What Do We Expect From Our Role Models?
I’ve been trying to see Patti Smith in person for years, and it always seems like I find out about her shows just a little too late, or am never “in the know” enough to find out about them at all. Her tour to talk about her new book Devotion was no different. By the time I found out about the RISD event in Providence at the end of September it was sold out. Oddly enough, I was able to get tickets to her show at the Back Bay Event Center in Boston, which happens to be a stone’s throw from the office I work in. Finally, I exclaimed to my coworkers! Something cool happening by work! And it’s to see one of my heroes! She’ll save me from my days in the corporate world!
Like most Patti Smith fans, I love her not only for her outstanding writing and music career (most notably her book Just Kids), but for also her style. She embodies the kind of woman I always have wished I could become as I get older - someone who doesn’t hide her aging and who has that natural air of coolness without trying at all.
Since I lined up early for the event, I got to listen to others chatting about what they hoped to get out of the talk. “I need advice on getting through this book I’m writing,” exclaimed one woman. Another attendee referred to her in a very familiar way. “Well that’s Patti’s style, that’s how she is.” Holy crap, do these people know her, I wondered? Everyone seemed to have a story about her or a specific purpose for being there. And then I realized I did, too. I was hoping she was going to tell me something that was going fundamentally change me or help me make sense of the long, sometimes painful journey of living a life in the arts.
Smith came out on stage smiling but with sunglasses on, which totally surprised me. It seemed very too cool for school rock diva like, which I wasn’t expecting at all. She went on to explain that she was suffering from a terrible migraine and that reading was just too painful. Singing, she said, would not be a problem at all, so that’s what she would do for the evening instead. I gasped. Yay, I thought! Finally! A Patti Smith concert! I was kind of shocked that some of the people around me were annoyed by this change, and by the collective sigh they let out upon hearing that it would be more concert than lecture.
Smith did talk about the creative process, but through song and through small stories of her life. Stories about her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith who passed away many years ago, and about her friend Sam Shepard only just recently passed. She sang about William Blake and talked about how he ended his life penniless. She sang “Because the Night” and asked everyone to sing along. She dropped a few f bombs and laughed at herself for having sunglasses on. She talked about how part of the “package” of living and loving life is to also loose sometimes. She talked about how important it was to just keep working, no matter what. Most notably, she gushed about her daughter who had accompanied her to Boston to play piano for this concert. It was easy to see how proud she was of her daughter in tone of her voice.
The Q&A session at the end of the event was a little weird. People approached the podium it seemed not to ask her questions, but rather to talk about themselves. Many wanted to thank her for helping them through a bad times, others said that they had brought artwork for her and were hoping she would take it. Smith was pretty dismissive of these statements, and at first, I was totally taken aback by her response. "Doesn’t anyone have actual questions for me?" she asked the crowd. I had thought she would be happy to hear these stories from her fans, so initially I was surprised by her reaction.
On the ride back to Providence, I gave the whole event some thought. Patti Smith ended up being both exactly what I was expecting and nothing like I was expecting. She definitely had the presence of a true rock star. Her reflections about living a creative life were thoughtful. Her personality seemed to be a funny combination of both quiet and brash. Her singing was beautiful and brought me to tears. She was also a lot of things I wasn’t expecting. She was tired and under the weather. She was a doting mom who little annoyed with the odd Q&A questions and seemed to react awkwardly to fans divulging that she had “saved” them.
Like many fans, I went to see her with a preconceived idea of what she would offer us. We are devoted to her history and her story of cool. I think maybe some of us (maybe even me) hoped that cool would rub off on us. What she gave was reality. She is rock star and poet trying to get through a rough day and do her work regardless. Just like all of us. We all have days where we don’t feel or do our best, but we try not to let it stop us from doing what we need to do. And of course, Smith does that very well. She is extremely talented on any given day. Maybe the big reveal from this is that we should just try to do our best. I know it sounds simple, but it’s really all we can hope for, right? Funny that I need to see Patti Smith to be reminded of that simple truth.
More About Jenny
Jenny Brown is visual artist living and working in Providence, Rhode Island, whose primary mediums are drawing, collage, and works on paper. Her work brings to life a mythical world of sea creatures and celestial beings, realized through her love of paper ephemera.
Her recent collage works focus on a dream of representing harmony amongst different elements of the natural world (flora, fauna, the moon, the sea). An abundance of flowers in the work represent the hearts and souls of these fantastic creatures. Branches and tentacles share their yearning to be connected to the most basic elements of life which created them...the cosmos, the oceans, the skies.
Jenny studied art at Bennington College and received her MFA from School of Visual Arts in New York in 2005. She was a guest this spring on The Jealous Curator’s “Art for Your Ear” podcast, as well as a featured artist in Create Magazine, and “The Handmade Life,” published by Thames & Hudson. Her work is currently available at Collier West in Brooklyn, NY.