Patti Smith

It was a long time ago, but not all that long, and I was sitting having lunch at Dojo’s, the venerable Japanese-inflected diner in Greenwich Village. I was almost certainly having the soy burger dinner (avocado on the side, burger topped with the restaurant’s trademark carrot-ginger dressing, aka “Dojo sauce,” that came with virtually everything on the menu), and I’m pretty sure I was alone, because I was paying attention to the music playing in the dining room. It was somewhat familiar — late-’70s-punk-sounding from the time when “punk” could still mean lots of things — but I couldn’t place it.

Hoping to discover something new — maybe even under the radar! — I asked my server what we were listening to.

“It’s Patti Smith,” she explained with offhanded patience, as if talking to someone just a bit slow on the uptake. Which, of course, she was.

How I’d gotten that far in life without having listened much to Patti Smith is bit of a mystery. I knew “Because the Night,” her sort-of co-written song with Bruce Springsteen (he wrote it, she rewrote it), which had been on the radio in heavy rotation when I was a pre-teen soaking up Top 40 radio. I also knew, vaguely, that she’d had a famous album called Horses, one of those iconic records I figured I’d get around to eventually, but hadn’t yet. I’d managed to wander through a lot of the neighboring territories of CBGB’s rock — for example, I’d bought the first two albums by Television, featuring Patti’s sometime collaborator/lover Tom Verlaine, early enough that I had them on (pre-CD) vinyl, and I knew that Verlaine’s song “Glory” on their second album, Adventure, was supposedly about Patti — so it wouldn’t have required much for me to follow those threads. Yet still I didn’t, thinking I wouldn’t like her music, because she was … too much a “poet”? Too associated with that one weird Springsteen hit? Too stigmatized by her painfully earnest ’80s activist anthem “People Have the Power”? I couldn’t tell you.

And so it was that I found myself at an outdoor show at Lincoln Center in the year 2008, sweating under the hot August sun. It had been a long day already — we’d shown up before noon for a brief set by Pete Seeger and his grandson, then scuttled a few yards over to where that day’s free Roots of American Music festival was taking place. There had been an all-star blues review (excellent), the X-in-country-drag band the Knitters (my main reason for going, and they did not disappoint), and something called Charlie Haden Family and Friends, which mixed some incredible session musicians (dobro player Jerry Douglas was especially memorable) with some people who seemed to be there mostly because they fit the “family and friends” moniker. Still to come, as night fell, was Patti Smith. I was hot and tired, but I figured I might as well stick around, as I’d never seen her live before. Besides, my friend Louise, who’d come along for the day, said she was terrific, so why not?

Two hours later, I was a fan for life. It wasn’t just that Patti and her band, as most of the rest of the world had already known for three decades, were brilliant performers and rock ‘n’ rollers in the most uncynical sense, or that they mixed their own songs with well-chosen covers (including, on this night, a raucous “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). It was also that Patti herself, far from the image I’d somehow developed of her, was downright hilarious, cracking corny jokes, dropping self-deprecating remarks, and generally being every bit a rock star without losing that sense of “Get a load of this, I’m actually a rock star?” When the climactic moment of her one semi-hit from Horses, a semi-cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” (Van wrote it, Patti rewrote it), came along, and she forgot how to spell “G-L-O-R-I-A” — and then laughed it off — I was hooked for life. (In retrospect, she was the perfect person to stumble during her song for Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize acceptance, and explain afterwards how it put her in touch with her own humanity.)

There are several Big Thoughts I can have about this origin story of my Patti Smith fandom: What sequence of events led me to miss out on her music for so long? What if I’d never invited Louise to see the Knitters (“and Patti Smith is playing, too”), and without her influence, had decided to head home after the Knitters to nurse my heatstroke? What other musicians may I have had these kinds of near-misses with, thanks to ignorance or misplaced assumptions or bad timing, and can I still look forward to stumbling upon them in the future? How much of music fandom is taste, and how much chance, and can the two be separated?

The Big Thoughts can wait. I’m mostly just glad I finally found my way to Patti Smith in time to appreciate her music, recorded and in person (I’ve seen her another four times since, including an arena show opening for Neil Young where she stopped mid-set to take off her shoes), and to introduce my son to him as well (his favorite bedtime record in 1st grade ended up being Horses). I’ve even, on certain occasions, been able to appreciate “People Have the Power.” But even when I can’t, that’s okay — if Patti Smith has taught me anything, it’s that imperfection in the pursuit of art is nothing to be ashamed of.