at the edge of my seat, eyes frozen open. Everything was so weird and unbelievable and hazy and surreal. I feebly lipsynched along to ‘Gloria’, virtually involuntarily. Perhaps moving your lips becomes a subconscious action, when a song you’ve poured over hundreds of thousands of times is blaring out of a speaker in front of your ears…
About a third of the way through ‘Birdland’, the entirety of the stalls stood up and fled toward the stage, in a frenzied stampede. The crowed writhed to the beat, extending their hands toward the stage, closing their eyes in ecstasy, becoming more frantic as each song raced toward their climaxes. I stood up, too, in the aisle of my row. I danced and danced and danced, worse than when I dropped out of ballet school when I was seven, to the point that I had a side stitch, but I didn’t even care – I was so ridiculously, beautifully elated that I couldn’t even notice. I physically couldn’t force my face from the massive grin now spread across it, even when my jaw began to hurt. The lights bathed the crowd below in bluish stardust; they glowed behind Patti, like an archangel’s halo, an aura. She was like some kind of angel. I am the lord of the dance, said she.
The bass pulsates through my soul. Water vapour, from everyone’s sweat, drifting around the ceiling, covers the room in a misty fog – the lights stream through, like when the moon shines through a flurry of clouds. Patti begins to perform ‘Break It Up’, and she asks us to sing along. “Break it up!” “Break it up!” Hundreds of voices – they echo across the walls, gliding along the fog, as if they are floating toward the sky. Like when we sang Psalm 121 en masse, in Choir in Grade 4; like a chorus of angels. Patti’s halo glitters with mist. I sing along, hopelessly out of tune, my throat too dry with adrenaline to be able to determine pitch – but, again, I do not care, for I am so deliriously, joyously happy that nothing other than the fact that Patti is several metres away from me matters.
“The boy was in the hallway, drinking a glass of tea / from the other end of the hallway, a rhythm was generating.” The pounding drums of ‘Land’ build up in my chest, I can’t keep my feet still. “Do you know how to twist?” Yes I do, and it goes like this, and it goes like this… And they segue back into ‘Gloria’, and I scream the lyrics at the top of my lungs, and my mind is so numb with euphoria that I could almost cry, and I lift my hands above my head and reach for the heavens because maybe Jesus died for somebody’s sins but it’s Patti who I worship tonight, and my feet, they run up and down the aisle and I can barely feel my toes but I don’t even realise – and Patti runs up and down the stage, dancing, yelling, her hair flying, her actual voice echoing from the loudspeaker in front of me… And then she flies across the side of the stage in front of me, and I am so close to her that I can see the wrinkles around her eyes.
And then there’s an encore, ‘My Generation’, and she ties a yellow gerbera – from a bouquet of flowers a fan had placed onstage – around her arm and slings a silver guitar over her shoulder, and she attacks it so hard that I watch each petal of the gerbera fly to the stage floor, twinkling like gold underneath the lights. And she screams and swears and plays and dances with so much passion and fervour and noise and beauty, that we are but compelled to do the same. And then, suddenly, the noise – the most incredible, loud, fun dissonance – stops. Patti leaves. The house lights are turned on. Obscure folk music plays over the PA. I cannot move. I have never felt so beautifully dazed in my life.
We sat in our hotel bar, after Patti had left and we’d walked back to our hotel. I sat there, and Joy Division and Bowie were playing over the speakers, and my sweaty hair had stuck to my head, and my cheeks were still flushed, and it was just the strangest feeling. It was like when you awaken from a satisfying dream – when you can’t quite picture what happened, but the residue contentment still flutters in your chest. I physically couldn’t comprehend the idea that what I’d just experienced was real. In fact, I still can’t. What I’ve written here is such a small summary of what I have only begun to truly contend with – I still can barely begin to explain or define what I felt.
But it occurred to me that night. David Bowie always used to say that, in real life, to his family and friends, he was still just David Jones – it was only in the public eye, to us fans, that he became “Bowie”. So then, maybe, the Patti that I adored, indeed, wasn’t even real – maybe my love of Patti was not about her, per se. Sure, I admired her for the kind of person her music and writings portray her as – but maybe my love for her work was just as much about me, too. Perhaps I loved Horses, not just because of the music, the lyrics, but for what it represented to me – my rebellion, my liberation, my self-realisation. Maybe the show was not just about seeing Patti, but what it incited in me – how the sweat trickled down my arms as I screamed and danced, until I could barely move my legs, how I knew every word of every song, the delirious joy, the freedom I felt. That perhaps it was’t really Patti and David that “allowed” me to take pride in my differences – although, it was their music that inspired me to think about things a little more. That maybe, to paraphrase a poem I wrote:
“The person who told me that I was cool, that I was worthy,
It wasn’t Patti:
It was me.”
PART 2: The poem.
The Days I Saw Patti Smith
It was two years ago when
Patti Smith’s steely gaze stared straight into my soul
from the comfort of a CD cover at JB Hifi.
I didn’t know anything about her.
But she looked so cool
and the “parental advisory” sticker on the front-right corner seemed so edgy,
and I suddenly became $9.99 poorer.
And when I got home,
and I inserted that $9.99 disc into my old CD player,
I heard a voice so disorientating and incredible that
I had to drop everything I’d been doing,
and listen to my life changing.
that everything I’d thought was right about the world
That perhaps I was as strange as the taunts of Year 7’s high society had told me to believe;
but perhaps that was more interesting and cool than they ever could dream to be-
“Outside of society… Outside of society…” That maybe she was right when she wrote of how that was the only place to be…
That perhaps it didn’t matter if my idols weren’t from the Bible, if I didn’t believe,
because maybe, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”
That perhaps I wouldn’t have to settle for a life of eternal loneliness, with no man to stand by,
if I couldn’t balance a book upon my skull, if I couldn’t cook or clean or sew.
That if Patti was okay, then maybe I was, as well.
It was six months ago when
Patti Smith’s steely gaze stared straight into my soul
from a Melbourne concert hall stage.
By now, my CD played almost to an oblivion,
A copy of her Collected Lyrics with white creases of weariness across the spine.
She looked so cool, Blu-Tacked on my bedroom wall,
and the concert ticket bearing her name that lay in my suitcase en route to Melbourne Tullamarine, so full of anticipation and adoration, looked even cooler,
and when I got to use that ticket,
When I stood twenty metres from her flying white hair,
Dancing along row 3, dress circle, even worse than when I dropped out of ballet school when I was seven,
Heady with body heat and passion,
Patti was there.
And I don’t even know if she was real,
For there is nothing more surreal than seeing the wrinkles that line the face that lines your walls for yourself,
Than seeing your favourite record come to life, in its glittering, goddess-esque glory.
And the stage lights glowed around her, and the audience chanted her choruses just like we did when we sang ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ in Grade 4, and the band clanged and crashed and floated in the most beautiful, beautiful way,
And she was some kind of auratic archangel
-It was Easter Sunday after all;
A presence, a voice, so disorientating, so incredible, so unbelievably real,
That I couldn’t think about anything else for weeks.
That I was still wrong.
It wasn’t Patti that made me so self-assured, so happy,
It wasn’t Patti that me so proud of the “outside of society,”
The Patti I adored, that I gazed at while she darted across the stage, indeed, wasn’t even real.
For fandom is not about them, the people they really are,
For it is about you,
And your feelings, your memories,
The way their world colours yours,
A testing of your love at its most passionate, its most unconditional,
The truths it ignites within yourself.
The person who told me that I was cool, that I was worthy,
It wasn’t a CD:
It was me.