Just Patti


I was lucky enough to see Patti Smith perform her seminal album Horses live in Melbourne two nights ago. In short: she was incredible.

Actually, I saw her once before. About ten years ago she came to Melbourne as part of the International Arts Festival to perform the poems of her dear friend Allen Ginsberg, accompanied by Philip Glass. Allow me to confess that I had little idea who she was. I was just a huge fan of the other two. I file this with a considerable (and growing) number of experiences under the rubric “Thing I wish I’d appreciated more at the time”.

But anyway, a few years ago, I read Just Kids. And that was the beginning of my love affair with Patti Smith. And the album Horses.

Funnily enough, I already had an appreciation for the genius of Robert Mapplethorpe. The National Gallery of Victoria held a major exhibition of his work the year I finished high school. I remember being shocked and stunned by his imagery. And completely falling in love with his gift for portraiture (along with all the girls enrolled in VCE Art who subsequently submitted a folio of black and white nudes).

As I watched her on Tuesday night, and gazed at the stunning Horses album cover projected behind her, I was overcome with gratitude. It wasn’t just her music or poetry. Or endearing anecdotes. Or Summer of Love idealism that never faded.

Images from Just Kids floated in and out of my mind. And I realised that forty something years ago, as she and Mapplethorpe struggled to find their art, she can’t have known that one day she would be perform those same songs — as a grandmother! — in a series of sold out shows in Melbourne’s flagship performing arts centre.

My sense of her Just Kids days was that she just made what she felt called to make, in collaboration with kindred spirits. She gathered up the symbols and signs that permeated her daily life and wove them together with love and reverence. Then shared them with humility and an awkward fumbling grace.

I think a big part of her magic is that she continues to share that same art, taking us on a journey to a magical time, bringing to life all the loves she has lost. But she is also very much in the moment and anchored to the present day; this world in all its beauty and brutality.

And in a culture where youth is prized and appearance is the first thing anyone comments on; where celebrity is revered and talent is artificially constructed to meet market demand… Patti has nothing to prove. She’s the real deal.

True to form, Patti infused her final frenzied songs with a call for an end to war, an entreaty to the audience to remember their power and a sweet reminder to lay off the use of pesticides.

But, for me, her greatest gift was in her presence: the reminder that we never know where our words will land, maybe even endure.

But that’s not our concern. Our work is to make the art that is ours to make. With love and reverence.

Thank you, Patti.