Thinking back to when I was 18, it strikes me that I was happy to trial numerous personality traits in an effort to make sure I definitely didn’t want to be those people.
I was convinced I would get a motorbike license and drive through Africa (thanks to Long Way Down); I seriously thought that I wanted to be an actor (but lacked the resilience for rejection, and any sort of talent); I tried reading the Twilight books but would only read them after a few glasses of wine with the Smiths playing in the background (apparently more a fan of getting a bit tipsy and crying than whatever crap Bella had gotten herself into); I had numerous male heroes, like Hunter S Thompson and anyone belonging to the Beat Generation – I thought they were wild and the antithesis to my suburban reality, turning a blind eye to how abysmally they treated and represented the women in their lives. On my 18th birthday, I convinced my dad to drive me into Surry Hills to get my first tattoo because I was an adult and I could choose what I wanted to do with my body. I remember the next day whilst sitting trial exams in the final year of school hiking up my t-shirt in the hall because it was both itchy as hell and because I wanted people to see it and know that I had made a permanent choice about my body.
As soon as I turned 18, I thought it was the done thing to have a glass of wine every evening. I went out regularly but this was the first time I’d gotten into the habit of drinking at home. I would come home, pour a glass of red, cook a vegetarian dinner (which in those days consisted of emptying a tin of chickpeas and a tin of tomatoes into a pan and heating that bad boy up), and listen to Dean Martin. This little routine, though blissful, felt pretty beige, much like those soft little legumes of bliss.
Mostly, I was tame. I never had any big blowouts with my parents and was a pretty happy kid. I think back to that time and can identify someone who was happy to test out different versions of themself. I think of 18 as being an age full of trial and error: small daily tests that eventually sculpt you into a more structured and secure person. I think we allocate ourselves a time in our youth where we’re allowed to do that because we’re pushing the boundaries of ourselves until we become firm, sure of our contours. The older I get the more I realise that this is completely untrue and the world has ways of constantly slashing your edges, liquifying you and challenging you to again become solid.
I looked to male creatives a lot when I was younger, probably because their work is more visible and indoctrinated into the coming of age cannon. My teen years and early twenties mirror a traditional discourse; I liked listening to Dylan, watching Kubrick films and reading Burroughs. I did this mostly because of genuine interest but also because I thought I’d be missing out on something if I didn’t.
18 is also a time that I wish I had discovered Patti Smith, instead I think it was more like my early twenties. I remember listening to Horses and being mesmerised by the theatricality of it; a rich blend of punk and spoken word. I’d play Land over and over again. Patti Smith was the first female musician that I held in the same regard as Lou Reed, Bowie and Dylan. I wish that at 18 I could have extended my interest past the immediate males that make up the narrative of so many teens’ discoveries.
One of the greatest things about Patti Smith is that despite being an absolute genius, she also acknowledges failings and, at seventy years old still reaches out for new experiences to reshape herself. Her whole vibe debunks that myth the experiementation of self is limited to your teens.
She was raised in Chicago and rebelled against her strong religious upbringing, allegedly deeming it too stifling; her mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. Interestingly, it’s her mother who she credits as introducing her to Bob Dylan’s music. Smith has described having an avid interest in Tibetan Buddhism around the age of eleven or twelve, cementing a common theme independence and striking out on her own that runs through the course of her life so far.
Leaving her hometown after university, as a twenty-one year old she moved to New York and met photographer Robert Mapplethorpe who she had an intense artistic and personal relationship with (Mapplethorpe died in 1989). She’s spoken about the appeal of New York during that era, a cheap vibrant city where she used to sleep in graveyards and subways. In the seventies, Smith often finished her set with ‘Piss Factory’, a song about finding the courage to escape a dead-end job. Smith herself had quit her job at a factory, and given up a child for adoption in the first year of her twenties, nullifying a future that she was never destined for.
Her life is brimming with accolades that are a testament to the powerhouse she is, spread across music, literature, and activism she’s made a huge impact on many facets of American culture and beyond. She’s even been in an episode of Law & Order. In December 2016, Patti Smith had a comment piece published by The New Yorker where she writes about performing at the Nobel Peace Prize, which that year was to be won by her lifelong musical inspiration, Bob Dylan. She writes about being crushingly nervous. For a woman who has enjoyed an insurmountable level of success and artistic recognition, it’s both humbling and hugely inspiring to read the following:
“The opening chords of the song were introduced, and I heard myself singing. The first verse was passable, a bit shaky, but I was certain I would settle. But instead I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them. From the corner of my eye, I could see the huge boom stand of the television camera, and all the dignitaries upon the stage and the people beyond. Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue. I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.”
She acknowledges the irony of faltering during a song that commences with “I stumbled alongside of twelve misty mountains.” It is almost, she admits, as if her failure to deliver as she had hoped spoke more to the song than if she’s delivered her perfected, practiced version. At seventy, she’s still humble and learning, ‘Seventy years of moments, seventy years of being human.’
Both intensely human and legendary, Patti Smith will go down in history as one of the greatest women to ever grace music. To be honest, I’ve only every really connected with Horses, and even then it’s only when I’m really in the mood to listen. Her music doesn’t take well to being put as background noise. It’s her life and her attitude that I find extraordinary. Her inclusion in seventies New York history, frequenting CBGB and making pals with music and literary ellite. It’s the her androgynous image that is synominous with punk music. It’s her ability to open up about being nervous, at 70 years old, of failure.