I didn’t know a lot about Patti Smith until I read Just Kids. I knew she was a driving influence for (and eventual collaborator with) Michael Stipe, and I owned and had listened to Horses. Maybe it sounds absurd, but Horses became two different albums for me because of her book. New Critics would bless my heart, but listening to Horses after reading Just Kids, it was a totally new and different experience. I can only appreciate its historicity and influence as an outsider, maybe a poseur, someone who was born two years after its release. But I grew to love Patti over the summer as I spent several languid days reveling in the pages of her memoir. I was simultaneously inspired and haunted by her voice — a voice that she says began to find purchase in the late 60s in New York and, as she writes in the book, required decades of hard work and, harder still, patience, before it was cultivated and nurtured enough to tell that particular story.
I couldn’t write about my reaction to Just Kids when I finished it; I may not ever have words to adequately respond to it. In the introduction to the new[ish] collection of James Baldwin writings, The Cross of Redemption, Randall Kenan writes, “Reading a Baldwin sentence can feel like recreating thought itself.” He was talking about Baldwin’s complex sentence structure, his command (his mastery) of the English language, of the rules of grammar, of his ability to weave words, thoughts, ideas themselves into complex clauses that told some truth. Smith’s prose poetry functioned in much the same way — it caught me off guard, drew me in, and completely mesmerized me. I read the first few pages of the book back in the spring and immediately recognized that it needed to wait, that it was something I needed to be in the right head-space to encounter, that it would be one of those books that would work to recreate not only thought, but also feeling. And then something magical: revisiting her music after finishing Just Kids allowed me to appreciate it — enjoy it — in a completely different way.
When J said she was playing the Olympia in Paris on the Tuesday night of Thanksgiving week, I said I’m in.
She killed it. She opened with “Redondo Beach” and followed it throughout the evening with “Because the Night,” “People Have the Power,” “Gloria,” “My Generation” (The Who), “Free Money,” and many more. She performed, heart and soul, for more than two hours. At one point she stood on the stage, the hall silent, and braided [some of] her hair. She then began a spoken word piece and when someone in the audience cried out and there was a chorus of “shhhhs,” she stopped. She chastised the shushers. She said we could — and should — make whatever noise we wanted to make, to respond however we wanted to respond. After all, she quipped, we had just stood there letting her braid her hair for two or three minutes, giving her the space she needed, so why shouldn’t we have the space we needed, the license to respond however we saw fit? That’s what it’s about, she was saying. It’s about engagement. It’s about expression. “Who the fuck braids their hair in the middle of a rock concert?” she asked, then said, “I do,” before starting the song over again. It was brilliant.
At the end of the night, after the encore, Smith stood on stage gently stroking the neck of her guitar. As she spoke to the audience, one by one she broke the strings, casting them aside. She spoke about her generation, somehow her every word a poem, saying,
We didn’t want no Vietnam.
We didn’t want no wars.
So we grabbed the necks of our electric guitars.
It’s the only weapon we need.
And it never gets out of ammunition.
And then with a final idealistic flourish, she said, “pour vous, mes amis,” and yanked the last string from her guitar. “Paris, you fucking wore me out,” she yelled. “Je t’aime!”