Who Got It Right as a Woman: Patti Smith

It might be hard to believe at first glance, given that famous long, stringy hair, androgynous appearance, and her origins as a proto-punk poetess and singer dubbed “The Godmother of Punk.” But Patti Smith is not who she necessarily seems on the surface. She is an incredibly well-read woman, writer, photographer, and a true romantic with a tremendous aesthetic eye and love of beauty. While I cannot confess to being a great fan of her music, I have watched and read many interviews with her, saw in her speak in public, and so an exhibit of her photographs at the Detroit Institute of Arts. There is so much to admire about her!

-She is highly cultured. This is the artist who considered Balzac to be her first love! Smith has made pilgrimages to the homes of various artists and writers around the world. She admires how Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist Flea warms up with Bach runs. And one of her childhood heroes was Maria Callas. She loves going to bookstores and always talks about the book she is reading in interviews. Patti Smith has spoken of how she really considers herself to be a writer first, and that music happened to get put to her words.

-She is romantic and she loves men. People have often mistaken her youthful snarling and androgyny for militant feminism or even lesbianism, but Smith has mentioned she likes it when men hold the doors open for her, loved her husband deeply and was still devoted to her one time lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, even after he came out gay. Smith has always seemed to adore the men she has been with. How one presents oneself to the world does not always equate with one’s sexual orientation.

-She is a true artist who values great craftsmanship, whatever the mode. Despite her usual uniform of black blazers and jeans, she admires the construction of couture ball gowns! She feels deeply about the objects she photographs, and in the exhibit I saw, what was most striking was not the photographs themselves, but the canon she had put together through photography. She has a sensitive aesthetic eye and is moved by great art of any kind.

-She was a committed mother and wife. She followed her husband, the late Fred Smith, to Detroit since his band was based there. During this period, she spent little time on her music, focusing on her family life and also her writing. In interviews, Patti Smith seems to have no regrets for having left New York for going to Detroit for a time, gracefully embracing what each stage in life has held for her. She loves her children and even performs with them.

-She doesn’t follow any-isms. So often she is considered a feminist icon and asked as such; Smith seems to shrug it off and not care to identify with any big labels or movements. Instead, she chooses to be herself, the artist that she is.

-Her tastes are wide. As a child, she poured over European art books, listened to opera, read French literature. She also is a fan of Japanese writers and Roberto Bolaño, Tibetan Buddhism, traveling in Morocco, Little Women, beat poetry, and so much more. She is listed as a poet on the prestigious Poetry Foundation’s website, an honor that is not for dilettantes. Even her albums reference sometimes-obscure cultural phenomena, such as the dog Banga in The Master and Margarita. This is a woman who is clearly well read and a woman of letters who is influenced by other great artists!

-She doesn’t care to dress in a “feminine” mode. The trademark hair is long and unkempt, her face is free of makeup, and even at the Nobel ceremony (where she accepted the award for Bob Dylan) she did not choose to done a dress. Smith was always comfortable dressing as she does (which is still quite an iconic, unique style), though she does love ball gowns and there is a photo shoot one can see online where she is in Dior gowns!

-While she might seem rebellious and certainly was as a young woman, she is actually quite respectful and accepting of religions, general proprieties, etc.

Ultimately, Patti Smith is true to herself. She considers herself an artist above all the categories of gender, ethnicity, etc. She has shown us that it doesn’t matter what kind of background you come from, that even if you are from a working-class background, you can still have an aesthetic soul and live for your artistic dreams. When I saw her give a talk in Ann Arbor in 2010 or so, I had the great fortune to ask her a question: what do you do when you are feeling a lack of inspiration? Her answer was that she is never in this state, because she will constantly draw her inspiration from other great artists and writers, so she will turn to their work, and that she is also inspired by walking by the ocean. I found this to be a satisfying answer, and I am inspired by this true artist.

Black Artists Matter

In a sense, it seems foolish to single out black artists, solely for the reason that a great artist is a great artist, no matter what her/his/their race is. However, given the recent tragic, violent events (that are still continuing), it is fitting to pay tribute to them. I think everyone in the arts has to have a personal canon, an individual pantheon of greats, follow a particular “lineage” (that will be the subject of a post in the future). Here’s a list of some of my favorite artists/works of art that made an impression on me, by artists who just happen to be black.

The characters on “Sesame Street.” Who didn’t have feel-good vibes from Gordon and Susan? (And then, as a corollary, Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader on “The Electric Company?”) This is so crucial, as from a young age, if we expose children to diversity, it becomes something very ordinary. Children don’t discriminate in the way adults do. A child will look with loving eyes at a black character simply because they feel love for that character, because that character puts them at ease. Sesame Street was groundbreaking in the way it featured a diverse cast, yet it was not something we children were conscious of. Gordon was Gordon, Mr. Hooper was Mr. Hooper, Maria was Maria. Decades later, it was an incredible thrill to see “Maria” on the street or on the bus when I lived in New York City!

“The Cosby Show.” Before we knew what a disgusting, perverse, frightening monster Bill Cosby was, there was his fabulous, entertaining, family-friendly show that we adored as kids and teens. My generation grew up with Bill Cosby, seeing him on commercials, hearing his voice on “Fat Albert,” watching him with the goofily-named marker Ichabod Mortimer on “Picture Pages” on the children’s show “Captain Kangaroo,” movies, TV shows, and then his own eponymous show. His gift for comic timing, clean humor, onomatopoeic gags, and physical comedy were nothing short of genius. The revelation that he was a drugging rapist feels, to many of us, like we were personally violated and betrayed. We grew up with The Cos, he was our dad, America’s Dad.

Reading Lena Horne’s autobiography in the seventh grade left quite an impression on me. It was quite long, and I was fascinated by her challenges and how she overcame them. She was also incredibly beautiful and talented.

Richard Wright’s Native Son. The sheer power of the novel, when I read it in the 10th grade, was beyond belief. It is a disturbing novel, and not without controversy (James Baldwin famously disliked it). As a writer, I strive for emotional complexity and like writing about emotional dilemmas. This book is rife with them, for there is no clear-cut good or bad. James Baldwin I only came to very late, but he is a stunning prose stylist and one of America’s top intellectuals.

Reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon for my AP English class was mind-blowing. It was not merely a book; it was literature. It was the first time I understood what literature was, something beyond two covers, something that was complex, full of symbols, unique prose, and transcendent.

John Coltrane. Hearing “Giant Steps” for the first time my sophomore year in college in a jazz theory class was nothing short of a revelation. We had been given the score, but the pace at which the saxophone line moved was like lightning and nearly impossible to follow. How did anyone have the genius to do that? How could anyone create those rapid chord changes and put a melody on top of it that still made sense, musically? When ‘Trane plays the sax, it sings. That is the ultimate compliment to give any instrumental musician. Coltrane also went on a spiritual journey through his life, one that was continued by his widow, Alice, a gifted musician in her own right. We lost him too soon. Thankfully, generations can enjoy his genius on recordings. As a lifelong jazz fan, there are too many favorites for me to name, but let it suffice to say that jazz is America’s contribution to the world, thanks to all the brilliant black musicians who have created an art form that has been inclusive and inspiring to non-black musicians of all genres.

Oprah. What can we say that hasn’t been said already? Oprah doesn’t do junk. Anything she puts in front of us is uplifting, of good quality. Consider her own journey–from unwed teenage mother to news reporter to talk show host, media mogul, America’s Mother Confessor to whom even the most difficult people will open up, and spiritual seeker who encourages everyone to look deep within, examine their issues, and operate from a place of healthiness and joy. There is no one in the world like her. And of course, we have to give a shout out to her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, who must be the most emotionally secure male on the planet!

The great opera singers. Highest admiration for my last voice teacher, legendary tenor George Shirley, who won the National Medal of the Arts from Obama a few years ago. Truly a great artist, and (literally everyone will affirm) a great human being. And of course, the other legends like Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves, and even current stars like Lawrence Brownlee and Nicole Cabell (who is part black, white, and Korean and a truly beautiful person inside and out.) Black singers have made a huge contribution to the world of opera, no one can deny that.

Aretha Franklin. That voice from the pit of her soul–anytime I listen to “Respect,” I get goosebumps. I was fortunate to see Aretha perform in Detroit a few years before she died. She could’ve made a living as a piano player just as well. A voice like that was nothing short of a divine gift.

James Brown. I was also fortunate to see him perform shortly before he died, and as I watched him dance, I realized he had been given a gift of rhythm. This is not to discount his fierce work ethic (something that often frustrated his band), but even with all the hard work in the world, an artist of that caliber was clearly gifted with something.

Arthur Ashe. Not quite an artist, but an icon in the world of tennis. Tennis is one of the few sports I have followed since I was very little, and though I was probably too young to really understand much of what was going on, I remember Ashe being quite the star and a calm, well-spoken man who had to overcome many barriers. He died much too young from AIDS due to a blood transfusion. Watch any interview with him and it will move you to tears–it is heartbreaking to think of his early loss.

These are my canon of my favorite artists who are black; who are yours?