What Would Patti Do?

“I have to do something every day to sort of prove my worth. Even though I’ve worked in a factory, in a bookstore and certainly labored as a mother, I don’t tend to gravitate toward those tasks.

“I feel that every day I have to show some human worth, you know, something that I’ve done. You know, if I’m not doing something politically or to help my fellow man, at least that I’ve written a good sentence, I’ve taken an interesting photograph, that this gift that I feel I’ve been given – because I believe gifts are God-given.” ~ Patti Smith

“Then quit.”

I’ve quit before. I’ll quit again. My friend’s double dare didn’t really phase me. But now, a single mom with a mortgage, I hear my dad’s voice: “You need the money.” And I feel the press of the “right thing” bearing down on me – the societal, one-size-fits-all, prescriptive right thing. Of course, there is no such thing. But we all listen to it anyhow. Besides, after doing the supposedly wrong thing in terms of work for so many years, it occurs to me that maybe the right thing is sort of the wrong thing – or vice versa? Maybe.

This discussion of whether to quit or stay in the offending job comes after a really horrific day. “Really horrific” needs to be put into perspective. No one said anything slightly mean to me.  There was no workplace hazing. No threat of being hit by some machinery on the factory floor. No blisters or burns from chemicals. No leers from men. Not even any requirements to complete a certain amount of work – or else.

Rather, my form of horrific meant feeling like an utter moron as I sat in front of a computer with someone trying to show me back alleys of Microsoft Word that I never knew existed. As my trainer went on – and on – seeming to present information to me in my native language but somehow sounding like an undersea Portuguese translator, my throat constricted, the floor dropped a few feet underneath me, and my tongue gripped the roof of my mouth. I remembered what another woman who works at the same place had already told me: “I took tranquilizers a few times in my first weeks to get through. But now I’m better.”

This is the paradox – to live somewhere between Right Thing and True Self.

My friend who is now listening to me describe the experience while I sit forlornly on my kitchen floor, a glass of Pinot Noir gripped tight, encourages me to listen to myself; “You’ll know what to do.” Up to this point, I’ve been proud of myself for taking a job that in so many ways is not a good match but will pay the bills. I am conscious of my role as Breadwinner;  I also try to be conscious of not losing myself. In other words, I try to listen to myself, but I’m not sure which voice is right.

This is the paradox – to live somewhere between Right Thing and True Self. To be true and responsible. To take care of the people in my life, while remembering that that sometimes means demonstrating how to take care of myself.

Later that night, after the Pinot Noir, after the kids were asleep, I sunk both my despair and my hope into  Just Kids, Patti Smith’s biography of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. The earliest section is one of the loveliest accounts of a soul recognizing its true intent. Without any artists in her life to serve as role models, Smith knew that’s what she wanted to be. Even as she got older and lacked a specific art form, she still knew what she wanted to be.

If you believe her memory, poverty and lack of a medium didn’t deter her. At 20, after having given a baby up for adoption, she moved to the city and started writing for music magazines and working in a bookstore. Mainly, though, she befriended artists, the first among them being Mapplethorpe. She became a student of the Beat poet Gregory Corso and was charmed by a young cowboy writer who turned out to be the playwright Sam Shepherd. Gradually, through trial and error – just as Mapplethorpe was experimenting with different art forms, largely selecting those that were the cheapest because he was so broke – Smith landed on singing. After a poetry reading-cum-electric guitar performance at the famed St. Mark’s Church, the Godmother of Punk was born.

Patti Smith in the suburbs? Like spotting Hemingway at a Bed, Bath and Beyond, or Julia Childs at a Jack-in-theBox, nothing  makes sense about it.

I read quickly through the chapters on Smith and Mapplethorpe’s parallel rising fame. Sure, it’s interesting to catch of Hendrix in a stairwell one night or to meet the glittering Euro-wealth who became Mapplethorpe’s patrons, but I was intent on getting to the part where Smith becomes a mother. In 1979, she left New York to live in Detroit with her husband, guitarist Fred Sonic Smith. There, they eventually raised two kids in the St. Clair Shores. Patti Smith in the suburbs? Ever since I learned this odd fact of her life a few years ago, I’ve turned it over and over, trying to find a reason to the rhyme. Like spotting Hemingway at a Bed, Bath and Beyond, or Julia Childs at a Jack-in-theBox, nothing  makes sense about it. Still, it is incredibly intriguing.

How did this unbridled spirit enter motherhood? She gives us no hint. Rather, she gives us silence. In Just Kids there is a break of seven years during which time she moves to Detroit and has her first child.  Pregnant with the second, she receives a call from a friend that Robert, her soulmate, has AIDS.

“That confidence that he instilled in me at 20 years old, I’ve never lost it. I mean, I’ve had tragedy in my life, I’ve not wanted to get out of bed, I’ve gone through a lot of difficult things, but I’ve never lost that confidence that he instilled in me and it’s right now blossoming.” ~Patti Smith

What Smith was doing in Detroit, there is very little record of. I suspect there’s very little record of the lives of most mother-artists – even recent ones. It’s our hiatus. Our downtime. Our private time. In 1996, Smith told the New York Times: “I did all the usual things, laundry and tending to children. But I also did a lot of studying, which I have always really loved. I’m completely happy just immersing myself in something. I studied 16th-century Japanese literature, I studied painting again. And I wrote diligently through the 1980’s, novels. There are about five books that I haven’t published yet.”

At the end of Just Kids, the last photo that Mapplethorpe took of Smith is reproduced. She is smiling, her hair in loose braids, she is holding her infant daughter. The strung out-looking, pale, black-tie-wearing hermaphrodite of her early career is hardly recognizable. She is very nearly an earth mother.

Based on the performances Smith has given in recent years, some of which can be found online one would be wrong to think that those years of laundry and “studying” made her soft. She cared for her children. She lost her best friend. She lost her husband. She lost her brother. Not to mention countless other friends who died from AIDS and drugs. She is resilient, a woman who has through choice and circumstance swum deep into the darkness but who willingly, joyfully resurfaces in the light.

She is still the person who believed in Art as a young girl growing up in a relatively poor family, and who was electrified by her one and only visit to an art museum as a kid: “I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I new I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not. I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, but I hungered to be one.”

The hunger. The trips through the darkness in order to find the light. This is what we do. But it looks and feels so different with kids journeying next to us. Which is why I so want to know more about the days that Smith spent in St. Claire Shores, what I imagine to be a bucolic sliver of Detroit. How did she go from running into Hendrix and Warhol, from writing a play with Shepherd and posing for Mapplethorpe to carrying babies on her  hips, shopping for groceries, picking socks out of the back of the dryer? What was happening inside her?

Patti, I didn’t adore you back when I was young and should have. But I do now. I love your forthrightness. Your gentleness. Your joy. Please, please write a book about those years in the suburbs. Please tell us how you kept burning with your rock-n-roll heart while taking kids to preschool and choosing diaper brands. What did the woman who posed for Mapplethorpe, all bleach white and sinewy, make for dinner each night, and when did she write?

Now, as I consider the job once again, I think, “What would Patti do?” This woman who seems to have held on to her working class roots and not shied away from life’s hard  jobs, but who radiates the energy of a poet. I’m not sure. The Right Thing and The True Self clearly both exist in Smith. She found a way for them to co-exist. I’m still searching.

So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy shall conquer all despair

*quotes above in purple are from an interview with Smith on the Tavis Smiley show.

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18 thoughts on “What Would Patti Do?

  1. I guess I’ll have to read that book. I didn’t realize she ever lived in St Clair Shores. I grew up in the next town over. My mother moved to St Clair Shores after we went to college and she sold the house. Don’t know that I would call it bucolic. It is a very working class place. Three bedroom bungalows and small, tidy yards.

    1. It’s intriguing to me that she says she studied things like 16h-century Japanese literature while living there in the late 70’s / early 80’s. That would have been a challenge. Maybe she drove to Ann Arbor or downtown to the Detroit Public Library? Can’t imagine she found a lot of other people in St Clair Shores interested in those kinds of things. During that time it was a lot of families with SAHMs and dads who worked the line.

  2. If Patti read this, if Patti knew YOU, she would be asking the same thing, I reckon. We all need validation!!!!

  3. I have lived this for so long next year is my seventh year as an art instructor at community college (full time) and my twentieth as an art teacher. While most think this sounds “fun”- it’s like anythig else. And it also has the side benefit of sucking me dry creatively speaking. I try and paint (with a full time job and ten year old son) in fits and starts and to that end I have largely thrown in the towel (for now) I just cannot make it all work. However my true self who paints and reads and putters in the studio is on the backburner, regretfully all these years because i hve no financial safety net I hve had to work all these years not because I’ve wanted to but because I’ve had to. And there is no end in sight. It’s just a fAct of life as an independent woman (my choice). Honestly I resent having to work sometimes but my kid and I need food clothes and a decent home….sigh- I envy the independently wealthy!!! Oh well… C’est la vie

  4. Patti Smith = good. So are many other punk rockers I listen to and love. It was good to see you doing her credit on your site.

  5. “there is no way before us, it appears behind us as we go.” Unfortunately, we can never discern the certain way forward from a recollection of the past. Just keep going. There is no way to lose, and nothing to lose.

  6. There was a great interview with Patti Smith on NPR several year back in which she talked a lot about being a mom in the suburbs. It filled me with glee.

    1. Hmmm… I’ll have to look again. I just found her interview w/ Terry Gross that was mainly about the new Mapplethorpe book. Do you remember which program it was, per chance??

  7. I just did a search on Lexis and it does look like she’s given a number of interviews on NPR over the years.

  8. OK I looked through the transcripts of some of those NPR interviews. There’s one from 2007 I think in which she says they lived a very simple and frugal life the years they were in Detroit raising kids. She also says part of the reason she felt she had to move after her husband died was that she didn’t drive and it’s very difficult to live there when you don’t drive. I was really surprised to read that. It would have been very challenging indeed to live there and raise kids if you didn’t drive.

  9. In the “day” I had a couple of Patti Smith albums – Patti Smith Group, Radio Ethiopa… I listened to them with my punkish-wannabe persona trying to emerge. That was many, many years ago. My desires of back then disappeared and so did Patti Smith… until I saw her on Tavis Smiley. I was mesmerized. It not only brought back memories of me and a glimpse of my former self , but showed me a more complete picture of an artist.

    I enjoyed your blog spot here about Patti Smith very much, and as a single mother myself – I, too, am very curious how Patti Smith dealt with the common, every day occurrences of motherhood.

  10. She gave the hint somewhere that she hasn’t finished with telling the stor in the years that followed (her marriage, life in Michigan) so maybe you’ll know about those years soon enough. But apparently she’s working on a detective novel at the moment, Mickey Spillane style….

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