When I hear the name Patti Smith, so many images are conjured in my mind. The 1970s at Club 950, No Exit, and Neo were teeming with people sporting mohawks and clothes held together by safety pins. The music was loud, angry, and confrontational. I was terrified of this “new wave.” One voice stood out for me singing, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” The Catholic girl in me was genuinely shocked but I could not turn away. Smith’s album, Horses, was released in 1975 but I didn’t hear it until I left for college. I have followed her career for over 40 years and still look to her as an example of an artist living their truth. Patti Smith has released a new book called A Book of Days, which displays photographs from her life as an artist, musician, wife, and mother. She appeared at the Music Box Theatre yesterday as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival fall series,
Smith is known for her Polaroid photos that chronicle the totems of her life. She took thousands of pictures with her Polaroid Land 250, as she traveled all over the world making contact with people and places that are precious to her. The Music Box Theatre projected the photos that Smith would discuss before she and her son Jackson Smith took the stage. I bought my own copy of A Book of Days to add to M Train and Year of the Monkey. I looked at the people in the audience and wondered if anyone was thinking of what makes an item precious to Patti Smith. Were we there because Smith is famous and a winner of the National Book Award (for her book, Just Kids, in 2010)? Do we add our own meaning to the photos or do we interpret them, as we would for any great artist, from what we know about her life?
My answers to these questions come from feeling that I grew into adulthood and a sense of independence due in part to her music. What once was considered an outrageous polemic, in retrospect become homilies and lessons. Some of the photos in A Book of Days were taken by other artists like Judy Lynn and Smith’s great friend Robert Mapplethorpe. There are photos of books and totems that have impacted Smith’s life. I believe that these images are as curated as the objects that she holds precious.
Patti Smith has always shared her loss in her work. A photo shows her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith’s guitar sitting by a chair. She said that no one will ever play that guitar except their son Jackson. Another photo shows a necklace that she and Robert Mapplethorpe shared when they were going through hard times. He gave it to her when she was about to give birth to her daughter Jess. Smith does not consider her children’s births hard times; she saw them as important tasks and responsibilities.
There are many elegiac photos of headstones of poets and writers she admires like Sylvia Plath and Walt Whitman. The photo of playwright Sam Shepard has a particular gravity because Smith helped him write his final book at his farm in Kentucky as he was dying from ALS. In spite of the loss or maybe because of her many losses, Smith led her presentation with an expression of gratitude. She sang some songs accompanied by her son Jackson. Ghost Dance and Bob Dylan’s One Too Many Mornings filled the auditorium.
She also answered questions from the audience that were collected on paper. Someone asked her “Indica or Sativa?” She replied that she didn’t know what that means and it sounded like saliva. In case you are wondering, they are strains of cannabis. She commented on technology and how the audience would find movies on demand in a play on streaming convenience. Smith was asked if she had advice for young artists Her answer was to work hard and never let anyone or anything deter you from your path as an artist. That is great advice for anyone of any age following a path of creative expression.
I left the Music Box Theatre on a cold night but I was feeling the warmth of her final song “People Have The Power” written with her late husband. It was a blessing from an artist who is still making music, paintings, and photos. A Book of Days can inspire you on whatever day you choose. The photos were curated with personal meaning for the artist and you may find yourself inspired. It has taken me some years to embrace that wide-eyed girl who wanted to be punk and edgy, and Patti Smith has been a big part of that embrace.
Patti Smith’s A Book of Days is available from the Seminary Coop Bookstore, the CHF bookstore partner, and other booksellers.
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